A friend of mine called recently, looking for a public relations firm to handle a new project. He had already interviewed a few potential firms, and he wanted to know if I would sit in with him during a second round of interviews. What we learned should provide entrepreneurs and start-up companies alike with some helpful tips when they decide it’s time to take their public relations strategy to the professional level.
First, I suggested my friend consider a less formal atmosphere for the second round of interviews. It’s always been my opinion that when you get a few drinks into someone — or at least get them into a casual atmosphere — you get a clearer window into what they’re really thinking.
Thus, I chose a quiet bar in midtown Manhattan. The first public relations firm we interviewed sent two people, an account representative and the firm’s president. Both men were very nice, and very eager to get my friend’s business. Their sales pitch began from almost the moment they walked into the bar. It actually took a good 15 minutes before my friend could properly introduce me. (I used an alias, introducing myself as an investor in my friend’s new project.)
My friend and I asked the account representative a number of questions. More than anything, we wanted to gauge this firm’s understanding of my friend’s project and our expectations for a public relations campaign. Our questions, unfortunately, were answered with broad concept outlines and jargon-laden “business speak.” I swear the word “paradigm” was uttered. I was similarly amused when the account representative, for no apparent reason, told us a story about a client who “doesn’t know anything about PR and expects to be on CNN every week.” The story was rather funny, but I didn’t understand the point of relating it. Was the account representative trying to tell us he has stupid clients?
The second firm we interviewed also sent two people, a vice president and a salesperson. The pair seemed mismatched at first; the VP was a quiet, plain-spoken woman, while the salesperson was an excitable man. This odd-couple approach worked, however, as the salesman ran through a quick pitch, and the VP outlined the firm’s specific plans. We were impressed by the VP’s surprising level of preparation.
The third firm we interviewed sent one person, the CEO. He arrived 10 minutes early and introduced himself. He began by asking us a series of questions about the project, and our individual backgrounds. He took notes. After 30 minutes, I realized we had yet to ask him any questions. We queried about his firm and about how he’d handle the project in question. He answered with some interesting specifics, and even hedging out of caution on one point, suggesting we were getting ahead ourselves.
A few days later, my friend and I sat down to discuss the interviews. (I wanted a little time to research each firm.) Our decision-making process was simple; we merely went through the pros and cons of each firm.
We eventually chose Firm No. 3. Believe me, it was a tough decision, but it was the little things that shaped the final outcome. For example, neither of us liked the fact that the account representative from Firm No. 1 was somewhat obnoxious. His story about his troublesome client was out of line, and he missed his boss’ cues to shut up. The account representative left the impression that he wasn’t very detail-oriented. We were also unimpressed by the president’s inability to offer anything remotely specific in the way of ideas, as well as his inability to rein in his staffer.
Firm No. 2 was more impressive than Firm No. 1, but offered a new set of concerns. The vice president’s personality made my friend uncomfortable, and we were upset that the firm would send an aggressive salesperson to what we termed a “casual, get-to-know-you” meeting.
One reason we chose Firm No. 3 was that it was the CEO who met with us. This project is important my friend, but it’s probably not going to be a large account for any of the three public relations firms we interviewed. So we liked the fact that a busy CEO took the time to meet with us, and more importantly, we liked that he asked us intelligent questions. He was the most professional of anyone we interviewed, but he was also the most laid-back.
The CEO of Firm No. 3 had put his cell phone on the table. The phone was on vibrate mode, and he ignored a number of calls. He did take one call, excusing himself. My friend took this opportunity to use the rest room, passing the CEO on the way. The call was from one of the CEO’s kids. (“Unless he was asking an employee how he did on a test,” my friend chuckled.) We both liked the fact that the CEO gave us his undivided attention while understanding that there’s more to life than just work.
During our meetings with the three firms, cell phones were constantly ringing. The vice president and salesperson from Firm No. 2 took a number of calls, while the folks from Firm No. 1 seemed to screen their calls, answering a few. Again, the fact that the CEO from Firm No. 3 took just one call, from his child, was an impressive little social data point.
Other tips to pay attention to during an interview should include:
- Appearance and dress
- The vocabulary employed by interviewees
- The depth of their questions and answers
- Eye contact made with both interviewer and colleagues
- Body language
- How the interviewees treat the staff at the bar, and how they tip
These small factors all colored our decision to an extent. All three firms had passed the first step of the process: On paper, their public relations ideas were enticing. But it was the CEO of Firm No. 3 who seemed like someone we could call up with questions or concerns and be treated in a way befitting our role as clients. He also seemed like someone who wouldn’t mind grabbing dinner with us, just for the heck of it. In short, he was someone my friend felt comfortable doing business with.
“I’m looking for someone to be my public relations partner, not public relations vendor,” my friend said when we began the interview process.
I think my friend found that partner.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.