Publicists come in all shapes, colors and sizes, so they certainly can't be put into any one category. Some are good, some are not, some are honest, and some are certainly not. The best thing you can do is have a conversation with a publicist, and if you feel like you can carry on with him/her, conversing about more than just the project at hand, that is a very good sign. You will be (or should be) talking to this person a lot; it is important that you feel comfortable with each other.
Beyond the casual conversation, however, here are some important questions to ask in order to understand more about a potential publicist and what he/she can offer:
1. What am I paying for when I hire a publicist?
Some people are under the impression that when they hire a PR professional, they’re hiring someone to get them on Oprah. While that’s the type of end result you’re striving for, it’s not really what you are PAYING for.
Instead, you’re paying for the PR professional’s time and expertise—including writing, interpersonal skills, industry knowledge, media awareness—and of course, the famous “Rolodex.” It’s the combination of these elements that gets you to the end-goal of quantity and quality media bookings.
2. How do I screen a publicity expert?
To screen for basic PR skills, you need to judge their writing, their interpersonal skills and organization by examining a number of different criteria.
Do you have a rapport with this PR professional? Is it easy, natural to carry on a conversation with this person?
Do they get your message? Can they communicate that message? Do they have the capacity to get the information out in a timely fashion? It should be a given, but that isn’t always the case.What type of basic industry knowledge do they have? For example, your PR professional should know that the book distributor needs to be informed of all media efforts so that they can keep the booksellers informed (i.e. Keep books on the shelves!).
What kind of contacts do they have in the media? Yes, you want the person you hire to have a great “Rolodex.” While a PR professional absolutely cannot jeopardize media relationships by sharing media contact information, they should be willing to give you a sense of the media outlets they are/intending to pitch.
How does the media perceive the PR professional? The fact is, you are only as well received as the PR person that represents you. Find out if they have testimonials from media contacts. Are there any contacts that repeatedly book clients for this PR professional?
What is their general media awareness? Your PR person should be watching TV, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers and periodicals. You can pointedly ask during the midst of interviewing a PR professional, but oftentimes you will get a sense of this during general conversation.
3. How can I measure the success of my publicist?
Quantity of bookings is not an accurate gauge to assess the campaign. Many factors affect the media’s choices—from breaking world news to the fact that executive producer’s brother is also an expert in your area and she chooses him as an on-air expert instead.
Having said that, how can you measure progress/success over time? The first item of business would be to work with your publicist to set up a timeline of goals: Getting material to the media, follow-up, pitch assessments, bookings, etc.
In 60 days, your PR person should have mailed out to media contacts. He or she should also have completed several rounds of pitch calls and have concrete feedback for you based on those calls. Ideally, that feedback should be in the way of a confirmed media appearance or two or more.
4. How can I make the most efficient use of my publicist’s time?
Do you want to pay this person to speak with you, or with the media? The more time the PR professional spends speaking with you, the less time he/she is spending pitching the media. You may think that several 10-minute calls throughout the day aren’t such a big deal. But multiply that number by the entire roster of clients each day and it adds up.
I recommend scheduling a weekly or bi-weekly half-hour call to make most the effective, focused use of the time. During this call you can address new and ongoing business issues. A regular time will also ensure that your PR professional has time to gather all pertinent information and prepare for the call. Playing phone tag serves no one. Outside of that weekly call, I recommend using e-mail whenever possible. Barring interview confirmations, urgent travel arrangements or a crisis situation, few questions/issues cannot be addressed via e-mail.
(I came across this list of questions somewhere many years ago and have modified it since it's original version. If anyone knows the original author, please let me know!)