Choosing a Public Relations Firm

A Public Relations (PR) firm may seem like an extravagance for a senior living community. Many executive directors and directors of marketing feel either this function can be handled internally or really isn’t necessary as part of the marketing budget.

One of the confusing issues is that many people don’t understand what Public Relations is and consequently why it is needed. The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” That’s a mouthful.

It’s easy to understand that Public Relations manages the spreading of information between an organization and the public. It may include gaining exposure using topics of public interest and news items that do not require direct payment. Public Relations is the idea of creating coverage for clients for free rather than with marketing or advertising. An example would be having a reporter write an article featuring a senior living community rather than paying for the advertising in the same publication.

So what are some reasons to outsource Public Relations?

By outsourcing Public Relations you should be assured that there are specialized people who are trained in public relations. They are specialists and it’s their job to make journalists happy by providing good information that is of interest to them. A talented public relations specialist knows how to help reporters and offers this expertise.

An internal PR person may have a lot of functions on their plate and get bogged down in department head meetings and working on many things that aren’t truly aimed at getting positive press attention. At a community, they may cover outreach, social media content, event planning, newsletter writing, letter writing, creating flyers and more. Sometimes communities use both internal PR staff as well as an agency.

A Marketing Assessment is a good starting point to determine if Public Relations is needed. This may reveal the external community really either doesn’t know about the senior living community or has a poor image of what is behind its entrance. We hear people refer to a community as a place for old people or they may still call it an ‘old folks home’.

Changing these perceived images is a public relations function. Wanting a higher profile for your community would be a goal of a public relations campaign. Public relations works well for launching a new community and/or renovations program, increasing your community’s profile, managing a crisis, celebrating a milestone and continually reinforcing the brand image of the community. Residents, families, employees and the external audiences all benefit from positive Public Relations.

In senior housing, many management companies claim they offer public relations as part of their contract but this is an area that requires specialists. If you are in negotiations with a management company, understand what they will actually offer with regards to the public relations services in the contract. They may consider Public Relations community outreach.

The first and most important step in reaping the rewards from entering into an agreement with a Public Relations company is finding one that fits your community best. There are many options available.

Your advertising company may offer public relations services and this may seem like a viable solution since you have a relationship in place with the advertising firm. We find that since advertising is a paid medium, advertising firms offering public relations service may provide press releases for advertorial purposes but they don’t treat public relations in the same way as specialists.   Copywriters geared to advertising tend to write differently than PR writers geared to write for the media. They aren’t used to making reporters happy and bridging the gap between the client and the media.

An RFP to numerous companies isn’t really effective in selecting a firm that is the right fit for your community. Writing is a Public Relations specialty so it becomes a beauty content. Narrow your search to a few firms that offer the best prospects for meeting your needs and interview them. In the face-to-face meeting, PR professionals really shine—that’s what they do. They may promise you a huge story in the New York Times or an interview on NBC to have their contract signed. While they may never deliver this, they won your contract and are off and running.

How does a discerning person see through the glitz and dazzle and make an intelligent choice? Ask to see their results for clients that are similar to your community. Check references with current and past clients to learn if they were all show or delivered results. You want to feel confident that they will meet deadlines, keep promises, be thorough and pay attention to details.

A good rule of thumb is asking if they already understand the senior housing business. A firm that handles healthcare may be different than a firm that handles senior housing. A benefit to using a firm that already has senior housing accounts means an account executive doesn’t need an education in what a life plan or assisted living community is and will be comfortable working with elderly residents.

Public relations firms vary in sizes. Find the size that is right for you. Bigger firms can do it all but their fees reflect their payroll. You may think you want a national firm but if you want a company that is hands on and available, a small firm may better suit your needs and your budget. For example, fees for a national PR program could start at $8,000- $10,000 p/month while a smaller company may charge $2,500-$3,500 depending on the scope of services.

We often hear, “We want a local PR company to handle our community’s PR”. Today, the media is not as approachable by face-to-face contact as they once were. They want a PR specialist to use email to reach them so it doesn’t make a difference if the PR firm is in the same town as the senior living community. What matters are the results!

Understand what is covered by the monthly fee which PR firms refer to as retainers. There usually is a monthly retainer and contracts of a minimum of six months. It takes at least six months to be able to judge the effectiveness of a PR firm. Sure, they may promise you an immediate article in the newspaper when they come on board and hopefully, they can deliver this, but generally, it takes a startup period before you reap the benefits.

The more you offer the PR firm opportunities to meet staff and residents, the more effective they’ll become. There are different angles they may pursue with the media on your behalf. We always say a PR person needs to have a nose for news. Keeping them aware with planning meetings on a regular basis and sharing community news is so valuable for them to achieve great results. The more accessible the staff, the more success they will have. A good PR person wants to interface with the activity team, the fitness coordinator, the chef, and others. There’s a wealth of potential news at a senior living community.

It’s helpful to know from the beginning what services you would like the PR firm to offer. That helps them with their presentation and determining their fees.

Today’s PR firm should be adept at writing great social media content for Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms and offer these services for your community. While communities do some of this work in house, their activity directors, directors of marketing and other personnel are not writing specialists. The PR firm can keep greater consistency in the messaging and reflect the branding and personality of a community.

A good point to remember is that an article in the newspaper has a 70% greater retention rate than an ad that has been purchased. This is great justification for trying public relations for your senior living community.

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