I recently conducted an interesting test. I was interested in finding a public relations firm that really “got” social and could help integrate some social media and PR strategies.

So, I sent a tweet. It was something to the affect of…”Does anyone know of any good PR firms that really get social? #PR #socialPR #publicrelations”

What better way to find a firm that really gets it than to see if they find a tweet that all out asks someone from a PR firm to contact them, right? Apparently not. I got one response from an agency and one from a firm I was already doing some work with. So here is my dilemma, as brand side marketers it is easy to get fooled by the many agencies that are claiming to understand social media.  And the marketers who need them probably aren’t social media savvy themselves so they may not be able to easily see the snake oil pouring out in their presentations.

This is a problem, because the wrong agency can leave your brand in ruins. If you are lucky the wrong agency will just have flailing results and stunted growth. But if you’re on a bad luck streak, you will be added to the list of other social media catastrophes like Nestle and Chrysler whose brands certainly suffered damage and resulted in statements where they blamed their mishaps on their agencies. The big thing to remember here is that you don’t control your brand anymore, your audience does. So when you arm your audience with evidence of poor social media strategy and a mishandled PR crisis you will find yourself with an even larger crisis that will spread like wild fire.

To prevent your own social media disaster you must run agency proposals through this list of questions which can be used as a mini-BS detector.

Is the firm doing a good job at managing their own social media channels?

Twitter SearchI know this is a touchy subject for agencies. I’ve heard the excuse a million times… we focus on our clients and doing great work for them and our own channels come last. But here’s the reality. If this agency is pitching you on a brilliant idea and how social is going to make such a big difference in your company, don’t you think it’s a little ridiculous that they wouldn’t do the same thing to grow their own business? I mean, if social is everything everyone is saying , then they would be absolute donkeys not to be doing it themselves, right? Right. If the agency doesn’t have a strong social presence on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (at the least) then they probably aren’t the agency for you. I chose those social media channels because those are the most common places we hang out as marketers. That is where we are so, that is where they should be

Can the firm point to specific examples of client success?

Most of them will have a couple. The big question here is what was their role in those successes? Ask them what the client wanted to accomplish? Then figure out how they participated. Did they develop the strategy, source the content, send the tweets/updates, or build a full blown promotional plan? Next, ask them how they measured whether or not they achieved their client’s goal. With the wrong agency you will hear a lot of glossed over stories that don’t directly address the questions.  Finally, you should ask to speak to the clients and get a reference if you are considering moving forward with an agency. Unfortunately, too many times agencies glorify their role in the success of their clients.

Where does the firm hire their social media talent?

Ask any recruiter and they will tell you that finding good social media people is really hard. There are tons of jobs out there from brands who want to hire everything from “experts” or “strategists” to “specialists” and “coordinators.” The reality is that the demand is greater than the supply in today’s market and so many experienced social media practitioners are moving away from client-side work to open their own firms which causes the supply to continue to dwindle. Take a look at the social presence for the people who are actually going to be managing your account. Recognize that you will probably want a senior social media strategist and a person who is actually doing a lot of the leg work. Reality check. The one who does the leg work…is actually doing most of the work so it’s important that the person is qualified. You don’t want an intern or someone who is straight out of college whose Facebook expertise comes from their awesome drunken photo tagging skills to be responsible for your online brand. The person doing the talking in the pitch meeting will probably sound awesome and credible, but when you look behind the curtain you may be shocked at what you find. Make sure you know who is actually doing the work for your account.

How much of the presentation is about YOU and how much is about them?

This has become one of my immediate BS detector secrets. If the entire presentation is spent on their “capabilities” or “social media basics” and they aren’t prepared with some clear cut strategies and ideas they recommend for your brand, how can you possibly know if you want to hire them. My favorite is the PR firm that pitches the press release at some point in the presentation. Really? Do you really do press releases? Wow…now that’s impressive. NOT! These kind of basics should be included in your contract as they are standard PR activities that we would expect, but they are not the criteria you use to decide on the best firm for your social or in my case, the social PR strategy I was looking for.

Now, I know this is tricky for agencies too. They don’t want to give you their ideas until they are hired. Here is my perspective. I’m not going to hire you unless you show me you have good ideas and understand my business.  And I’m an honest person that would never steal your ideas and give them to another firm. So holding the best until you get a paycheck will ensure you never get a paycheck from me. I understand the concern, but the reality is most honest business people will not steal your ideas. And if they do, you didn’t want them as a client anyway.

If you are active in social channels already you can spot the signs a mile away. But if you are new and  looking to find someone to help you integrate social media into your company you may need some help navigating the waters in the beginning. If you need more than the tips here reach out. I’d be happy to give you some pointers.

What are your tips to spot a risky social media firm or advertising firm that is selling social media services? Do you have examples of snafus or your own agency pitch story? Please share. Just leave a comment below.

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About Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Tom Martin

    Interesting and mostly good post Nichole. Have to say, disagree with you wanting or expecting an agency to give you free ideas. Probably the biggest mistake clients make when hiring social media, pr or ad agencies… they buy the idea and not the partnership.

    First, if what you are really looking for is an agency that can develop strategically sound, effective social media programs, you should only need to look at their case studies. Find out what the biz problem was and then consider how innovative and effective their solution was. If you see that they are a one trick pony, ok you have an issue. But if they repeatedly create unique, effective solutions, then shouldn’t that be enough to assure you that most likely they’ll replicate for you?

    Second, how do you expect an agency that doesn’t know you, your brand, or your biz issues to create something truly powerful with very little information? Wouldn’t you be better off giving them the time to really understand what you need/have done, etc. and then let them come up with something.

    To expect free is just not fair and I’d suggest a highly ineffective route to picking an agency. The best ones likely won’t do it, so you’ll end up missing good agencies because you want something for nothing… even if as you say you won’t “steal” it — not all companies have your same sense of morals.

    @TomMartin

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Tom – Thanks so much for your perspective. I certainly respect your opinion. I guess where I differ is that I would never expect an agency to walk in without understanding my company and give me a pitch. I have always had pre-pitch meetings to explain what we are trying to accomplish, what our challenges are and what our competitive landscape looks like. My expectation is not that the agency will know everything about our business, however is doing a little research to understand the client and taking the information that I’ve given you to show examples of how you “might” do it differently too much to ask?

      Personally, I don’t think it is. But I understand there are differing perspectives. If I were an agency I would do the research to be prepared for the meeting anyway, showing the client that I can leverage the information and the research to show what I would recommend they “stop” doing and what they should consider doing in the future is allowing me to differentiate myself from the other agencies and shows that I actually care about being a partner with them. I’m not saying I select the agency based on the idea…personally I select them on the initiative and the originality their ideas could bring to the table. I can work with them to refine ideas to the business once they have insider information on the company. If an agency doesn’t take the initiative to do a little online research about my industry in order to frame their presentation around how they could help us, I have a hard time believing they will take the initiative if they get the account.

      Again, thanks for commenting. It’s always nice to have a healthy debate. :-)

      • Tom Martin

        True…but you’re still asking them to do for free what they get paid to do by clients. And while there is little to no hard costs, the soft costs are quite high. Reminds me of spec creative pitches in the old days. Funny how less than 10% of those winning campaigns never aired.

        Guess the part that rubs me is that you’re asking them to work for free and rec’d that others should do the same.

        If you insist on going that route, why not at least pay each agency a concepting fee for taking the time to come up with original ideas. If you hire them, they apply the fee towards first year’s work. If you don’t hire them and don’t use any of their ideas, you just pay them the fee. If you don’t hire them but you DO use their ideas, you license their ideas from them for a predetermined amount of money. Seems to me this is the best of both worlds. You get your ideas (to help you judge creativity) and you’ll see the real agency… the one that is getting paid to do the work. AND if you do find a great idea, but it comes from an agency that you have zero chemistry with, you can “buy” it and execute with the firm that is the better long term partner.

        Just a thought. And yes, I do enjoy a healthy debate…nice to find someone else that appreciates that.
        @TomMartin

        • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

          Interesting line of discussion here, thanks everyone. Re: a couple of points raised in the comments – I support Nichole’s position of preparedness, both on the brand side and the agency side, when considering an opportunity. Too few clients (in my experience) take the time and initiative to write a simple informative framework that allows an agency to conceptualize in an area related to the real problem the brand wants addressed. Little to no relationship exists and both sides have some reservations about sensitive information and also risks of time investments that can’t be recouped. However I believe most times, you’ll get out of the effort what you put into it – preparing a solid brief (pre interactive discussion time) lets the brand know for certain that internally all stakeholders agree to what’s needed; what better way to set the agency up for success than a strong brand accordance? Then, should the agency miss the mark, there’s no question about misinformation or “if only”‘s. Having done my time at the agencies, I can sympathize with the those who make the tough decisions about how many resources (and nonbillable hours) to throw at a new pitch. Too often, an opportunity is positioned as an AOR opportunity or new biz program when it’s really a trolling effort, or a tactic to shake the incumbent back into line. I applaud Nicole for recognizing the line (not appropriating a pitched idea), but many others aren’t as upstanding. I think Tom’s suggestion is a solid and practical way to address the risk and provide some reward for both parties.

          • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

            Heather – Thanks for adding to the conversation. It’s great to have an agency perspective added to the mix. I’m definitely talking more in terms of preparedness than what I would consider free ideas, but knew that it might cause a bit of controversy. :-) I’m happy to see that we can all raise our points with respect for each other’s position.

        • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

          Tom – I’m loving this conversation! What you have recommended is certainly an option but for me would just delay the decision which I’m not sure the agency wants.

          You seem to be focusing on the free idea concept when really I was trying to say is that they need to come in and clearly show they know what they are talking about and how it relates to my business. The agencies I’ve seen do this best have come in and showed 1 or 2 clear actionable strategies for how they would achieve our intended goal. It isn’t necessarily a fully fleshed out idea, but it’s a starting point for the conversation. And they were things I thought were clever and we hadn’t already thought of them. Because we all want to hire an agency that is going to bring something different to the table, than what your own team offers so it’s nice to see a fresh perspective that isn’t overburdened by the inner workings of the company. They also show what we might be doing wrong. While we would all like to think that we are perfect, the reality is that brands get so focused on their own execution strategies that it can be easy to miss another approach that may work better.

          I’m not talking about presentation boards with creative and all that jazz. :-)

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Tom – Thanks so much for your perspective. I certainly respect your opinion. I guess where I differ is that I would never expect an agency to walk in without understanding my company and give me a pitch. I have always had pre-pitch meetings to explain what we are trying to accomplish, what our challenges are and what our competitive landscape looks like. My expectation is not that the agency will know everything about our business, however is doing a little research to understand the client and taking the information that I’ve given you to show examples of how you “might” do it differently too much to ask?

      Personally, I don’t think it is. But I understand there are differing perspectives. If I were an agency I would do the research to be prepared for the meeting anyway, showing the client that I can leverage the information and the research to show what I would recommend they “stop” doing and what they should consider doing in the future is allowing me to differentiate myself from the other agencies and shows that I actually care about being a partner with them. I’m not saying I select the agency based on the idea…personally I select them on the initiative and the originality their ideas could bring to the table. I can work with them to refine ideas to the business once they have insider information on the company. If an agency doesn’t take the initiative to do a little online research about my industry in order to frame their presentation around how they could help us, I have a hard time believing they will take the initiative if they get the account.

      Again, thanks for commenting. It’s always nice to have a healthy debate. :-)

  • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

    Great post, Nichole. I like the way you think.

    We all think to look at the work an agency does for their client, but we often overlook what they’re doing for themselves. Are they practicing what they preach? It’s a question that needs to be asked.

    Our tendency is to forgive the cobbler for having terrible shoes (we know he doesn’t have time to tend to himself), but it’s a telling sign of what type of capacity an agency (or cobbler) has when it comes to how they treat themselves.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Thanks Hanelly! I’m so glad you liked it. The reason I struggle to trust agencies who aren’t actually using social themselves is because so many walk in and tell brands that it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and will make a huge difference in their business. At the core, I believe that if the agency thinks this is true and that you “HAVE” to be doing it, how could they possibly justify not doing it themselves? I don’t want my account exec necessarily doing it, but why wouldn’t they have their own selected team that has the responsible for manning the social dashboard to deliver on the results for their agency that they are selling to their clients.

  • http://twitter.com/gpsROI Rand Pearsall

    There’s a big difference between giving away the store for free and sharing some ideas or approaches. For years, ad agencies have dealt with this problem. It’s a rare pitch where agencies don’t have to share work; most clients want to see thinking about their specific market.

  • http://twitter.com/gpsROI Rand Pearsall

    There’s a big difference between giving away the store for free and sharing some ideas or approaches. For years, ad agencies have dealt with this problem. It’s a rare pitch where agencies don’t have to share work; most clients want to see thinking about their specific market.

  • http://twitter.com/gpsROI Rand Pearsall

    There’s a big difference between giving away the store for free and sharing some ideas or approaches. For years, ad agencies have dealt with this problem. It’s a rare pitch where agencies don’t have to share work; most clients want to see thinking about their specific market.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Rand – Thanks so much for your comment. I’d agree that agencies don’t have to give away the house, but in my opinion broad generalizations based on previous clients in my industry wouldn’t get me to select them either. There is certainly a balance that is hard to define. But I don’t think agencies are risking much by showing a few specific examples of what they would suggest for the client.

      But then, I’m brand-side so I recognize I have a different perspective. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/SebastianKnowes Sebastian Knowes

    Hey Nichole

    Congrats on this article. I understand this is your first post on SM Explorer. This is a great platform to get your work out there. I think you have some awesome perspective in this article but have a few differences of opinion that you may want to consider.

    Your case to sell the idea or pitch to your client is a great perspective and important but often times I see companies overselling and underproducing. The showmanship and pizzazz is there, the quality and substance is underwhelming as a result. Although I think it’s important to develop and sale the idea or brand it’s more important to develop a relationship and reputation for excellence.

    I also want to know how engaged quality PR companies are with your twitter. I know you mentioned the lack of interaction served as a catalyst for this post but was wondering if PR companies have you on their radar? Thoughts?

    Sebastian

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Sebastian – Thanks for your feedback! I agree that overselling and pizazz can underwhelm quality and substance. And this can be really tough to spot and why you may need a human BS detector to sort through it all. Unfortunately, this requires someone who knows enough about social to see through snake oil so it may require help from an experienced social media person.

      On your second point, I have interacted with several PR companies on Twitter. And some of the companies are known to be social PR firms. As an example I was surprised not to get a response from Brian Solis’ firm based on my previous interactions and that he wrote the book on integrating social and PR. Of course, he moved to Altimeter early last month, but at the time was the principal of a PR firm. I’ve also had several interactions with Fleishman Hillard who is a respected pr firm and they didn’t respond either.

      However, I am not sure I am a good case as I’m fairly active in social media. The novice user (who will probably benefit the most from these tips) likely wouldn’t have engaged with any PR companies on Twitter which is why they may need outside help with their social strategy. On the flip side a PR company who is actively using Twitter Search, Hootsuite, TweetDeck, or even something like Radian6 should have no problem finding relevant conversations that represent opportunities for their company to engage and build relationships. So I’m not 100% sure my interaction with PR companies or the potential interaction with PR companies of those who might benefit from the tips here is relevant.

      Though, it is entirely possible that I missed something? Care to elaborate?

      • http://twitter.com/racepointgroup Ginger Lennon

        Hi Nichole, I think all the points you made are great ‘check points’ both for a brand looking to hire an agency, as well as an agency working to improve their internal processes. To Sebastian’s point about how engaged PR companies are with your Twitter handle, I think that many of us PR folks have to pick and choose which conversations we are going to engage in and which people/hashtags we’ll follow, to fully maximize our time.

        For example, I monitor #PR but since there are about 3-5 posts per minute, the conversation gets pushed down in TweetDeck very quickly. To get more historic data we’ll use tools like HubSpot or Sysomos to look back at posts not immediately appearing in the feed — but before responding to contextually relevant tweets, I’ll take a look at who posted it first. My guess would be that some might have seen your tweet and found that you are a social media consultant, and perhaps not immediately jumped at the chance to respond. Now I would pretty much talk to a tree (was certainly one of those kids to get ‘needs to control unnecessary talking’ on report cards) but as there are only so many hours in the day I have to pick and choose who I’m going to respond to. If you’re not a brand’s ‘target audience’/customer/prospect, etc. they might not put the response to your tweet high up on the priority list. That being said, I’m still all for relationship building so just started following you on Twitter :)

        • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

          Ginger – I’m so glad to see that you are monitoring the conversations and I totally understand how quickly the conversation stream fills up.

          Just a suggestion, as I am familiar with these platforms as well. If you are using Hubspot and Sysomos you can add additional terms to your search query to help find more relevant discussions and eliminate the noise. For example, public relations help versus public relations. We use Radian 6 and did an analysis to see what words were being used around our key words in posts that we actually wanted to be a part of and it has greatly improved our ability to be responsive and eliminate the noise.

          And thank you so much for the follow. I just followed you back and I look forward to connecting more often. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/drbret Bret L Simmons

    Stellar advice. I don’t understand why companies are so quick to hire people that don’t drink the juice they try to sell. The other thing that concerns me is companies that take advice from agencies that don’t practice the full spectrum of solutions. For example, if your agency does not blog, what are the chances they are going to encourage you to blog? As Gary V says in his new book, they really want your account and they will say anything to get it. Don’t want to blog? No problem! We all know that’s not really important anyway. Yea, right.. Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Bret – Thank you so much! I’m definitely going to have to read Gary’s new book! You are right though…they will sell you whatever you would buy. But a good agency will offer what you truly need and be honest when you don’t. It’s much better for the long term relationship. Have a great weekend!

  • Don Crow

    Good stuff Nichole! I especially love the part about “how much is YOU” and more specifically about sharing ideas and personalizing the content to the client. Would you say though, from your experience that the best ideas usually come from folks you have some sort of relationship with, OR is it more a perception that it needs to be an existing relationship? In other words, how many “cold call” pitches make it past the gatekeeper compared to a pitch from an existing relationship (and not always of record)?

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Thanks Don! I really appreciate your feedback. As far as where the best ideas come from I’ve actually found the opposite. I’ve found that a fresh perspective from an “outsider” usually delivers the most exciting ideas. A relationship certainly helps because I’ll call you when we are looking for someone, but I’m still a fan of an RFP process for selection on “agency of record” type of stuff.

      I can honestly tell you that less than 5% of the cold calls that come through my phone make it any further. First, I don’t know who you are and you are assuming I have time to talk at that moment. I get verbally vomited on a lot (I have to speak really fast and tell you everything in 5 seconds before you hang up on me). I also get some completely laughable sales pitches that I like to have a little fun with. However, if you’ve interacted with me online and we have even a slight rapport I’ll take the time to talk to you. But if you try to sell me something I don’t need or it’s at a time I’m not looking to buy, I’m still not going to buy from you. I’m a BIG fan of the saying, “people love to buy, but they hate to be sold” and Greg Cangialosi’s “be the relationship before the sale.” Not because I make decisions based on whether or not we have a relationship, but if you know a little bit about me you are more likely to be on target when you get the opportunity to pitch me on something.

      The funniest was when I got a sales call from someone who wanted to show me how to measure social media ROI with their “amazing” software.

      Here’s how the conversation went.

      Me: Really?!? Sweet, I can’t wait to see it. How did you get my name?

      Sales Person: Oh you know we were trolling on LinkedIn and based on your title we determined that you fit the target audience for our product.

      Me: Nice…Did you happen to take a look at my blog?

      Sales Person: No, I’m sorry.

      Me: Ok, we’ll let’s see what you got.

      He proceeded to show me a measurement system that had no way to capture or allow the user to input revenue, sales or costs.

      Me: Wow, that’s really interesting. So how exactly do you calculate ROI with those metrics?

      Sales Person: Well, we believe that directionally this data tells you whether or not you are doing a good job.

      Me: True, I can see that. But frankly, I’m a little bummed because you told me that your product would show me how to measure social media ROI. But what I’m seeing is that you have some data that could show value, but lacks the essential elements to actually calculate ROI. Specifically, the Return, the On and the Investment portion. But hey no worries, jump over to my blog FullFrontalROI.com and there are a lot of posts that explain what’s missing. Maybe you guys could add it in the future and give me a call back. Thanks!

      I guess at the end of the day what I’m really saying is that a little research into your prospect can go a long way in preventing a sales person from making an arse of themselves. :-)

  • Pingback: All Talk, No Tweet – Test Reveals Which PR Firms “Get” Social | Social Strategy1

  • http://twitter.com/DrRahlf dane rahlf

    Great insight Nichole. Your section about hiring talent is dead on– and something many new marketers will find themselves in a catch-22. Social Marketing/media/strategy is a new field for youngsters in the business. What do you want to see in fresh talent (perhaps strait out of school) that would persuade you to invest in them?

  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual office assistant

    Hi Great post and i really liked the part “Where does the firm hire their social media talent?”. This is so true and spot on. If they have a good talent then doing social media for the clients will be very easy.

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