oon after I first started working here, my boss asked me to hire a PR agency -- something I’ve never done before. Not all early stage startups go to the measure of hiring a PR agency, but we were long on engineering talent and short on press experience, so we decided to get some help with the latter.

Hiring a PR agency is a big deal; you want to get it right. For one thing, the good ones are expensive; for another, they will be helping create your press strategy and shaping your external image, both of which are critical factors in determining initial --and often longterm -- success.

Not only is hiring an agency a big deal, it's also a hard deal. For starters good PR agencies are busy and may not have the time for a new client.  Some agencies may have the time, but only want to take on the right kind of business.  I estimate about half of the agencies I contacted either said no right off the bat or eventually said no because they were too busy or didn’t do project work.

Another reason it’s hard to find a good PR agency is that these folks market for a living, so they all are able to represent themselves well.  They have solid materials, clients with name recognition, and have pitched their abilities over and over. They basically work like law firms or consulting organization, where the partners’ main responsibility is bringing in new business.They've helped others--see? see?-- so it's tempting to assume that they will also help you. And they may, but figuring that out requires some outside research on your part. Look at the clients, marquee and smaller, that they represent, and look at the coverage they get. Is it consistent? Is it high quality? Does it occur across multiple media formats?

Ok, so how do you go about hiring a PR agency?  For starters you should come up with a list of at least 10 agencies; this will give you a chance of getting down to 3 agencies you like.

If you don’t have any prior experience working with PR agencies, the best way to come up with your list is to ask people you know which agencies they like (this is the networking piece).  I was able to come up with about 6 names through my network and one of them was recommended by two different friends.  The rest of the agencies I contacted either came from coworkers’ suggestions, Google searches, and through an employee I met at a fundraising event.

Once you have your list it’s time to go into sell mode. Wait, "sell mode," but I’m buying?  Yes, you will eventually be buying, but in the initial round you are selling.  Some agencies will just want your business, but this is a red flag. If they are desperate enough to work with anyone, chances are you can do better.

In the initial call with the agency they will be evaluating you on a number of dimensions.  Do you fit one of their vertical markets?  Can they be successful pitching you, ie is your solution compelling?  Will you pay your bills? What kind of engagement are you looking for: a short term project (less desirable) or a long term relationship?

The person you are talking to will either reciprocate the sell mode, tell you they are too busy, or delay -- which means they are going back to ask someone else if your product is interesting and/or if they have the time to take it on.

Every agency’s pitch should sound compelling to you, too. This is what they do for a living, so if they can’t sell their own product they won’t be able to sell yours.  If they don’t sound compelling just cross them off the list.  What I looked for in the initial conversation was whether the other person sounded truly engaged and smart.  They got points for asking really tough questions or offering some really clever ideas on how to pitch my product.  You will need to find your own way to narrow your list down to a reasonable number.

A reasonable number of what?  Of agencies to proceed to the next step with: the face to face pitch.  This is when the agency comes in to give you the formal sales pitch.  They will also present you with some sort of a document telling you what they are going to do for you and how much it is going to cost.  This document will look like they did a ton of work, but chances are they did a cut paste form their last 10 proposals and maybe came up with a few paragraphs just for you.

What to look for in the pitch?  First, have they built off your last conversation, or does it sound like the phone conversation all over again?  How do you feel about working with these folks?  Do they listen or just talk, can you work with them, will the combinations of your two companies be one plus one is four?  You’ll need to come up with your own evaluation criteria and chances are it won’t just be your decision, so you’ll have to find a way to reach consensus.

How you approach the pitch is up to you: you can either ask everyone on the shortlist to pitch or try to shorten your shortlist.  I only did this with one agency, but knew I could always go back to the other two if it didn’t workout.  

After the pitch the next step is to meet the team you will be working with.  Like I said earlier, while partners procure the new business, their employees do the day-to-day work.  Treat this meet-the-team like an interview; you are basically hiring a very important part-time employee(s).

Once you are down to the one agency you like, it’s time to negotiate a contract.  Don’t forget that negotiating isn’t just about the price you pay.  If they don’t want to negotiate on price you can always try and get more favorable terms or extra services.  Regardless, make sure you have a backup agency in case you're not pleased with this final step.  

Best of luck.