Measuring how much an outside public relations firm really adds to an advice firm’s bottom line can be difficult. After all, what’s the dollar value of an interview with The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal?

Advisors who have hired external PR help say it takes time for these professionals to do their job — and more time for advisors to assess whether the investment is boosting their client count. Furthermore, it’s unrealistic to expect dramatic results from a publicity push unless it dovetails with a comprehensive growth strategy. “It takes time to develop deep relationships with the media,” says Doug Wolford, president of Convergent Wealth Advisors, a Potomac, Md.-based firm that manages about $10 billion. “You just can’t expect to build an effective PR strategy by looking at how many clips you’ve generated in a few months or a few years. It’s got to be judged as part of a broader long-term growth plan.”

Earlier this year, Wolford led a search that ended with Convergent signing Rally Point Media Strategies, a PR start-up based in New York, to a multi-year retainer. “Although it’s still early, we’ve already seen enough of an increase in prospects to know it’s paying real dividends,” he says.

Improvements in customer relationship management (CRM) software have made it easier for the firm to identify when clients come in through media campaigns, according to Wolford. And online tools like “how-did-you-hear-about-us?” polls encourage website visitors to provide information about the impact, if any, of publicity drives. All in all, Wolford says, technology can give Convergent “a fairly good idea of how our PR strategy is doing.”

Doug Wolford

For EP Wealth Advisors in Torrance, Calif., which manages $1.7 billion, hiring an outside marketing specialist was an integral piece of its growth plan, says managing partner Brian Parker. Two years ago, the firm retained Impact Communications, a Kansas City, Kan.-based firm with decades’ worth of experience in the financial-advice industry. According to Parker, EP Wealth Advisors’ strategy includes courting ultra-high-net-worth clients, recruiting topflight planners and selectively pursuing acquisitions. Impact, he says, is helping in all three areas by raising the firm’s profile not just among prospects but also in the advisor community.

EP Wealth Advisors’ leadership considers Impact a long-term investment. “When you’re talking about hiring an outside PR firm, you’re looking at spending money that probably won’t have an immediate tangible return for the business,” says Parker. He adds that while he does see the firm’s name mentioned more frequently in the press these days, Impact’s menu of services goes beyond publicity — and his advice practice will be using more of them as it expands. “With so many moving parts to our strategic growth plan, developing a long-term partnership with someone who understands our industry makes a lot of practical sense,” Parker says.

Budget Management

Because it’s so tough to quantify the value of PR expertise, some advice firms prefer to avoid paying a retainer, which Mike Byrnes, a practice-management consultant in Kingston, Mass., says can run from $3,000 to $10,000 a month for even a midsize advisory business. He tells advisors to consider paying agencies on an hourly or project basis. “A lot of advisors are afraid that if they don’t use retainers when working with outside PR firms, they’ll get nickeled-and-dimed to death,” Byrnes says. “But a lot of times, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Two years ago, Essex Financial Services hired New York-based Rooney & Associates on a retainer basis. But they’ve switched to paying by the hour, says John Rafal, founder of the firm, which manages around $3.9 billion out of Essex, Conn. He says the intermittent nature of PR campaigns makes hourly fees more practical. For example, when Essex Financial has won industry awards, it called Rooney’s reps to help create buzz. The hourly fee model also encourages agencies to keep their eyes open for media opportunities “we don’t spot right away,” according to Rafal. “Working on an hourly basis seems like a fairer way to manage a growing company’s PR budget,” he says.