Beware the Bad Publicist

Beware the Bad Publicist

Thinking about hiring someone to promote your business? Not all publicists are created equal. Here are some signs of a bad one.

By Melanie Rembrandt

As a small business owner, one of the most cost-effective ways to increase awareness of your brand is leveraging the power of the press. Pitching your story to media members doesn’t cost money – just a lot of time and effort. Because of this, many entrepreneurs turn to public relations specialists to help them reach their media goals. But before you spend too much money on a person who gets you too little results, do your homework.

In addition to reviewing credentials and references, looking out for these five key warning signs as you shop around can save you lots of time and money:

1. Slick sales jargon with little proof. Publicists are good communicators, so be wary of smooth talkers who make big, enticing promises and pump up your ego. Ask for references and client testimonials. Ask to see clips showing what publications have covered their previous clients. And if they can’t provide this information, it’s best to walk away – fast.

“It may seem simple: Just sign with a big publicity agency and wait for the media to start calling you,” says Terri Stone, editor in chief of, an informational site for creative professionals. “But it’s not that easy.” She recommends business owners spend the extra time to find a publicist suited to their budget and needs. “In the long run, you’ll see better results and save money.”

2. Bait and switch. It may be very exciting to sign with a big, well-known PR agency, but be aware of some potential drawbacks. If you have a small budget, you may not receive the attention you deserve, as clients with deeper pockets are more likely to get the bulk of their time and energy. 

In fact, your business may be given to the inexperienced new hire. If this is the case, you’ll be paying big bucks for top publicists who never work on your account. Find out in the beginning who will be writing your press releases and following up with the media on your behalf.

“Choosing to go with a small agency can be a great option,” says Jill Exler, founder of Jexbo. “There is the personal relationship you can build with the people you’re working with, rather than be a part of a department in a bigger firm. And both you and the agency benefit when you do well, so they’re more motivated to help you succeed.”

3. Bad reviews. Is the agency or consultant you are considering listed with the Better Business Bureau, local area chamber of commerce, the Public Relations Society of America or other key organizations? Look for reviews online and see what others are saying.

You can find some great “hidden” tidbits about a business by spending a little time digging around on the Internet. For example, a new agency might sound fantastic, but if you look on the Better Business Bureau’s website, you may discover a completely different story. This trusted organization posts unbiased, researched information about companies nationwide, so if you find a potential candidate has a poor rating or numerous complaints here, you’ll instantly know to take your business elsewhere.

4. Guaranteed placements. Due to the nature of PR, it is impossible to guarantee media placements. In fact, just because you’ve given an interview with a journalist doesn’t mean you can count on the coverage. Until the issue goes to print, nothing is set in stone. Last-minute news can bump the story; an editor may cut the part of the article where you’re quoted; and many other situations out of your control can cancel a media “hit.”

Because of this, be wary of anyone who promises big media placements. Instead, look for an individual with a good work ethic who has provided proven results for previous clients. A successful publicist works continuously to obtain media coverage, so if one story falls through, she’s already working on lining up the next opportunity.

5. Hidden fees. Ask potential publicists for all fees up front – and if there are additional costs for copying, phone calls, mailings, press release distribution or other administrative duties. Once you get a written contract, review it carefully for additional verbiage not discussed previously. Confirm all of the fees and services you will receive before signing.

6. Personality differences. When hiring a publicist, it’s important to know each other’s expectations and work toward the same goal. Try to look for someone you feel comfortable with who can act as an extension of your team.

“It’s fine to establish a very personal rapport with your publicist, which can help them understand important subtleties about what you’re publicizing, but that shouldn’t replace a businesslike relationship,” says Rich Sloan, founder of “You have to establish your standards and expectations with any outsourced resource, publicists included. If the publicist knows you’re serious and intense, it’s going to raise the bar in terms of their effort and, hopefully, results.”

Hiring a publicist may be the best decision you can make to bring in new customers and grow quickly. But if you don’t take the time to find the right person for the job, you can end up losing valuable resources and gaining undue stress.

Questions to Ask a Potential Publicist

• Whom will I be working with, and what is that person’s experience?
• Will more than one person at your organization be helping me, or will I have one central contact person?
• How can you help my small business reach specific goals?
• How long will it take to see results?
• What services are included in your fees?
• What products and/or services cost extra?
• How does your contract and payment schedule work?
• Is there a way to have a trial period before making an actual commitment?
• What happens if I am not satisfied with your work?
• Do you have some references I can contact?
• Why should I use you for my public relations needs instead of another organization?

Melanie Rembrandt is an experienced publicist and author of 7 Simple Steps to Startup PR Success. She helps entrepreneurs increase awareness and sales via her business, Rembrandt Communications®, free newsletter and blog.

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