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How to choose a public relations marketing consultant

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by Jan K. Allen

SBJ Contributing Writer

Public relations can cover a wide range of issues for a business, whether it is a manufacturing, service or retail company, said Diana Cowan, co-owner of Archibald Cowan Ringer Communications Inc.

The quest to establish and maintain a good corporate image is vital to success. It is the key to the future of any business, she said.

A company can use all the gimmicks and run all the sharp ad campaigns a marketing expert can dream up, but "If you have a poor image, you're done," said Don Schilling, president of of Schilling-Sellmeyer and Associates Inc.

Many advertising agencies offer public relations services along with, or as part of, marketing strategies, but a company shopping for outside help to maintain or improve its image would be wise to choose a firm that will represent it carefully and knows how to get the message out to the people who need to hear it, Schilling said.

It is common for a large company to hire an outside public relations firm, even though it may have an in-house marketing or PR department, because an independent agency can bring objectivity and fresh ideas to the table, Cowan said.

A marketing agency can act as a bridge to the media and assist in getting information disseminated in the most effective way, she said. An agency with a good working relationship with the media provides a level of confidence and trust which translates into better service.

In a working relationship with a business, a good PR firm gets to know everything about the particular business, learning about the company inside and out. In a sense, the PR firm becomes part of the client company, which can be extremely important in situations such as crisis management.

A classic case is the Tylenol tampering scare which made national headlines in the 1980s. In that situation, a major U.S. company averted economic ruin by coming forward, taking steps to protect the public from further harm, then relating this positive message to the populace, Cowan said.

Other smaller crises, such as a work-related accident or a company that is merging or being sold, must be handled in a way that does not create public distrust, Schilling said.

Both Cowan and Schilling said they feel companies large and small can benefit from the expertise of an outside agency, and while it is hard to pinpoint the return on that investment, there is an overall benefit to the bottom line.

A good ad agency should pay for itself in increased business, Schilling said.

From a public relations standpoint, an agency can cover every base, whether it concerns day-to-day operations or crisis management, he said.

Most agencies work on a fee basis, either at an hourly rate or via a turnkey contract which lays out in detail the duties performed and materials needed.

Many times a PR firm will begin working with a company as a consultant on special projects and develop into an extension of the business, working for the client company regularly as the company grows.

In choosing a public relations/marketing firm it is paramount to find someone you can trust, Schilling said.

"Judge what you're spending and what kind of return you'll have," he said.

It is important to find out a firm's experience and who in the agency has expertise in the areas most important to your company, he added.

Cowan reiterated the theme, recommending companies look for experience in areas germane to their business and practices. She added that it is a good idea to take a look at what the firm has done for other companies with similar needs.

She also said that it is mandatory that the firm be a good steward of the company budget and that the PR firm is respected by the media.

Well-placed advertising and a strong company image go a long way to ensure the enduring success of a business, Schilling said.

A variety of clientele and diverse experience in effectively handling different situations are elements that can make the right PR firm invaluable to a company, Cowan said.

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