Starting a PR Firm: Q&A with Cision’s Henna Merchant
This is a guest post by Alexis Isaacs, Senior Account Coordinator at Cision.
While we love to get outside perspectives from influencers and stellar PR pros in the space, we also happen to have tons of internal talent here at Cision, each with diverse backgrounds in marketing, PR, measurement, technology, journalism, and the list goes on. I recently had a chance to sit down with my colleague Henna Merchant, senior account manager, agency sales, and chat about her experience owning her own PR firm for five years. She was happy to reveal the highs and lows of her experience, and what it takes to start from the ground up.
Q: How did you get your start in the PR industry?
A: I did a lot of non-profit work, during which I happened to do PR but I didn’t know what it was called [at the time]. When I worked for a medical real estate company I did media relations, community relations and physician relations, and I still didn’t realize what I was doing was PR. I just liked doing it, and it is always what I naturally gravitated toward. When the CEO of that medical real estate company realized that I knew how to write, he wanted me to handle all corporate and marketing communications.
Q: Why did you feel the need to open up your own firm vs working at an agency?
A: Because I could choose the clients I wanted to work with. Also, starting my own [firm] was an accident. When I was interning during grad school, I happened to notice an event with an interesting agenda, and one of the speakers was a senior VP of Ogilvy (who is now my mentor and friend). I suggested that he come to Houston and give the same talk. So I arranged all of these speaking engagements for him. He was so appreciative that I helped him secure those speaking engagements that he ended up hiring me! So that’s how I started.
After grad school I was interviewing in LA, and just happened to start talking to a guy – in an elevator! – who needed someone with strong communication skills to craft (his company’s) messaging and brand positioning. So I worked diligently on a proposal, which they reviewed and hired me as a result. I had also interviewed for a real estate company, to do their communications and marketing, and they ended up hiring me the very next day as well! Then I started getting referrals, which is why I started my own business.
Q: What challenges did you face owning your own PR firm?
A: The organic client referrals turned from B2B to more beauty and lifestyle; they weren’t as much (monetary) business so I came to a point where I had to find clients that would provide more financial stability. And I had to start reconciling my value running this PR agency. I realized that when I had to work to the get the clients, the leverage wasn’t in my corner anymore. I mean I could ask for whatever [amount of money] that I wanted when the clients came to me, but when you’re pitching clients, it’s a competitive situation and you have to cut your rates. It’s not a good financial situation. So, if I was going to continue to run my agency, I needed to raise capital. I have a lot of respect for PR agencies, and it’s apparent in the way that I deal with them; I’m very sympathetic because I’ve been there. So here at Cision, my approach is centered around alleviating their stress.
Q: What else besides capital are necessary tools to create a firm and sustain it?
A: It’s a given that that you have to have talent. Also, do you have your niche covered? Do you know the kind of media that your client is looking for? Do you have clients that need publicity, or another type of PR, such as crisis management? Where are your strengths? So you have to think about what kind of PR you are talking about in the first place. And then capital planning has to happen accordingly. For me, I had a co-working space so I didn’t have huge overhead, so I didn’t have to pass on those extra costs to clients. That enabled me to be more competitive.
Q: Where do you see the PR industry in 5 years?
A: Oh gosh! That’s a really huge question.
Q: How about, is there anything that you see now that’s happening in the PR industry that within 5 years, it will have a massive impact on the industry?
A: Brands and companies are always going to rely on expert communicators. I don’t see PR agencies going away, but they do need to train their entry-level staff better. They need to push limits and allow them to dive in. Separately, there is too much noise out there; people don’t pay as much as attention to media as they used to–they don’t have enough time. You could secure really great coverage, but if no one is going to read it then who cares?
So I feel like there will be a shift from media relations to more efforts being invested in communicating and building relationships directly with the stakeholders. I think there will be a lot more value placed in communicating the entire message directly to stakeholders as far as building that relationship and strengthening it. Telling your whole message is going to be more valuable and more important. I think people will start to trust the brand and the companies directly and go to the company’s blog more vs. just media – that is, if the company’s blog says something meaningful; some companies treat their blog/corporate communications like an obligation and they’re missing an opportunity. They should make sure to put a higher value on their content to build that direct relationship.
Q: Having experienced two sides of PR–the creative front as the CEO of your own firm and the selling front working here at Cision–which side do you prefer and why?
A: Well, working at Cision is A LOT less stressful. I think the perspective is good. Having been on that side of it makes it easier to work with my PR agency clients. I would prefer working for Cision versus owning my own company because of the level of stress. And it’s easier to sell a good product than it is to publicize a relatively unknown company. Also, I really do have the best boss ever, I like the people I work with and there is a lot more stability. Here at Cision, I feel like I get to bring a level of transparency to the client, which is what I would wish for if I were in the client’s shoes. My satisfaction comes from contributing to my clients’ success, by helping to improve their productivity. I know we have a real value and I know I can deliver that.
Henna Merchant is a senior account manager on Cision’s Agency Relations team. She was formerly the CEO of Clicked PR, LLC and a communications professional who began her career in 1999 with investment advisory firm J. Stewart Investments in San Francisco. She transitioned to PR in 2007 as physician relations director for Medistar Corporation. Henna holds a master’s degree in communications from the University of Houston and now lives in New York City.
Alexis Isaacs has a background in internal and external communications. Having worked with large agencies to boutique PR firms, she has a vast array of PR knowledge and experience. She is currently a senior account representative at Cision. She received her BA in Communication Studies from Northwestern University and has recently relocated to New York City from her hometown of Chicago.
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