Dorothy Crenshaw September 1, 2011 | 10:01:49

Red Flags: How To Spot The PR Agency You Shouldn’t Hire

Finding the right PR team is a lot like finding a romantic partner. The process is imperfect, sometimes uncomfortable, and it can be frustrating and time-consuming for both parties. Worst of all, there’s no guarantee of a happy-ever-after once you do begin to work together. It’s easy to be dazzled by flash and dash, or baffled by a surfeit of choices.

The pitch  meeting, then, is a little like a first date. Everyone is on their best behavior, so it’s hard to spot the red flags. But, they’re there. Here’s my list of red flags that could signal a bad match between a PR team and a client.

1.  Amazing chemistry. You should feel good about your agency team, but beware the too-dazzling first impression. I have a friend at an agency search firm who warns clients against the “chemistry test.”  What she means is, don’t be seduced by charm. Look for compatibility instead.

2. You’re from different worlds. Let’s say the agency team is ultra-hip, and your brand isn’t. Don’t count on becoming cool by association. It’s more likely that the union will end prematurely. This is where cultural compatibility (which is not to be confused with chemistry) comes in. A fast-moving, high-energy entrepreneur won’t be happy with a large, bureaucratic firm, and chances are, the reverse is true. What bodes well for the future is a comfortable cultural fit.

3. They don’t listen. As with a self-involved first date, it’s a bad sign if the team leaders spend the entire time talking about themselves. There’s a fine line between salesmanship and self-centeredness. Look for a team where each person asks thoughtful questions and actually listens to the answers.

4. You have baggage. What about your ‘dating’ history? Examine your own past with a cold eye, and do the same with the firm you’re considering. Short relationships and high churn are almost always a red flag. If the problems are on your side, consider getting help from a recruitment professional. Like a good therapist, they may see what you can’t. If you want a reputable agency, your own reputation should be impeccable.

5. They’re too good to be true. Don’t just get references from current, happy clients; ask for permission to speak with a client who fired them. You may learn something by how they respond.

6. Your standards are too high. Expectations are the key to most relationships. If your goals are vague, or, worse, wildly unrealistic, look for the agency to adjust them. If they promise impossibly high publicity results, agree to ridiculous goals, or don’t offer any, that’s a bad sign.

7. You can’t commit. Some clients churn through agencies in a continual search for fresh ideas; others are serial daters because they think they’ll keep their team on their toes. If you only want a short-term relationship, say so, and come up with a compensation structure that works for both parties.

8. You’re not a priority. Make sure your budget is adequate to ensure your account will be important to the firm, and ask the front-line team members how many other clients they serve. Agencies can’t be monogamous with their relationships, but they should assure that your account will be a valued one.

9. They’re virgins. Experience really, really counts in PR. Choose a firm with applicable expertise, where the experience resides with the team members, not in a distant office. Most importantly, make sure that one or more senior-level team members will be engaged in your program for the long term.

There. You’ve done all you can to ensure a mutually beneficial and lasting relationship. May your marriage be a long and happy one.

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