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How To Find the Right Publicist for Your PR Plan
October 24th, 2020
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Congrats! You went out on a limb and created a company from scratch. You went through tests and trials, you collected customer feedback, and you went to market, hopeful and excited. As your business grows, you now want to build a PR plan to build traffic, gain exposure, and create domain authority in your industry. But like with any hire, it’s crucial to vet consultants and agencies thoroughly before bringing them into the fold. While some PR strategies seem compelling on surface, this leg of marketing is tricky and requires ethics and experience to be successful. Here, experienced, reputable publicists shed insight on red flags to look out for—and key signs a publicist is worth a shot:

Good sign: You easily connect with the publicist or agency

This may seem like a no-brainer, but why would you onboard anyone you didn’t, well, like? Even if they seem to have the top-tier accolades and a jaw-dropping resume, if you don’t feel comfortable chatting with them and do not feel an easy connection, it’s likely not the best fit. As Carol VanderKloot, a partner at WS&A PR, explains, a PR plan can only be effective if both parties—the publicist and the client—are able to communicate. After the introductory, get-to-know-you call to hear about their services and experiences, VanderKloot suggests answering these questions:

  • Does the publicist/agency have experience in your area of business? Do they talk about it with authority?
  • Do they get you? 
  • Did you enjoy the discussion?
  • How are they at explaining things? 
  • Do they speak your language or only use buzz words?
  • Do you feel supported?

Bad sign: They’re never wrong

Everyone has a friend who, while well-intentioned, is a natural one-upper and know-it-all. No matter the topic or the debate, they are always right, they always win, and there is no convincing them otherwise. While you can likely limit your interactions with them in social settings, if you’re hiring a publicist, you’ll probably talk to him or her at least a few times a week. So if they can’t admit to mistakes—even minor ones—it’s an indicator they won’t offer smart PR strategies, according to Rich Gallagher, the executive vice president and corporate practice lead for Resound Marketing

“I once was interviewing candidates for a position with my firm, and one applicant forgot to attach their writing sample in an email. We've all had the ‘See attached/forgot to send’ exchange! But when I pointed it out, they blamed a Gmail glitch on deleting the attachment, instead of just offering a simple ‘oops,’” Gallagher shared as an example. If they can’t be human, you don’t want them deciding your PR plan, since so much of media communication is based on reliable, real relationships. 

Good sign: Their press portfolio is promising—and accurate 

Founder and Principal of OFD Consulting Meghan Ely says, typically, when you're beginning the vetting process of finding a reputable publicist, one of the biggest things you'll want to review extensively is their press portfolio. Why does this matter in a PR plan? Contacts and frequent connections with leading trusted journalists will lead to more placements. If they don’t have relevant clips to support their experience, you don’t want to hire them. But if they do? It’s a big green light.

“A sign of a great PR person is someone that shares relevant press that's similar to the type of press you're looking for. Make sure that their expertise in securing media coverage aligns well with your goals,” Ely continues. 

One quick note, though: timeframe matters, so check the date of the recent press clippings they share. If they are all from three years ago, it’s unlikely the same editors are at the publications. And freelance writers shift clients frequently. “Someone that can show you their consistent wins from the last 12 to 18 months is definitely a person that you'll want in your corner,” Ely explains. “The media landscape is always evolving, and it should be noted that the more recent pickups will show you what their capabilities truly are.” 

Bad sign: They don’t listen and have very little patience

From the very beginning of your publicist-client relationship, you should treat one another with respect and both allot time to understand how each company operates. Part of a PR plan is listening to the brand’s backstory, understanding their goals, and creating PR strategies that take them to the next level. If a potential publicist talks over you, doesn't let you finish a sentence, and only raves about themselves, VanderKloot says it’s likely not someone you want to hire. 

“Remember, you are the client, and the PR agency needs to respect and understand what your goals are and outline a plan to achieve them. They need to listen and respect your wishes, speak in your language, and work with you in a way that feels comfortable and positive,” VanderKloot adds.

Good sign: They happily offer past or current client references

As Gallagher puts it: a reputable PR person doesn't hesitate to offer client references. In fact, they likely send them before you schedule a Zoom call to discuss PR plan development. “This is an industry that is largely fueled by relationships, so a good PR professional should have plenty of current—and even former clients—that will vouch for them without a lot of backchannel conversations,” Gallagher shares. 

If they are excited to introduce you to past or current clients, they are confident in their services and performance and are worth considering to represent your brand.

Bad sign: They promise the moon and the stars

As frustrating as it may be for a small company with limited resources and budget, there are no guarantees in PR plans or PR strategies. Even if a publicist has worked with a writer for years, feels like your product is an ideal fit for their publication, and feels like they can get a placement, they can never promise it. And if they do? Gallagher says to run. “Disreputable PR people tend to overpromise. Huge PR wins—like a guest spot on a market show or feature in the New York Times—are the culmination of a process,” Gallagher continues. “We have to align messaging, timing, and usually work our way up to that level of visibility, starting with more niche media. I wouldn't trust a PR person that promises those great placements out of the gate.”

Good sign: They push back, professionally

If your publicist doesn’t challenge you, they aren’t helping you to grow. Sometimes you may have oversized aspirations that, while possible, may take years to achieve. Instead of making commitments they can’t keep, Ely says a good PR professional will willingly poke holes in what you’re looking to accomplish to set expectations. “Your PR person may come back and discuss some of the challenges you might face; this will tell you that they have a lot of respect for you, and they want to be transparent in your relationship together,” Ely adds.

Bad sign: Their social media channels seem desperate

If you follow a few public relations agencies on social media and notice many of their posts feel desperate, it’s a reason to turn away. These ‘Hail Mary’ pitches, as Gallagher calls them, pop up when a publicist hasn’t found success in traditional pitching via email and is now doing all they can to gain traction. Though this may seem like they’re working hard, it could also point to a flawed PR plan or a company that doesn’t have solid media contacts in their roster. Gallagher says these can look like open invites to attend a client's event tonight or begging a reporter to look at their client's new dog leash at 3:30 p.m. on National Dog Day. You need someone who is forward-thinking and always one step ahead of you. 

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