"I'm just following up to make sure you got my email about the new physical therapy center opening up in Hoboken." It was a follow up email from a PR person who was insisting that I write about his client's company.  

I hit the block button so any future attempts to "circle back" would go straight to my spam folder. I write primarily about mental strength, not physical therapy center openings in other states. 

I receive dozens of generic press releases that are unrelated to anything I write about every week. And I always imagine who the person is who hired a PR company to do this for them. 

When journalists, bloggers, and writers receive poorly written pitches and generic press releases, it makes the person they represent look bad--not to mention wastes their money.

That's not to say you shouldn't hire a PR person to help you get mentioned in the media. It's a noisy, crowded world. It's hard to get your business, products, or services mentioned in the media, especially in mainstream outlets.

But, you should do your homework first to make sure that your efforts are going to be fruitful. Here are three questions to ask any PR firm before you hand over your money.

1. How will you reach out to the media?

Ask for specific plans on how a PR company will pitch you. If they say, "We're going to get you on all the national morning shows," or "We'll get the New York Times to write a story about you," they're lying. They can't control which outlets show an interest in you.

But, they can control how they approach the media. Are they simply going to send out a press release to thousands of email addresses? Or are they going to work with you to craft specific pitches for various media outlets?

If they're reaching out to a business podcast, they'll need a different story than if they're reaching out to a women's magazine. So while a business podcast may want to talk about how many hours you put into your business or how you're raising money, a women's magazine may want to know about your product or how your services are helping others.

A good PR company will tailor how they pitch you and who they pitch you to. They should be able to explain how they're going to customize their pitches and leverage their media contacts for you.

2. What makes you want to work with me?

It's important to find a PR person who believes in what you're doing. If the person has never read your book or has never tried your product, how are they going to convince someone else that you're worthy of a story?

Pick a PR person who is willing to take the time to get to know you and the products or services you're offering.

If someone really understands what you're offering, they can help you create news-worthy pitches that appeal to the media. And they'll be able to time their pitches just perfectly. 

A media outlet is going to be much more interested in talking to you about your organic pet food products after a major dog food recall or a newspaper may want to hear about your identity theft protection software when there's a major security breach.

But in order to pitch you to the right people at the right time, a PR person really has to understand how you can add value to someone's column, story, or show.

3. What can you do for me that I can't do myself?

A PR person might insist you need them because they have the contact information for media publications. But in today's world, you can find the email addresses for news producers, columnists, and editors with very little effort.

Sure, it'd take some time on your part to find the contact information, but you could hire a freelance assistant for much less than you'd pay for a PR company. 

A PR company may also say they have relationships with the media and that may be true. But keep in mind, the same magazine who published a story about someone else's children's book might not be interested in hearing about your soap company.

A good PR person will know how to reach your target audience and they'll have strategies that require more than a mass email to a generic list of contacts.

They should be able to tailor their approach to your needs as well. If your goal is to attract customers, a national media mention about your physical therapy company may be far less impactful than a well-written story in your local paper. 

Do Your Homework Before You Hand Over Any Money

Media mentions can help you build credibility and gain sales. But, hiring a PR firm can also cost you a lot of money.

Before you pay anyone to be your PR person, ask questions to ensure your money isn't going to be wasted. Find someone who will uphold your image and work hard to help you attract positive attention.

You also might try your hand at being your own PR person. Offer to create guest posts for reputable websites, reach out podcasters in your industry and offer to be a guest, or develop relationships with journalists who may be looking to interview experts in your field.

Published on: Aug 29, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.