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Avoid a Publicity Nightmare

Buyer beware! Choosing the wrong PR agency can break the bank and tarnish your brand. Here's how to avoid a costly mistake.

It's a huge bite out of the budget when a small business owner hires a public relations firm. For most, it's also new territory. What could go wrong?

The nightmare begins when your publicist spams the press. A large number of my "spam" emails are from PR firms. It appears that these well-meaning publicists submit press releases to pretty much any journalist who makes their address public. This blanket, impersonal approach is an easy way to alienate a member of the press.

Many of the press releases I receive have nothing to do with my target audience (hey--that's you!) and aren't even relative to the topics I address in this space. An off-topic, dull, and lengthy press release means that an agency, and the client they represent, get filed in my mind as a "don't read, don't bother" item. Do you really want to work with a publicist who is out there alienating journalists? That doesn't sound like a good strategy to me.

So, I consulted with a few top-notch publicists who are always spot-on when they send a pitch. I asked them to offer advice on how to hire an outstanding PR firm. What are the red flags? How should a business owner prepare before interviewing agencies? They unanimously agreed that it's important to go in armed with these questions.

Is this the right firm to achieve my campaign goals?

Corinne Liccketto, director of sales at Smith Publicity, says that by stating your goals before any contract comes into the picture, you are providing a firm or individual with a clear set of expectations. "A trustworthy firm will be able to evaluate your goals and truly determine if their services are the right fit for you," says Liccketto. "Make a list of questions that coincide with your goals for a campaign so you know where to start."

What is the strategy?

"The goal for a PR agency is to generate earned media, not paid," says Michael Haas, managing partner at Extension PR. "If they are vague about timing for goals and deliverables, be wary. The best PR people will offer strategy and counsel, not just nod their heads to get you to sign with them. They should design a road map for a successful campaign. A great agency will interview you to make sure your goals are attainable and that the relationship will be mutually beneficial."

Does it go beyond the press release?

"Make sure that the firm you choose does not view media relations as simply issuing a press release," says Joy Schoffler, principal of Leverage PR. "Too many PR firms will just write a few press releases and spam reporters, calling it public relations. Press releases are great for search engine optimization, but should also be a part of a bigger strategy and must be news worthy."

Schoffler also points out that good public relations professionals are storytellers. They will glean insights about your company to grow your business and brand by crafting story ideas that are interesting to the media.

What kind of experience does your team have?

All of my experts agreed that many agencies will sell you with their executive-level experience, but then assign your account to less experienced people. Oftentimes, an intern or someone who is new to the industry will execute the campaign initiatives. Make sure you have the opportunity to interview everyone who will be on your team. Find out what their experience is and how they intend to engage with the press.

Who do they know?

Ask about the relationships the team has with your targeted media outlets. Strong relationships yield better media results. If the agency specializes in promoting authors and your campaign goal is to promote a new tech gadget, they won't be a good fit because they aren't likely to have contacts in the tech world. "Not knowing the limitations of a firm can lead to major disappointment when you thought your service included something they simply aren't capable of," warns Liccketto.

What about references and results?

"Always ask for 3-5 clients and journalists that you can contact to learn about their experience with the agency," suggests Haas. Also ask the clients about the results that the agency has produced for them.

Not all campaigns are created equal; it would be impossible for every campaign to be as successful as the last. "Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions," reminds Liccketto. "Learning how an agency has handled the less than successful campaigns says a lot about their team and structure."

What is the payment structure?

Some firms charge on a pay-for-placement basis while others charge on retainer. Liccketto recommends asking questions about the paymentstructures: "What is the charge of the pay-for-placements and do they differ for national, regional, and local placements?" Also ask if there a limit to the number of solid placements for a team working on retainer.

According to Haas once you find out if their billing formula is hourly, monthly, or project based, you'll want to inquire about items they bill for in addition to staff time. Ask about their mark up for out-of-pocket expenses and what those expenses may be.

Most importantly, use your intuition and observe the level of passion that your publicity team has for your industry and for representing your company. The best agency relationships come from people who believe in your product and are proud to be a part of your team.

Posted: February 4, 2013, 10:55 AM