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 previous agency relationships gone wrong.
Public Relations doesn’t have a governing ethical body – there is no Hippocratic Oath – which can make it difficult to determine whether an agency is legit. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSSA) does have a code of ethics, but the organization lacks a fashion/lifestyle specific vertical, and most cutting-edge communicators in these industries choose not to be active in the trade organization.
So, where does that leave a brand looking for strategies like media coverage, celebrity placement, social media marketing, event management, influencer outreach to help grow their business?
First, it’s important not to be swayed by a shiny digital presence; you’re looking to hire a business partner, not a pretty website and Instagram feed. It’s simply too easy for freelance professionals and agencies to appear to be more legitimate or experienced than they are, making it appear that Vogue covers and Kardashian placements are just a few weeks away.
Secondly, rely on referrals from like-minded brands and trusted resources. Ask any existing media or influencer contacts you may have to share who they enjoy working with the most. If you’re brand new to all this, look for agencies that specialize in your market category. There is a difference between an agency who understands the fashion industry and one that has decided they want to start taking on fashion clients, but has primarily B2B tech experience.
Create a short-list based on referrals and PR agencies who represent brands you recognize and like and begin to have a series of exploratory conversations. As you move forward, here are a few red flags to look out for, whether you are doing the initial outreach or you’ve been approached by an agency about PR services.
1. The Agency Makes You Pitch Them
One common concern I hear from newer brands 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. The right agency will welcome your questions, appreciate your curiosity and be just as concerned as you are with making sure the relationship is the right fit.
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, Pitch Press
If you feel like you are chasing down your agency contact for attention, or having to prove why they should accept you as a client, move on.
2. The Agency Guarantees Placements
Anyone who says they can guarantee placements with a particular publication, TV show or blogger should be an immediate red flag. Agencies may be able to show you a proven track record of coverage with existing clients, but the only way anything is ever guaranteed is if it paid advertising (often called P2P, or Pay to Play). Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is – from celebrity access to magazine covers – beware of any attempts to woo you or promise teh moon. These over-the-top demonstrations are likely designed to get you locked into a retainer agreement, and not much else.
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, Michael Shane PR
3. The Agency Guarantees Sales
While publicity certainly has the power to make an impact on sales, guarantees about increasing sales 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 advertising, and anyone who says their efforts guarantee sales is circumspect.
4. The Agency has a 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 with current and former clients so that you get a third-party perspective on what it’s like to work with the agency and team.
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 someone’s eyes makes a difference when talking business. – Rachel Meis, Rachel Meis Communications
Before you hire an agency, speak to two or three existing and at least one former client to get a sense of what you expect from the agency and any suggestions on making the partnership work best.
5. The Agency provides a list of services. Only.
In order to win your business, a PR agency or publicist should put together a custom proposal that clearly outlines their expertise and share some creative thinking about how they plan to help you to achieve your goals. You, specifically, not a general presentation where any brand could fit.
You should walk away from that presentation with a clear understanding of how the agency is structured, who will be working on your account, how they would get you from point A to B, and a proposed budget. You should feel like your questions were answered thoroughly and that this is a team you can trust to effectively represent you to the media.
Agencies 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. Solid presentations set the stage for a favorable outcome. – Shannon de Laat, Principal, SdL PR
6. The Agency won’t provide samples reporting
Agencies should have a process in place for reporting results, 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. As a prospective client you should ensure that reporting is addressed and see if the agency will share a sample client report or template. If an agency isn’t in the habit of reporting back to clients, it’s a red flag that their whole operation is something less than professional.
7. The Agency has no social proof
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 will have 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
While our PR Agency Directory is a great resource, remember that it is up to you to properly vet firms and ensure that you are 100% confident before signing anything, be it an annual contract or a month-long project.