Most financial advisors, insurance professionals and money managers have thought, at one time or another, that they should take advantage of the services of a professional public relations firm, but they usually take no action for numbers of reasons:

? They lack a plan for evaluating a PR practitioner.

? They don’t see themselves as the expert that the media needs.

? They are sure they cannot afford the cost.

Any PR practitioner evaluated as a strategic partner for your firm should be able to answer four key questions and their answers must make sense to you.

1. What does the PR firm you are talking with accomplish for you, the client?

Different firms have different skills and competencies. All PR firms must offer one core service: the ability to create relevant message points that clearly describe for your prospects what you do, for whom and with what expected result.

A strategic plan cannot be written until it is clear how you wish to be known in your community. If your prospective firm has a great history with retail products, be wary. You are selling trust, not a product or service. If you cannot establish trust with your prospects you will not get to the product or service you hope to sell.

Some PR firms excel in the development of strategic plans and have the contacts and persistence to put you in front of the media you have identified as being read or seen by your target prospects. Others may rely upon special events or direct mail. Keep in mind that a good media campaign that generates feature articles incorporating your thoughtful quotes is important.

Some firms will encourage you to develop a direct mail campaign, seminars, or special events. However, when you become a trusted expert in the media and are able to use newspapers and magazines, or online magazine articles as third party endorsements, you have something solid and concrete to lead with when contacting or meeting a prospect for the first time.

2. What experience has the PR firm had in working for a financial professional?

Financial advice is not like Godiva chocolates. Financial advice is based on trust, not taste. Therefore, the firm you hire must have experience with other professional services firms. The value propositions so necessary to “sell” you are different than the value propositions for retail products sold in your community. And do not believe a PR firm that shows you successful PR campaigns that are not in the financial services industry.

The dilemma becomes one of time and dollars. If the PR firm you hire must do its research on your retainer fee dollars, you lose. Better to keep looking and find a firm that knows your industry language and jargon, and even understands what you do for your clients. Without that, messaging–the key points to send to the media–will be difficult for you and for your PR firm.

3. How does the firm charge for its services?

In the PR business, practitioners charge in many ways. Some charge hourly fees; others estimate the length of time your “project” will take and charge accordingly. Most firms work on a retainer basis. You pay an upfront monthly fee for a written strategic plan that clearly says what the responsibilities are for the firm and, likewise, what your responsiveness is expected to be in responding to your practitioner and, specifically, to the media. It is such a waste of effort to delay returning the call of a reporter your practitioner has interested in you and your story.

Still others charge a fee for placement. This requires a specific fee scale for what a media “hit” is. Is the fee for a one-inch quote in the Wall Street Journal the same as a two-page article your practitioner has ghosted under your name and placed in a trade publication that creates an excellent handout for you (with reprint permission of course)?

Retainer relationships range from $3000 a month to “You name the number,” depending on the size of the firm and the scope of the engagement. Many solo practitioners have programs that cost less but are not as comprehensive as a retainer program.

You simply do not know what you can afford until you make inquiries. A good rule of thumb is to avoid retainer fees and stick with hourly or project fees until your firm has at least an annual budget of $35,000 to spend on PR.

If you are a small firm, look for books or CDs that are pertinent to helping you learn to do your own PR. Too busy? Here’s a thought: If you are putting 20% of your time into marketing your practice, as many experts recommend, shouldn’t some of that time go to working on your own PR strategies?

4. What kinds of stories for the media can your PR firm identify during your initial conversations?

Your PR practitioner should be able to develop a list of story ideas that will resonate with you and attract your prospects as soon as you begin describing your firm and the services you provide. The PR person should be able to translate your process with clients and what you hope to achieve for clients into story ideas fairly easily. A PR person who stumbles on developing story ideas for you and wants to do more “research” is not your best choice.

A PR person specializing in or experienced in working with professional services firms should have a good idea quite quickly about print or online feature stories that would present the firm in a good light. Such a professional should also know what publications are likely to be interested in what kinds of stories. Whether the ideas are investment concepts, financial planning and estate planning concepts, or personal finance story ideas, they should not be difficult for your practitioner to develop.

Go for experience. It always pays off.

Understand that it takes time for your firm to make it onto the wave length of the media, regardless of the amount of money you spend monthly on PR. Persistently send story ideas at least once a month to publications you know write the type of story you are offering. Also understand that working with your PR practitioner will take time. The PR practitioner should be able to pull good story ideas from you during a monthly interview of what you are working on with your clients.

Lisbeth Wiley Chapman is principal of Ink & Air, Wellfleet, Mass., a P.R. consultancy for financial advisors. You may e-mail her at .