With the litany of tasks and costs that come with running a business, should you prioritize hiring professional publicity? What can you expect to get in return? We asked five publicists and designers, and the answer is more concrete than you think (even the publicists told us there is a wrong time to hire them). Here’s exactly how to figure out when it makes sense to hire PR and when it’s better to go it alone.
Hire a publicist when…
You want to tell the story of your business
This doesn’t just apply to emerging designers; the right messaging can also help more established firms reach a new clientele. “A great publicist is especially helpful if you’re trying to speak to a particular audience or get the message out about a product you’re creating,” Heckman says.
How will you know when your PR strategy is working? Laura Bindloss, founder of Nylon Consulting, says although everyone’s business goals are different, you should regularly see your name in a variety of publications. “You want a real smattering and you want it consistently,” she says. “You want coverage monthly that can range from quotes to full features, and you want it in a variety of outlets. You want to be positioned as an expert in your field.”
You have a point of view
In order for a publicist to do their best work, Natkins says a designer needs to have a clear brand identity and know who their ideal client is, although they don’t need every detail hammered out. “A good publicist will work with you to help figure this out, and then develop a media strategy that communicates your vision,” she says.
Sarah Barnard, principal at Sarah Barnard Designs (WELL AP, LEED AP), doesn’t currently work with PR, but she credits a previous publicist with encouraging her to craft a specific message and find a niche in the market. Says Barnard, “We really care about a few specific things and those are the things we repeatedly stand on, come back to, and share.”
Bindloss says her firm, Nylon Consulting, wouldn’t take on a client who didn’t have a strong point of view and a professional website. “The first place we’re going to drive people is your website, and if your website isn’t communicating what we’re trying to pitch, there’s no point in paying us because you’re going to lose the customer when they get to your site.”
You have work to show off (and plenty of projects in the pipeline)
Publicists need finished work to publicize, so wait to hire one until you have plenty of projects under your belt and can hit the ground running. “Ideally, you want to hit a critical mass of work,” says Bindloss. “Enough to give a publicist so that they can run for six months with everything you have currently.” Usually, this means between five and 10 projects that are photographed and ready to publish, with several more lined up over the next six to 12 months. Remember, there’s no benefit to paying a monthly retainer until you can fully take advantage of a publicist’s time and expertise.
You’re better off on your own if…
You can’t comfortably float the fee
“Don’t hire a publicist if it’s a cost that’s going to keep you up at night,” says Bindloss. Although fees depend on the scope of the work, she says, it’s usually about the price of hiring a full-time employee. “Don’t think about PR as a monthly retainer but as an annual cost, like you would be bringing head count into the firm.”
Natkins agrees that monthly retainers tend to vary significantly, depending on what that client needs. “A small firm might start in the 6K range, a more established studio could be upwards of 10K, and a large firm with many projects around the world would go up from there,” she says.
If that sounds too spendy for your business right now, it’s probably best to wait until you have the cash to do it right. Publicity really is a “get what you pay for” service, says Heckman. “Probably like anything else in life, working with a publicist is a good idea if you work with a good publicist. I don’t know that it would have any value if you were just to hire anyone.”
You haven’t found someone you really connect with
A publicist can make or break your reputation, so be sure you take the time to find the right person. “Wait until you find someone you really trust,” says Bindloss. “This is someone who represents you to the press, so make sure you’re proud to have them speaking on your behalf.”
Heckman, whose firm, ASH, has been represented by M18 public relations for the past seven years, says they chose to work together because of a similar culture. “Our companies were aligned, both in their history and trajectory, and shared values,” he says. And, he points out, it’s a two-way street. Just as you’re searching for a firm to represent you, most publicists want to sign clients with a similar worldview. “A good firm is not just going to take on a retainer from any client. They realize that their credibility as a mouthpiece for their clients is based on who their collection of clients are.”
In fact, Heckman says, you can use a firm’s current client list as a guide to help evaluate if it’s a good match for you. “Probably one of the best ways that someone can go about identifying which firm they want to work with, is to find a firm with clients who share your vision, growth strategy, and aesthetic.”
You’re happy to multitask
“There is the small road also, for those who have the fortitude to do it,” says Barnard. As the owner of a small design studio, she prefers the grassroots approach over professional PR, because the authenticity is more representative of the actual experience her clients will have. “The primary benefit is I’ve maintained control over how I present myself to the world because it really is me. An overly polished, less personalized, sterile presence wouldn’t be a match for what they [the clients] are getting anyway. That level of refinement is not real.”
And some social butterflies just love the hustle. Gail Davis, principal at Gail Davis Designs, says she loves meeting people at events, and she’s gotten many opportunities by simply striking up a conversation. “You need to be authentically nice to people, not looking to get something, because you never know who will think about you for a job,” she says. “That’s how it has really worked out for me. We can all benefit by helping each other.”
Both designers stress that, especially if you forgo PR, professional photography is something you should never skimp on. “Snapshots on a job site for your Instagram feed—totally,” Barnard says, “but when it comes time to document your finished work, always hire a professional architectural photographers. A filter can only take you so far.” Davis agrees: “Pictures really tell a story and I want to make sure my story comes across clearly, and that person will think, Yes I need to work with her.”
Thanks to Architectural Digest, from their ADPRO online newsletter.