It’s very easy to hire a PR agency to help raise awareness and conversation and end up disappointed. After a flashy pitch, maybe all they seem to do is get the occasional bit of mediocre coverage and try to keep your spirits up on weekly calls.

All too often, I meet founders who think PR and Comms is a buzzword for bullshit because they have been hurt in the past. And you know what, sometimes it’s also caused by their inexperience in squeezing agencies in the right places to ensure they get what they need.

As ever, disappointment is directly related to expectations. So here’s how you should go into an agency relationship to create the most possible value for your business.

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1) You need a bigger strategy

Strip back the flashy slides, bon mots and charisma that typifies successful comms people and focus on the substance of any plan they present.

A good strategy doesn’t outline the obvious: we will use content to increase awareness.

It should instead describe a bigger bet you are placing, which suggests why you will get a greater than proportionate result for the time spent. How does this position you? How does it build loyalty?

For example, maybe you create content by interviewing your exact target customer. Not only should it be compelling reading, but also encourage those people interviewed to share the piece among their peers.

Furthermore, good strategy compounds between the different tactics used.

If a plan suggests e.g. news announcements, plus an interview series like the above, and customer case studies — what is it that thematically ties them together so they will deliver more than the sum of the parts? What’s the big idea?

For Tesla, it’s “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport”. In B2B, Tradeshift is fundamentally about the advantages to the world of connection vs fragmentation. At GoCardless, everything is about how you get paid.

But it is the strategy itself that decides how effectively those messages are able to have impact throughout the external communications.

2) Coverage is just content. How will they build reach?

If an agency is coming to you with coverage as a sole KPI, be wary (and maybe even encourage them to jump back into their time machine to the 1990s.)

Now I totally understand why this would seem a logical way to measure progress. PR is the art of getting people to write about you, right?

Not exactly. Public relations (and certainly “Comms”, which I would describe as the art of pulling together the earned, owned, paid and social aspects to be more than the sum of their parts) is about getting the right people to hear about you.

More than ever, you could appear in an article in what seems to be a valuable earned result. And then the new cycle moves on and nobody ever reads it.

The temptation can then be that you want to appear again and again. But this only generates diminishing returns, and the “push” only gets harder for everyone the further you take it.

Instead, think about a great appearance like any other piece of content. How are you going to cultivate a relevant and growing audience so that coverage, content, and anything else you have an agenda around will continue to reach people?

This is why truly useful, interesting, original email newsletters became such a cachet across the last few years. If you create something that’s people are happy to opt into, you now have a relationship with them that money can’t buy (especially in the age of GDPR.)

You should quantify these people, and for the most important influencers, try to score the quality of the relationship there. If you take actions that advance relationships, it’s still valuable, even if they don’t share your story at that moment in time.

3) Quality means everything

So if we’re reframing the classic metric of coverage (and, while we’re at it, laughing anyone out of the building who mentions AVE or “total impressions”) then we need to approach measurement with a more evaluative attitude.

A good agency will be observing your Google Analytics and trying to identify moments where their work noticeably related to improvements in your key metrics. They should want to discuss with your sales team where their outputs were used toward important deals.

Now, this is a good example of an area where it’s the client-side that can actually make this harder — if you aren’t set up usefully from your own strategic and measurement point of view, that’s going to hamstring the efforts of a decent agency to do things properly.

When you have set out your plan with a more strategic mindset, you can measure and evaluate your progress more thoughtfully than the tactical level of “coverage”. What you’re really evaluating is “how well did that bet we are placing work, where did it excel or fail, what would we do differently?” Are you building the meaningful audience we discuss above? Are you tracking the relationship quality with the crucial influencers whose radar you need to be on?

This is why systems like PPPs (Plans, Progress, Problems, popularised at early startups like Skype) can be a more interesting and productive way to build strategy that really matters.

4) Accept no relationship lasts forever

With the way that startups grow, you almost always have a different team to start it, to grow it and to exit it. The same thing is true with agencies. If things are going right, you *should* outgrow your partner (even if you want to keep them around for some advice and continuity.) This also means it’s crucial not to start with a partner that is too big, too early on.

There are many many intelligent and focused people working in agencies today. And more than ever, different teams see different ways to combine the marketing toolkit to get results.

The trick is to find the right match for you at the right time, to get a result that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Plan 3-6 months at a time, expect to maybe share 12- 24 months with your chosen partner (and maybe even ask them to be sensitive to when it’s time to wrap up together.)

As one of your key connections to the outside world, your Comms partner should fit like a comfortable outfit, well suited, well tailored for what you’re trying to achieve. The easiest way to appear effortlessly successful on the outside is to make it as easy as possible to get things done on the inside.

Max Tatton-Brown runs Augur, helping fast-growing “unsexy” tech companies earn the attention they were made for. Previously, he led comms for Tradeshift from Series A to Series C.

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