How to Vet a PR Firm

Hiring a PR firm is a big investment. Here's some advice based on personal experience.

Talking to a friend the other day, the subject of vetting PR firms came up. Now, I’m no neophyte here. I know a few things about the topic. I’ve used three to support my books in different capacities. That conversation inspired this post.

Be Wary of Guarantees

“Sign with us. You’ll sell 50,000 copies of your book.”

Take grandiose promises with a 50-lb. bag of salt.

For me, any type of promise like this is a major red flag. Unless you’re repping Sheryl Sandberg, no one can honestly make promises like these. The publishing landscape is littered with extremely successful authors initially rejected by traditional publishers. See John Grisham, the people behind Chicken Soup for the Soul, and countless others. In point of fact, no one knows how many books will be sold, apps will be downloaded, and the like.

Take promises like these with a 50-lb. bag of salt.

Is the firm confident and excited about working with you?

Now, overconfidence is one thing, but incessant self-doubt is another. I can’t imagine working with anyone who didn’t believe in what I had written–and how much others would benefit from it. (Granted, I don’t write books about beepers or Windows 95.)  If the firm and its employees aren’t enthusiastic, then find another firm.

Does the firm get your message?

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If you write books about historical fiction, has the firm only represented technical writers? If you’re launching a new app, does the firm only have a track record with Fortune 50 companies?

No, the fit need not be 100 percent. There’s something to be said for “stretch” assignments. But be realistic. My new book is on Big Data, and I can’t imagine working with a firm that doesn’t at least understand the importance of the topic. Why? That firm will be the initial point of contact with any media folks. Make sure that the firm gets the general message of the book–and why it’s important.

Set Expectations Early

Four years ago, I would have considered writing for Inc. and HuffPo major victories. After all, at that point, I hadn’t garnered very many media placements like those.

Ask me today if my current PR firm is aiming for guest posts or even regular columns on those sites. The answer is no. Been there. Done that. Good PR firms aren’t cheap, and if they have been unable to procure placements commensurate with what you expect, then look elsewhere. You don’t break 80 in golf if you’ve never broken 100.

Call References

Seems obvious, right? Well, any company can look more successful and professional than it is on its website. (By the way, if the firm doesn’t have a web or social media presence, look elsewhere).

With my current firm, I spoke to four of its former clients. You don’t need two hours; ten minutes should be more than sufficient. If no one will talk to you, be suspicious. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

Look at the Firm’s Physical Address

Seems silly, right? Why would location matter?

A few years ago, I spoke with a firm based in Manhattan. The firm’s minimum monthly rate: $5,000. These two facts are not coincidental. Think about NYC real estate prices. Not cheap. Most of my payment would invariably go to pay the firm’s rent, and I’d be stuck with a junior-level associate.

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What say you?

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3 Comments

  1. Scott Berkun

    PR has the same challenge as advertising as its very hard to know which thing mattered. You might get a review in a major magazine, but will that impact sales as much radio interview? They can’t say – there are too many factors. it’s not only who mentions you, it’s when, and who happened to be listening/reading that day.

    It seems what you are paying for is their access to influential people, and their skill at positioning you with them – and that’s it. They can’t promise more than that. Unlike hiring a copyeditor or an accountant where tangible results are guaranteed, with PR it’s much harder to evaluate their ability and how much impact they’ve really had. That’s not to discount PR, but an honest appraisal of what it is you’re buying – improved chances of influence.

    What do you think?

    Reply
  2. Phil Simon

    Totally agreed, Scott. It’s about access and improving the odds. To some extent, you can be your own PR firm but, as I’ve learned over the years, there are limits to that.

    I channeled my inner Bayes here. I believe that I improve my odds of doing what I want to do with a PR firm. You’re right, though: Nothing is guaranteed.

    Reply
  3. Melinda Thielbar

    Great advice, Phil! My husband is about to publish a fiction book, and I will be sure to pass this along to him. I agree with Scott that it’s hard to tell what matters in PR, and that creates a huge measurement problem. Maybe this is one of these places where intuition works better than data? 🙂

    Reply

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