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How to choose the right PR agency

7 Signs That Amazing PR Agency is Actually a Sham

In several years running PR Couture, I regularly hear from designers and brands who are eager for publicity, but hesitant to hire a PR agency or freelance PR practitioner because of relationships gone wrong, promises made and not kept, or large amounts of money spent with little to show for it. PR, (aside from the APR accreditation which is rare in fashion/lifestyle) doesn't have  a governing ethical body - there is no Hippocratic Oath as it were - which can make it difficult to determine whether an agency is legit. And, because anyone can put up a website and call themselves a publicist these days, without a proven track record, or any experience at all, it's especially important for brands to properly evaluate any agency or publicist who comes a knocking.

First, when looking for a PR agency, rely on referrals from friends, colleagues and trusted resources including any media contacts you may have (they definitely have an opinion on who they prefer working with!). Secondly, look for agencies that specialize in your market category and have like-minded clients.

99.9% of our clients are referred, and though not all referrals are a fit for us and us for them, we happily then refer those types of clients to tried and true agencies in hopes they find their needs fulfilled.  - Shannon Cavanagh, Founder, Pitch Press

If you have been burned in the past, or aren't exactly sure what to expect or request from a PR agency seeking your business, take heed of these common red flags and suggestions from top fashion publicists.

PR Agency Red Flags

Right from the get-go, there are a few things to watch out for. First, before getting into recommended actions to take when evaluating a new firm, here are a few red flags to look out for when being pitched by a PR firm.

Makes You Pitch Them

One common concern I hear from emerging designers is that they feel like they are auditioning for the right to be added to an agency's roster. This is completely backwards. You are a prospective client spending limited funds in the hopes of growing your brand and achieving your business goals. It is absolutely within your right and appropriate to full and thoroughly receive attentive, respectful and timely communication from any prospective agency's or independent publicists. The right agency will welcome your questions, appreciate your curiosity and be just as concerned with making sure the relationship is the right fit.

Guaranteed Placements

Anyone who says they can guarantee placements with a particular publication, TV show or blogger should be an immediate red flag. They may be able to show you a proven track record of coverage with existing clients, but the only way anything is ever guaranteed in PR is if it is actually a form of paid advertising. Similarly, if someone makes offhand promises that they are close with this celebrity or that editor, or generally name drops and spins what sounds like a fairy tale of effortless placements, unique opportunities and hobnobbing with A-list stars, chances are it's too good to be true.

Clients often raise the question:  if you can’t guarantee a placement then why would we hire you? The truth is that, while we do have a strong track record of top-tier media placements and strong relationships with influencers, there are no guarantees. Perhaps the editor simply doesn't like the product, or it doesn't fit into the editorial calendar at that time. What we can guarantee is that we will get said product in front of editors and influencers and, at the very least, get feedback from them about the items. -  Michael Shane, Partner FREIDE+CO

Guarantee Sales

While publicity certainly has the power to make an impact on sales, guarantees working with a particular agency will increase sales by a specific percentage, painting you a picture of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue as a result of media coverage is a red flag. The right placement at the right time with the right product will drive interest, awareness and oftentimes significant product sales, but there are many extenuating factors that also come into play. PR isn't marketing, or sales, and anyone who says their efforts guarantee sales is circumspect.

Lack of Client References

Just like a reference check for a new job, any agency with a proven track record of happy clients will be happy to connect you to current and former clients so that you may vet them in this way.

Ask to talk to current clients. It's the best way to get feedback. If the firm isn't comfortable giving out their roster, red flag. Also, meet in person or even Skype. Don't just chat via email. Being able to look into someones eyes makes a difference when talking business. - Rachel Meis, Founder, Rachel Meis Communications

No Custom Proposal

In order to win your business, a PR agency or publicist should put together a custom proposal that clearly outlines their expertise and a broad strategy for helping you to achieve your goals. You should walk away from that presentation with a clear understanding of how the agency is structured, who will be working on your account, creative ideas and suggestions to get you from point A to B, and a proposed budget.

 This is a time when potential PR representatives should do their homework and come up with fresh, new ideas to achieve your business objectives.  If an agency shares a cookie-cutter plan without a clear direction, it speaks to the work they might deliver.  Communication is what our industry is all about, I believe that solid presentations set the stage for a favorable outcome. - Shannon de Laat, Principal, SdL PR

No Client Reporting

Agencies should have a process in place for reporting on traditional and digital media, social media as well as time reports that clearly show who is working on your account, how much time was spent doing what, and how much it cost.

No Social Media or Web Presence

While it is true that many of the more traditional, high-end PR firms working with top designers continue to get away with a landing page with a phone number, most PR agencies should have invested in a proper web presence and be actively using social media to promote their agency and clients. After all, how can you trust that an agency truly is an expert in digital PR or social media if they aren't daily using these tools to grow their own reputation?

Do your do due-diligence and confirm an agency's social media presence. Pay special attention to whom is responding and commenting on their posts/images/pins etc.  The agency should have editors and clients commenting and following them on the different streams of social media. - Shannon Cavanagh, Founder, Pitch Press

Finally, one of the reasons I created our PR Agency Directory was to provide designers and brands looking to outsource their PR with a credible list of strategic, hard-working and dedicated firms. We allow each agency to tell you their story with a full landing page of information, rather than just a simple banner ad or link. Also, I regularly make referrals to agencies based on inquiries through my Burning Question service, so please consider me a resource and sounding board should you be currently searching for new representation.

Any questions or suggestions? Sound off in the comments or connect with me on Twitter!

Special thanks to Sydney Mintle, Melissa Duren and Robin Tolkan-Doyle who also contributed to this post.

Photo Credit: ottonassar

About the author: Crosby


Known as the "fashion publicist's most powerful accessory," (SD-UT) and the "West Coast 'It' girl of fashion PR," (YFS Magazine) Crosby Noricks is a brand strategist, author and founder of PR Couture. Crosby was included in the iMedia 25 Class of 2012 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, and enjoys helping fashion and lifestyle brands connect with their audiences in meaningful and creative ways.

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Meet Crosby Noricks

Hi. I'm Crosby, the founder of PR Couture and a fashion brand strategist. I care about supporting and celebrating fashion publicists as well as helping companies connect with their audiences in more meaningful ways. Recently, iMedia included me in their annual list of 25 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, along with people from Starbucks, Twitter and Volkswagon, which I think is pretty neat. Like Elle Woods, I am a Gemini-vegetarian (that's about where the similarities end). Let's connect: Check out my full bio, Brand Elixer sessions or shoot me a note.