Why you should consider hiring a boutique PR agency—and 6 questions to ask before you hire them

by | Apr 8, 2024 | Public Relations

It is no secret that hiring the right marketing and public relations firm can have a positive impact on your business. While you might be tempted to only consider hiring one of the large, well-known PR agencies, it is worth interviewing at least one smaller boutique PR agency—particularly if you are a smaller company that is looking to get quality results without an outrageous price tag.  

So how do you find a smaller agency to put on your short list of candidates? It sounds obvious, but if you know a respected reporter or analyst who covers your industry, try asking them for recommendations first. They should know which agencies take the time to get to know their beat and monitor their coverage instead of just sending out canned pitches.  

You can also do some reading to see which companies in your industry get the type of media coverage you would like. Then do a little digging to see if you can find the name of the PR agency they work with.  

Of course, once you have a few potential candidates, the trick is determining if a boutique PR agency is the right fit for your company. Below are some questions that will help you find an agency that delivers on its promises: 

How do you charge for your services?

While the big-name PR firms often still expect their clients to pay retainers, some boutique PR agencies are willing to forgo these monthly charges and build a customized, project-based PR strategy that lets you accomplish specific business-related goals. That means you can hire them to do a big PR push surrounding your project launch—and then scale back and spend less the next month.  

At my PR firm, Calysto Communications, we allow clients to invest based on a project, program or fixed-fee basis. In our 25 years in business, we have worked with hundreds of clients to build cost-effective customized, flexible PR campaigns designed to produce specific business goals. For our client Allot, we spearheaded a PR campaign based solely around a Calysto-recommended and client-authored broadband communications survey. The result? 20 million U.S. media impressions in publications such as the New York Times and hundreds of copies of the survey results downloaded in just a few months. For iBasis, we developed a LinkedIn social media PR campaign specifically designed to target prospective customers. This social media campaign attracted visitors from 88 countries to the company’s website—60 percent of which were new prospects. For our client Quuppa, we used an industry analyst campaign that helped it grow its partner network by 85 percent and achieve a 3X increase in sales. 

Want to introduce a new product at a trade show? Hire a boutique firm to create a PR strategy that will build buzz on the show floor and beyond (Bonus tip: Call the show organizer for insight into which PR agencies usually attend the show. If a boutique PR firm is already attending the show, they may be willing to build relationships for you at the show without expecting you to cover any travel costs). 

What do you think are the hottest trends in my industry—and how would you turn this knowledge into coverage?

One of the biggest benefits of hiring a boutique PR firm is that smaller firms often specialize in a particular industry. This means they know the trends and the influencers better than the larger firms. But do not hire a boutique firm that specializes in a general area of business like “healthcare” or “technology.”  

Instead, look for a boutique firm that specializes in a particular segment of that industry. In healthcare, that might mean specializing in the equipment or medication supplier portion of the industry. In technology, that might mean specializing in a few specific segments of the communication industry such as mobile/wireless, artificial intelligence or cloud computing.  

When interviewing a firm, ask them to list the hottest trends and the biggest challenges in your industry. Then ask them to provide an example of how they have piggybacked onto trends or “newsjacked” breaking stories to secure coverage for a client.  

If they do not have a good response to those questions, do not hire them. Why? Because positioning a company to take advantage of emerging trends or breaking news can have a big impact on how much attention your brand gets in the media.  

Case in point: Several years ago, we started working with a communication industry client that we determined could very easily position themselves in the emerging artificial intelligence segment of the communications industry—just as AI was starting to explode. When it comes to jumping on a trend, timing is important. When a trend is just emerging, members of the media are often scrambling to find sources who can give them valuable insight into a new industry. But once a trend becomes mature, it can be hard to break through the noise.  

So instead of positioning our client as an IoT company—which is how they thought they should position themselves before hiring Calysto—we positioned the client as an artificial intelligence player. This allowed us to successfully pitch the company as a source to the media and other influencers who were just starting to cover AI. As a result of Calysto’s outreach to influencers, the thought leader we publicized was sought out for interviews, was invited to AI discussions with industry analysts and was asked to write thought leadership articles. He quickly became recognized as an AI expert in one of the hottest emerging industries in years.  

Knowing trends is also helpful when determining how to position your story to the media. Even if you are hiring a PR agency for a specific project, make sure the agency will be giving you guidance on messaging as part of the package. You must tell an interesting story to the influencers—both because you will have a lot of competition for their time and because they simply will not write about something they find dull. It is hard to build buzz if you are pitching a story that is not interesting—and very often, company executives are not impartial enough to judge whether the way they deliver their story is compelling. So be sure to hire a PR firm that will help you craft a story that the media might actually cover. 

Can you provide three names of influencers you know in my industry and give me specific examples of how your relationship with those influencers has helped your clients?

Even if you have a great story, getting influencers to pay attention to your pitch can be an uphill battle. That is, unless those influencers have a relationship with the person who the pitch is coming from—in fact, this can multiply your chances of getting noticed.  

That is because, as the old adage goes: It is not what you know; it is who you know. This is especially true in public relations because today, influencers are getting pitches from multiple sources—emails, social media, texts, phone calls and much, much more. When it comes to email alone, statistics show that the average business professional gets around 100 to 120 per day, and the influencers I know get many, many more than that. 

How do you know if the PR professionals you are interviewing are truly industry insiders? Do not be afraid to ask them to name drop. Ask who they know, the last time they talked to them and the last time one of their clients were covered in their publication, blog, video or industry report.  

You can even do a little homework before you go. Walk into the meeting with the names of five media members, analysts or other influencers who you would like to write stories about you. Then drop those names and ask if the PR professional can name a topic those influencers write about.  

Whom will I be working with every day?

One of the other potential pitfalls of hiring a large agency is the old “bait and switch.” When you are being pitched, the agency will set up a meeting between you and a senior person who is at least somewhat familiar with your industry. Then once you sign on, you never see that person again. Or they call you once a month to check in and see how things are going but don’t really know the details of your PR programs.  

That is why it pays to ask who your day-to-day contact will be if you hire that agency—and insist your main contact point attends the new business meeting. One more thing to remember: If you want to hire professionals who are experts in your industry, do not be wedded to hiring a local agency. Instead, look for an agency that supports a work from home model. Because if you want to work with experts, you might not find them in your town.  

When I launched Calysto Communications back in 1999, I specialized in providing services to mobile, wireless and telecom companies, which were growing fast. It turns out that despite being headquartered in Atlanta, I could not find enough local PR professionals who were telecom and wireless industry insiders who were willing to live in Atlanta. So, I took my business remote back in 2006—more than a decade before the idea of having remote workers became widely accepted.  

After I made that switch, I was able to hire a whole team filled with communications industry insiders—senior PR professionals as well as former analysts and journalists. These are people who know the communications industry segments that Calysto specializes in (today we serve AI, IoT, mobile, wireless and telecom companies) and how to craft a compelling story for companies in those markets and their verticals. It also allowed me to save the $60,000 I had been spending on office space alone—not to mention all the other expenses that went along with supporting an office—back in 2006. It is a big reason why Calysto has survived and thrived for 25 years and through multiple recessions. 

How will I know if my PR campaign is successful?

When I started my business, trying to prove to clients how marketing and PR impacted their business was still extremely difficult. Most PR firms calculated return based on the number of media impressions secured and how many eyeballs that coverage might have reached. Today, companies can track their results through measurable key performance indicators such as new customer inquiries, sales increases, social media engagement, email conversions and increases in website traffic.  

The rise of new artificial intelligence tools is making this even easier. Be sure to ask your PR agency if they produce a metrics and measurement report that details outcomes for an ongoing or program-based PR campaign—and links those results to your specific business goals for that campaign.  

How long have you been in business?

When you hear “boutique PR agency,” you might assume the agency is a start-up. But that is often not the case. At Calysto, we have been in business for 25 years, and we deliberately take on only a small group of clients so that we can truly understand the unique business and needs of each one. This allows us to build a tailor-made PR strategy that is designed to meet each client’s specific business goals.  

Good boutique firms have positioned themselves to meet a client’s needs as that client grows. For example, Calysto remains a boutique agency but offers many services through partnerships. Calysto has partnered with other agencies in areas such as design, website development, HubSpot implementation and other services not traditionally offered by a PR firm. 

With that said, not every boutique agency has been in business for 25 years like Calysto, and some may be too small or too inexperienced to meet a client’s potential future needs. If you want a long-term PR and marketing partner, it is important to ask about future services you might need. For instance, maybe you want to position your company for an exit in a few years. Ask if that agency has ever helped a previous client successfully navigate a sale or an IPO. 

Or maybe you expect to expand internationally in a few years. Make sure your PR firm can support that—or have partners that can support campaigns in the countries you might target. Maybe you need a design firm that can create amazing charts, infographics or marketing videos for your company. A good boutique agency may not offer those services, but chances are they have a partner that does. 

A close relationship is often easier to build with a boutique PR firm—particularly if your company is small and might not get a lot of attention from the big agencies. And if you hire the right PR firm, they will quickly become more of a business partner than a vendor—one that has a vested interest in helping your business grow.  

Laura Borgstede
Laura Borgstede has more than 30 years of executive management, branding and marketing communications experience working with business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies of all sizes. Since founding her marketing and public relations agency Calysto Communications™ in 1999, Borgstede has built a global team of communications industry insiders who specialize in raising awareness and driving value for companies in the AI, IoT, mobile, wireless and telecom markets.