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 PR agency relationships gone wrong.
Public Relations 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. The APR accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSSA) is rare in the fashion/lifestyle vertical.
The truth is anyone can put up a fancy-looking website and call themselves a publicist. With a seemingly comprehensive website and pretty Instagram feed, entrepreneurs without any experience at all can easily trick new designers with promises of Vogue covers and Kardashian placements. There are those who simply change their agency name when the truth gets out, and even well-meaning publicists who simply lack the business expertise to run a successful agency.
As such, it’s so important for brands to properly evaluate any agency or publicist before signing a contract.
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. 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 experience.
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
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.
1. The Agency 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. 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.
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 in PR is if it paid advertising (often called P2P, or Pay to Play). Similarly, offhand promises about being close with this celebrity or that editor, or generally name dropping or spinning what 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, Kenwerks
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 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 someone’s eyes makes a difference when talking business. – Rachel Meis, Rachel Meis Communications
Before you hire an agency, make time to 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 a broad strategy for helping you to achieve your goals. You, specifically. You should walk away from that presentation with a clear understanding of how the agency is structured, who will be working on your account, a few creative ideas and suggestions on how they would get you from point A to B, and a proposed budget.
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. 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 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. As a prospective client you should have a conversation about how reports their work and results back to you, and that should include sample reporting. If an agency isn’t in the habit of reporting back to clients, it’s a red flag that their whole operation is 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 a contract or a first check. If you’re looking for some help selecting an agency, use our contact form and I’ll tell you a bit more about our Agency Matchmaking service.