Engaging the right public relations agency can go a long way in helping small firms raise their profiles. But the costs can be high, and an internal communications team may better understand a firm’s values than an external agency. Here, several design practices offer strategies for when—and when not—to solicit outside PR help.

Navigating the Media Landscape
When Claus Benjamin Freyinger and Andrew Holder, co-principals of the Los Angeles Design Group, sought to promote their 2017 renovation of a lake house owned by film producer Jason Micallef, they turned to the Los Angeles–based consultancy This x That. Holder says they wanted to bring mainstream attention to the Whitney Museum of American Art–inspired hillside dwelling, but felt adrift in the evolving media landscape. “If we wanted to be smart about how to engage that shifting landscape of media dissemination, we had to get experts,” he says.

This x That founders Danielle Rago (who has contributed to ARCHITECT) and Honora Shea pitched a story to Los Angeles Times writer Marissa Gluck, with whom they had existing relationship, and secured what Holder describes as a big win: a stand-alone feature that appeared in the Home & Garden section as part of a recurring series on southern California residences. “Access to an outlet like that had totally evaded us in the past,” Holder says. “We had been featured in magazines specific to our discipline, but we were clueless as to how we could relate our work to the broader public. This x That was able to translate our internal conversations about the project into something the rest of the world could understand.”

Establish Expectations
Many agencies can be hired on a proposal, commission, or per-project basis, with specific benchmarks to assess performance. New York–based SO-IL—a small firm that can swell to 25 or more people depending on workload—handles 80 percent of its communications and press relations internally, says strategic communications manager Qionglu Lei. But, occasionally, they will solicit proposals from regionally specific PR firms to lead campaigns for projects abroad. “We try to define the deliverables as much as possible when we start the contract,” Lei says. “Whether it’s interviews, press placements, or events, we’re looking for a measurable result.”

Sometimes defining and articulating those deliverables is part of the value a consultancy can bring. Ian Besler, co-founder of the Los Angeles–based firm Besler & Sons, says the firm’s partnership with This x That—which they hired at a 20 percent commission fee on sales of one of their projects—helped clarify the market potential of the firm’s Props series of terrazzo objects as consumable goods.

“The questions they were asking us—‘Where would you want it to be sold? Would you want to be running a distribution center? Do you want to sell hundreds or thousands?’—are a lot more common in other business-oriented disciplines," Besler says. "[They] helped us articulate where we saw the project going.”

Originally presented to the world as mock-ups on Instagram, items from Props have since been fabricated in cement, marble, and glass, and are sold in the Hammer Store, the Museum of Contemporary Art Store, and Marciano Art Foundation Bookstore, all in Los Angeles.

Staying In-House
Even if a PR firm's proposal sounds appealing, the price and fee structure must be right to warrant the investment. Brian Bell, AIA, a principal at the Atlanta-based Bldgs, says his six-person firm has talked to several service brokers and agents, including one that charges a monthly fee ranging from $500 to $2,000 depending on the outreach services provided. While this fee isn't outlandish, with only three to four projects per year, Bldgs is not yet operating at the scale “to take the plunge,” Bell says. They handle all communications in-house and remain largely focused on pursuing attractive RFPs and RFQs.

Nevertheless, Bell says, producing consistently good work, earning the 2017 Architectural League of New York Emerging Voices Award, and appearing in The New York Times Magazine in a story about constructing the firm's office have resulted in private clients and global design offices, such as Steelcase and Bloomberg's Atlanta bureau seeking their expertise. He credits the architecture professorships that he and principal partner David Yocum, AIA, hold at Georgia Tech as another important catalyst for the firm’s promotion. Lecturing across the country and sitting on design juries have helped them network with fellow architects whose influence and connections have drawn attention to the firm. “There’s no underestimating other architects for promoting your work or getting you out there,” Bell says.

Lei also points out there may be procedural risks to using an external PR firm unfamiliar with a firm’s office culture and modes of practice. “At SO-IL, we have a particular way we communicate with each other," she says. "It’s concise. [To] convey our decision-making process, our internal PR history, the goals of our office at this moment, all that background information that needs be absorbed—sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s challenging.”

Find an Advocate
Ultimately, the qualities you want in an agency, Holder says, are those you might seek in a friend—someone who understands and empathizes with your values and deeper level motivations. “It’s possible for a PR shop to come into your office like they’re on an archaeological dig [and ask], ‘What’s here? What’s interesting?’ ” Holder says. “The problem with that way of thinking is it doesn’t guarantee that your values will be represented in the way you want. With This x That, we spend time in their company like we would spend time with friends, and that has been the only way to get authentic about who we are and what we want to do.”