Without proper planning, your agency search can go wrong before you've even shaken the first hand.1. PREPARATION The number-one mistake when choosing a PR agency is jumping into the process too quickly. It may seem like the faster you begin interviewing agencies, the faster you can make a final pick. But both agency insiders and their corporate counterparts who have been through the process agree that it is imperative to do your prep work to ensure a smooth search process. "It can't be emphasized enough. You've got to understand your needs before you do anything externally," says search consultant Jerry Swerling, who has handled the process for Kia and Cisco. "Just talk and talk, and make sure you have a clear picture of what you're going to do internally, externally, and what you want from the agency." Before contacting agencies, it's important to decide both what your expectations are for the agency, what criteria you will use to ensure it is capable of delivering, and how both the search and the subsequent relationship with the winner will be managed internally. Determining what you need from an agency means asking yourself and others in your company what they want an agency to provide and handle. This can be a great time to build bridges between departments, and increase the value and understanding of PR within the company. Agency professionals say that in addition to the obvious participants such as marketing people, consider asking for opinions and insight from those whose involvement with the agency will be more peripheral, such as HR and legal. It is also of value to both the agency and the company to have senior-level involvement, preferably the CEO. This lets the agency know that PR is valued and viewed as a strategic tool, and allows executives a greater understanding of the potential of PR by being exposed to the pitches. Getting all these stakeholders on board with the selection process and clarifying in detail what you are after may seem time-consuming, but those who have been through the process say it pays off in both time and effort down the line. "Clients end up embarrassing themselves by realizing half way through that they don't know what it is they want," warns Swerling. During the prep phrase is also the time to tell an incumbent agency that you plan on conducting a new search. While it may be uncomfortable, and may raise concerns of a drop off in the agency's work, it is both the professional route and the most respectful course of action to let them know as soon as you make your decision to look elsewhere. Any decent agency should respect your choice, and help to make any transition as smooth as possible. 2. AGENCY RESEARCH Once you know what you're after, make a list of agencies that may be able to meet those needs. For those in niche markets such as healthcare, creating a list of possibles is easier since specialty firms in your industry probably have more widely known reputations. But aside from picking the big or famous names, other considerations should be taken into account. Recommendations from colleagues are some of the best methods of finding quality practitioners. "I really go a lot by word of mouth," says Karen Kaplan, GM of Fleishman-Hillard's Atlanta office, who has worked on both the agency and corporate sides. "I take references seriously, not just who is the best agency, but who is the best person." Also look at the agency's size, and how that will influence its abilities. "Big agencies get you global operations, cost efficiency from bulk buying of multiple services, and a broad spectrum of services," says Jeff Simek, who's been involved in numerous searches as VP of public affairs for Medco Health Solutions, the US' largest pharmacy benefits manager. "Small firms get you nimble, efficient execution - often specific expertise in an area like crisis communications - and more personalized service." Kaplan raises the point that in addition to learning about an agency's reputation and size, it's important to look at the key people who could handle your account: What is their reputation both for service and ability? Another source to check is The Council of Public Relations Firms (www.prfirms.org), which offers a web feature for locating firms, as well as a printed guide to choosing a firm. Many companies also send out requests for information (RFIs) to potential agencies. This is a great way to learn basic facts, but also can be a pitfall. RFIs need to ask only for the bottom-line facts and figures about an agency, such as: are they global; do they have a specialty practice in your industry; and what is the relevant experience of key account managers. "You need to restrict it to asking for basic information about the agency, or you're going to get too much detail back," says Morgan McLintic, VP with tech specialist Lewis PR. That can lead to lengthy replies that are difficult to wade through and increase the time it takes to create a shortlist. Lastly, don't believe the hype - but do judge how well it's given. "PR agencies are good at spinning you a line," says McLintic. "If they can't spin a good line about themselves, they aren't going to be able to present you well to analysts or the press. Take it with a grain of salt, and talk to the journalists and analysts" to gain their opinion of the agency. Once you've looked at a variety of possible agencies, try to whittle them down to a shortlist of three or four from which to request pitches. 3. THE PITCH It may seem like the pitch phase is the time to kick back and let the agencies do the work, but this stage is actually time-consuming for the client as well. For agencies to create strategic and well-crafted campaigns, they need information. That means they need access to your internal resources - including the communications team - to fully gain insight into the business and its challenges. "When you buy a PR agency, you're buying people, their time, experience, and talent," says McLintic. "The more you acquaint them with your particular business, the more you're going to get from them." When you do sit down to hear the pitches, include as many internal stakeholders as possible as observers, but remember that the process and the ultimate decision should be made by the communications department. "You don't want all these folks serving as a committee - that's a disaster," says Swerling. "You want a balance between control and collegiality." And although the economy makes it seem like a buyers' market, don't ask the agencies to jump through too many hoops - it drags out the process unnecessarily, and may not gain you any real insight. Instead, focus on key questions. Who will do the day-to-day work on the account? Does the pitch really show an understanding of your industry and your challenges? What relevant experience does the agency have in your specific field? Swerling also recommends more than a single meeting with prospective agencies. He says that chemistry is as much a part of the equation as skills, and it takes more than one meeting to really know the team. 4. SELECTING THE WINNER When making the final choice, it's important to look beyond the razzle-dazzle of the pitch, and evaluate the underlying soundness and depth of understanding behind the campaign. "It comes down to whether the recommendations that are bubbling up have been developed in order to support the business objectives of the company," explains Kaplan. "Are they there to make you think they are creative and fun, or do they understand how to drive the business?" While the expertise to truly move your business goals forward is important, it is also vital to choose a team whose culture and outlook will mesh with your own. The team with the best ideas won't work for your company if their business practices are not a good fit. "Good chemistry often means that your agency team stands a better chance of being more passionate and enthusiastic about working on your account," points out Elizabeth Wainwright, president and CEO of ContentOne PR in San Diego. "This often translates into a more proactive relationship for both parties, which often is the key ingredient for success in working with the media and with others in your organization." And lastly, don't make the mistake of bargain-hunting. Low rates are not the key to choosing the best agency. "Understand that there is a big difference between the cheapest and the best value," says Swerling.