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Imagine you injure your arm in a nasty skiing accident. Naturally, you head over to your general practitioner to get it checked out. While the doctor is giving your arm the once over, he also mentions that he can provide you with some psychotherapy to treat any PTSD that may have been caused by the fall. On top of that, he can perform a mean root canal and give an exceptional sports massage.  

The best case scenario here is that your doctor lost himself some credibility. The worst? You wonder if he received his medical degree from a Cracker Jack box. With either scenario, chances are you would run out of the office quicker than his nurse could mouth “quack.” Yet, this same behavior -- deemed ridiculous in most professions -- is considered the norm across countless public relations and communications agencies today.

This holds especially true for startups, and it is the main reason they are not seeing placements that drive results. If you are searching for a communications agency or currently using one, ask yourself this: Would you want a dermatologist performing open heart surgery? I hope the answer here is "no".

Public relations often separates the winners from the losers in the startup game. Those who strategically garner coverage, build credibility, and achieve acclaim are the ones who will drive revenue, build partnerships, and bring in investments. While hiring a PR firm used to be a “further on down the road” affair for startups, it’s now crucial thanks to an over-saturated startup landscape that requires companies to efficiently operate across marketing silos.

Sadly, when PR firms aren’t aligned with a company, their needs, or the industry, it’s a quick way to discover the pitfalls of ineffective PR. Getting PR right the first time is critical for survival, as not many companies get the chance to redo a launch or redistribute the news of that amazing client, partnership, research report, or novel data. This is why having a specialty isn’t just a sales function of a firm. They have to know an industry and a company’s product like the back of their hand, as they are the ones tasked with communicating it.

So when you see a firm claiming what appears to be a DaVinci level of expertise across landscapes, use these three questions to garner a baseline idea as to whether to embrace the firm or run.

1) Does the amount of specialties or practice areas the firm maintains make sense for the number of team members they have?

A firm with six employees should not specialize in 12 different industries.

2) Does the firm have a set of more than three strong case studies for a specific specialty?

Managing the PR of a one-off client does not make the agency a specialist in that field. A history of strong case studies across a particular practice area, however, does showcase an ability to operate with a level of validity and reliability.  

3) Does the firm itself have a market presence within your specific industry?

Are leaders at the agency visible with their own thought leadership in your particular industry? Do leaders attend, speak at, and engage with particular industry events?

A focus means a lot more than words on a sales document or webpage. If this is a team communicating for you, you should know that they actively participate within the industry they claim to specialize in. It’s worth the time to do the research on each firm, as a company’s livelihood could depend on it. 

You wouldn’t trust a dentist to stitch up a wound, so why are you trusting a catch-all PR professional to cover your intricate and complex industry? Realistically, you wouldn’t, you shouldn’t, and hopefully, you won’t moving forward.

Originally published Jan 8, 2015 12:00:00 PM, updated January 08 2015

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Agency Marketing