How to Tell If You Need to Hire a PR Professional -- and What Kind

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- No matter what your business does or who you're trying to reach, any company can benefit from a tailored corporate voice and good press. The public relations professionals who provide those messages can either be a permanent part of your team or part of an external firm, and knowing which approach is best for your company can be difficult. If your small business is drowning in social media responsibilities or in need of some positive attention, the only real question is exactly what kind of PR support you need. Our experts weigh in on whether an in-house PR professional or an external firm offers the most bang for your business.

What are the benefits to hiring someone to handle PR in-house?

Companies can benefit from the institutional knowledge, quick response time and holistic business understanding that an internal PR resource can bring, says Anna Ruth Williams, founder and CEO of AR|PR, an Atlanta-based public relations firm servicing technology and startup companies.

"Nothing can replace an in-house staff person that works every day in the office and constantly feels the heartbeat of the organization," Williams says.

With a member of your team devoted solely to PR, you'll never have to question the kind of message you're getting, says Sabina Gault, CEO and founder of Konnect PR, a midsize PR firm servicing the baby and children and food and beverage industries.

"The real benefit is that you're calling the shots -- you have a person focused entirely on your company, and these people are entrenched in your brand," Gault says. "They live and breathe your colors, your flavors, what you're launching, when you're launching it, and they can answer any question about your brand accurately in a heartbeat."

Having a full-time staff member accountable for all your PR efforts is something an agency simply can't give you, Gault says.

"At an agency, people change. They get shifted to different accounts. If you have someone working full time at your office you can go up to them and say, 'I wanted this to happen by this date. Why is it not happening?' There's just more communication, more contact," Gault says.

What's to be gained by using an external PR firm?

Unfortunately, in-house PR professionals are frequently overworked and burned out, Williams says. Often, internal staffers are obligated to participate in company administrative processes and can get "brain fatigue" from dealing with the same challenges and information day in and day out, she explains.

"At an agency, you'll have two, three, four people working on your account each week, bringing you different strategies," Gault says. "They will all come from different backgrounds and have different strengths they bring to the table."

Also, agencies offer choice -- if you encounter an unusual problem, there's probably someone on staff at your agency who has dealt with it before.

"You may think you're in uncharted territory, but then your account leader will come back to you and say, 'We have three other people who have seen this in the past. Everything will be fine," Gault says.

"My firm represents a dozen startup and early stage companies at any one time," Williams says. "When one of our entrepreneurs is faced with a challenge, we can draw on experience from our other clients to truly educate, counsel and advise."

If you're looking for ready-made media connections, keep in mind that an external firm can offer their rolodex of journalist relationships too.

"When a company hires a PR firm, they don't just get one PR professional -- they get what I like to call 'an army of awesome,'" Williams says.

What's the difference in price -- and perception?

A company could pay an average of $100,000 each year in salary and overhead to employ a PR specialist in-house, Williams says. Meanwhile, hourly rates for PR firms range from $125 to $450.

"With taxes and health insurance, in-house help is going to cost you," Gault says. "Let's say you spend $150,000 a year to hire a full-time PR professional -- an agency will give you a lot of attention for that amount of money."

A company that needs "quick credibility" in the marketplace can benefit from retaining a PR firm, Williams says.

"It sends a signal to media, competitors and the marketplace that the company is financially strong and serious about positioning itself for future growth."

Some companies have both an in-house PR rep and work with an outside firm. What's the advantage there?

Many larger companies have an in-house PR specialist who manages the PR vendor, Williams says.

"Typically, PR agencies prefer if a company has in-house PR support because it makes the agencies' job easier," she says. "For example, an in-house communications resource knows exactly the type of content, approvals, collateral, etc. that an agency needs -- streamlining the process and keeping campaigns on track."

Although retaining both full-time and agency help is an excellent strategy, Gault cautions that it's not within everyone's budget.

"Not everyone can afford to hire someone and work with an agency," she says. "But once you get to that point, it's ideal for your in-house person to do the branding, the planning, the thinking, then direct the agency as to what to do and when to do it."

So what's the best option for my business?

"Ultimately, a company's decision on PR resources should align with their business goals," Williams says. "In today's digital and highly specialized marketing environment, it's nearly impossible for a small business to find an in-house staffer who understands media relations, SEO, social media, content marketing and branding. A PR firm can bring that depth of experience and knowledge for a comparable price."

With that said, Williams cautions that it's best to use a smaller, independent agent.

"In today's highly segmented marketplace, companies want a PR firm that truly understands and focuses on their industry -- not an agency that does a lot of activities for a multitude of industries," she says. "For example, a new vodka company should look for a firm that specializes in food and beverage, lifestyle and entertainment industries; meanwhile, a software company should seek an IT PR firm that speaks their language."

Companies looking for more direction should check out AgencySpotter.com, Williams recommends.

"It's a cool new online marketplace where companies can self-select and vet creative agencies across a variety of search parameters."

More from How-to

What Is a Fiduciary and What Are Their Responsibilities?

What Is a Fiduciary and What Are Their Responsibilities?

How to Read a Balance Sheet

How to Read a Balance Sheet

What Is a Mortgage and How to Apply in Three Steps

What Is a Mortgage and How to Apply in Three Steps

Warren Buffett Isn't Your Typical Billionaire: Video

Warren Buffett Isn't Your Typical Billionaire: Video

How to Write a Business Plan in Seven Steps

How to Write a Business Plan in Seven Steps