Hiring PR Consultants: A Guide to Engaging Individual Public Relations Professionals

From the Fortune 500 to the newest startup, every company has a range of communications needs. Some of these are best met with PR or communications agencies with several to hundreds of employees, and others with individual communications consultants.  

In all cases, the goal will be to find the consultant, freelancer, or agency that specifically matches each company’s needs. This may sound simple, but often it’s not.

In CommunicationsMatch™ and RFP Associates’ comprehensive “Client Guide to Communications & PR Agency Search,” we highlight key factors that are important when it comes to hiring agencies. Most of these points are equally applicable when searching for individual consultants.

Here are eight things to think about in navigating the process of finding an individual communications consultant for your project:    

Is an Individual PR Consultant the Right Choice?

choose a consultant

The decision to engage an individual consultant should be defined by the scope of work and expertise required for an assignment.

The key to success when hiring individual consultants is to take the time to evaluate the goals and scope of work. If the project is well-defined and within the capacity of an individual with the required expertise, going the consultant route may well a good choice. If more extensive resources will be required, an agency may be a better option.   

Budget will always be a key dimension. Although a consultant’s hourly rate is likely to be lower than the equivalent person at an agency, an agency may have more junior staff to work on a project, so an individual consultant may not always be the least expensive option.

PR Consultants’ Backgrounds

PR consultant background

Understanding the reasons professionals choose to work independently provides useful context for making the decision to engage them.

  • Communications entrepreneurs: There are many young, dynamic, and highly capable communications professionals starting businesses. In the gig economy, there’s a fearlessness among digitally savvy PR, communications, and digital marketing professionals to go out and build businesses on their terms. And of course, there are the less-youthful but similarly entrepreneurial professionals who have chosen this path and offer years of experience.
  • Professionals between gigs: PR and communications are high turnover industries where professionals are often looking for their next opportunity. Since people leave or change jobs for a range of reasons, there are many highly-skilled professionals who may set up shop or take on freelance assignments as they hunt for their next role, and, therefore, may only be available for short-term assignments.
  • Former senior executives who hang out shingles as a second career: There are many experienced communications professionals who, for various reasons, decide to pursue consulting as a second act. These pros inevitably bring years of communications practice to the table both as managers and practitioners.

Industry Experience & Communications Expertise       

Given the different ways people come to consulting, when evaluating individual consultants and freelancers for your company’s project it’s important to ask about experience and expertise. They are not the same.

Experience, as in how long a consultant has been in the profession, is of course one dimension to evaluate. Another is the industry knowledge they bring to the table.

In the last census, there were 250,000 self-identified public relations professionals. Over the last decade, we have added tens, potentially hundreds of thousands of consultants and freelancers with digital capabilities. This means there are experts available in just about every industry and every communications skillset.    

consultant tools

When making the decision to hire an individual it’s worth keeping this in mind. There are people with unique and specific skillsets who know your industry – you simply need to find them. We have 5,000 agencies and professionals listed on CommunicationsMatch, searchable by 180 areas of industry expertise and 80 communications skillsets.              

And, since we’re talking here about hiring an individual, there will be tradeoffs. No one, no matter what they say, can be expert in every area in today’s highly specialized communications landscape. People will be better at some things more than others. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan – when it comes to reviewing experience and expertise, trust, but verify.

Where a Consultant is Located

In a virtual business world, location isn’t as important as it once was. But when it comes to personal relationships or the ability to set up meetings with reporters or clients, it still matters.

Understand the Consultant's Business & Capacity

It’s important to ask consultants if this is their primary business, how long they’ve been consulting, and their future plans. If you're hiring for a specific short-term assignment, the consultant’s longer-term plans may not matter. But, as with a job interview, the more you know the better. Ask lots of questions. Reviewing the consultant’s website and social feeds will provide insights into their business and capabilities.

PR Consultant Chemistry

Capacity is another important issue to explore, along with chemistry. Evaluating responsiveness, engagement, and personality in the search process helps you determine potential fit and work style.

References for PR Consultants’ and Freelancers            

Of all the measures to evaluate the capabilities of a consultant, the work they have done is clearly the most important. Asking for samples of past work and at least two references is essential. If the samples of work are from a former employer, it’s important to recognize that this may reflect the work of a team, not the individual.

As a rule, ask for a written proposal to evaluate writing and thinking. Remember, you will be trusting this individual with your brand – keep in mind the song “only fools rush in”. The better the fit for your business the stronger the ROI is likely to be.

What Should You Pay for a Consultant?

The pay scale for consultants is broad. In general, you get what you pay for. One measure of whether a consultant delivers value is the length of the relationships with their clients. It’s an acid test. Companies don’t keep consultants on unless they deliver. If past assignments were short, it’s important to hear why. References will be all the more important.               

How to Find PR Consultants & Freelancers

There are a number of sources for consultants and freelancers.

LinkedIn’s ProFinder and UpWork are two among a range of project and freelancer search tools. There are a lot of good consultants on these platforms, but competition can drive consultants to offer bargain rates. Relationships may, as a result, be transactional for both companies and communications consultants.                     

PR Consultant & Freelancer Search

At CommunicationsMatch, we’ve taken a different approach. Our sophisticated communications-focused search tools put companies in the driver’s seat for consultant and freelancer search. Our platform is designed to help a company search by industry and communications expertise, keywords, and other categories including designations and diversity. Using our online RFQ (request for qualifications) and RFP (request for proposal) tools, developed with RFP Associates, companies can collect additional information and proposals quickly and efficiently.

CommunicationsMatch is designed to be a tool for companies to find communications partners for relationships, not hookups. In general, companies are using our platform to look for communications professionals to help over the long-haul.

The takeaways from this short guide to hiring PR consultants and freelancers are:

  • Take the time to evaluate the scope of work and determine if an individual PR/communications consultant is the best choice for a project
  • There are consultants to match every need – do a comprehensive search to find qualified individuals with matching skillsets
  • Ask questions to understand the capabilities and motivations of consultants
  • Review past work and contact references
  • Check for fit and capacity

Because every project is different, young, dynamic PR professionals may be exactly what is required for one company. For another, a senior professional on their second-act career may add tremendous value that goes far beyond developing press releases and generating media coverage.

Being open-minded, but clear about the goals you are looking to achieve, and following these guidelines, will help you find the best individual communications partner for your business.


Note:  A summary of this article was published on CommPRO - "Hiring PR Consultants: A Client's Guide


Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM 

CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size.  The site has 5,000 agency and professional profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.                   





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