Though the lines of distinction may blur, public relations and advertising are not the same. A public relations firm is responsible for determining the way an organization is perceived by the public. The first thing to consider when choosing a public relations firm is whether you want that firm to handle your company's entire public relations program or just its publicity.

A firm that handles publicity sees to it that a company's products or services receive media coverage in the form of articles or radio and television broadcasts. When a firm handles public relations as a whole, its job is to help craft a company's image. Most PR firms do both. Here are some of the other ways they can help an organization:

  • Provide an outside viewpoint or perspective;
  • Increase an organization's overall visibility;
  • Support a product or an overall marketing effort;
  • Counsel in a crisis;
  • Communicate with employees;
  • Inform investors;
  • Strengthen community relations;
  • Act as a liaison with government agencies;
  • Measure and evaluate existing public relations programs;
  • Research public attitudes and behavior;
  • Stage media events.

Once the specific communication needs of an organization has been determined, choosing the right public relations firm involves a certain amount of investigation. Begin by looking through the magazines in which you would like to have coverage; call the companies that are written about in these magazines and find out which firm those companies employ.

After several options have been reasonably narrowed down begin the interview process. Don't assume that a large company is necessarily better equipped to handle your organization's needs. While advertising often requires a large staff of people to create and develop a campaign, public relations can usually be handled by a smaller team that is responsible for writing press releases and getting them out to an appropriate contact list.

Before deciding on a firm, think about the following questions:

  • Does the PR firm have expertise in your company's field and understand your particular needs?
  • Do you want greater awareness of your product nationally or in a targeted market?
  • Do you want to pay your PR firm a flat fee, a retainer fee, a minimum monthly fee, or a project fee?
  • What is your company's objective?
  • How important is it to have regular access to the agency head and who is the backup?
  • Which of the media do you need your agency to handle?
  • How long will it take to learn about your account?
  • What reporting/measurement methods are used?
  • Must you have easy access to your PR firm's offices?
  • Do you want a company with a particular philosophy or one that is willing to work with the philosophy of its clients?
  • Whom do you want to be in charge?

If after meeting with key people, you are still undecided, ask each PR firm to send a written proposal outlining how it would provide the public relations services your organization needs. When you have decided upon a firm, get references from other clients, and work out a reasonable budget so there are no surprises down the line.

For more information contact the Public Relations Society of America, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003. Phone: (212) 995-2230. For further reading, purchase O'Dwyers Directory of Public Relations Firms , J.R. O'Dwyer, 271 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016. Phone: (212) 679-2471. This lists most existing public relations firms, noting their rank, specialties, number of employees, and clients.