8 signs of a bad PR firm

A majority of PR agencies operate on the up-and-up, but there are a few bad actors out there. Watch out for these red flags.

Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO
 of marketing consulting firm Mavens & Moguls, was burned by a PR practitioner about five years ago. Arnof-Fenn said this person went behind her back to try to steal one of her clients. But the theft plot wound up backfiring: Arnof-Fenn kept the client.

“It was not a misunderstanding or miscommunication. It was a blatant unethical business practice, plain and simple,” Arnof-Fenn said.

Looking back, Arnof-Fenn regrets that she didn’t thoroughly vet the PR person she wound up hiring. For instance, Arnof-Fenn failed to check the person’s references; instead, she relied solely on the person’s word.

“The PR community is 
actually pretty small, and it turns out this person had a trail of lies and
 deception, so if I had done a better job of talking to people who we both 
knew, I could have been warned,” she said.

Certainly, Arnof-Fenn isn’t the only client who’s ever been duped by a PR practitioner or PR firm. But her experience underscores the need to put your trust in upstanding PR professionals. Fortunately, most PR folks are competent and talented. Yet to pretend as if bad apples don’t exist in PR would be shortsighted.

“I have done so much damage
 control with clients when stepping in and cleaning up after a bad PR 
agency has moved on. Not only does bad PR affect clients, it undermines 
the success of the entire profession,” PR consultant Julia Angelen Joy said.

Here are eight signs that you are—or could be—dealing with a bad PR outfit.

1. You’re being kept in the dark.

If a PR firm can’t tell you upfront what you’re paying for, doesn’t give a detailed account of the services it’s providing and doesn’t update you regularly progress being made on your account, then you might want to have a serious conversation with the firm or hunt for another agency.

“If they balk when you ask them to specifically show you what they’ve done as part of their contractual agreement with you, that means that they are likely not giving you the attention you are paying for,” PR consultant Holly Rodriguez said.

2. You’re being promised the moon and the stars.

All too often, PR firms guarantee results that they just can’t deliver, according to Emily Sidley, senior director of publicity at PR firm Three Girls Media. Don’t believe it if you’re told things like “We’ll get you into any 
magazine you want,” or, “You’ll be all over the news.”

3. You’re not getting solid results.

“If you’re not seeing any meaningful traction by the end of 120 days, you’ve likely
 made a bad hire,” said Michael Shepherd, president and CEO of
 The Shepherd Group, a PR and content marketing agency.

4. You’re only being told what you want to hear.

Rather than placating you, a PR firm should be advising you. For instance, a good PR firm will recommend against issuing a news release if it won’t benefit the client, Sidley said. If a PR firm isn’t truly being an adviser, “It might just do what you want without explaining why that might not be a good idea,” she said.

5. You’re a bait-and-switch victim.

In some cases, you may be under the impression that a senior-level executive is working on your account, when it’s actually being managed by a junior employee or even an intern.

“If you start noticing some red flags, I’d recommend voicing your concerns
 right away. If they don’t make the changes you’d like to see within a short
 period of time—maybe two weeks—it’s time to cut the cord,” Sidley said.

6. You’re seeing an over-dependence on social media.

Posts on social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram do not constitute a PR campaign, publicist Alvin Lopez Woods said.

“A true PR agency knows that traditional
 public relations still matter when it comes to shaping influence. If you
want to connect your brand with consumers, be sure to work with an agency 
that knows how to connect with credible media outlets,” Woods said.

7. You’re unsure what’s being measured.

A PR firm should be accountable to you, and that includes providing meaningful statistics that track your account activity. This tracking should go well beyond telling you how many “impressions” a news release received online.

“If they talk a lot 
about what they do and use many buzzwords, without tying them to
 measurable business outcomes, then I would pause before deciding to move
 forward,” Joy said.

8. Your press releases and other materials are poorly written.

“Many agencies write releases full of techno-jargon and larded
 with windy, self-serving quotes from various executives,” PR and marketing professional Henry Stimpson said.

Press releases and other written materials should be checked against the Flesch-Kincaid 
reading scale, he said. If the results show you need a Ph.D. to grasp what’s in writing, then you’re in trouble.

“Job one is to write a compelling, newsworthy, well-focused story that people
 can read easily,” Stimpson said.

John Egan is editor in chief at Austin, Texas-based SpareFoot.

Topics: PR

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