Yesterday I received a great deal of confusing questions about Publicize, a PR startup for (very) early stage startups by former VentureBeat writer Conrad Egusa, following a writeup about them on TechCrunch.

Not long after, there was an outcry over PressFarm, a site that for $9 a month would let you request and see the email, bio and Twitter handle of "journalists to write about your startup." This led to TechCrunch publicizing their reporters' emails. A few months ago, PressFriendly launched their own quasi-DIY platform for PR.

It's a market created by bad players in an industry charging $5,000 to $25,000 a month for middle to no results for what--in some cases--is sending the same email to 100 people and hoping someone covers it. It's a public relations market that makes total sense but is at present impossible to totally automate, as the core product in all of these cases is media coverage, which is not a process you can casually take part in unless you have something everyone already wants such as Apple's iPhone.

I spoke at length with Egusa--at times critically--to learn more about Publicize. For $500 a month they'll draft a release with you and reporters they know, then pitch it to reporters and hope to score you an "exclusive" (In other words, this one person can write about it.) about your launch, or product. What isn't immediately clear is what happens afterward.  The truth? Egusa has simply found a way to create a bootstrapped PR firm where he has learned a lot about being an actual reporter. (OK, Egusa's title may have been "contributor," but he wrote a great deal for VentureBeat versus a few guest posts here and there.) It wasn't immediately obvious what the follow-on process is post-launch. But at present, Egusa sells Publicize's services at $500 a month, month-to-month.

The truth is, Egusa's model is more toward an actual agency than a PR startup in the realm of PressFriendly. And PressFarm is, essentially, a contact database (and an out-of-date one, too--as proven by their inclusion of reporters that are now no longer reporting, such sa J.J. Colao of Forbes who moved on to make the boutique agency Haymaker).

So you're a new company and you want press. Here are seven things to ask before you make your choice.

1. Why do you want PR? 

Is it for downloads? Direct downloads of your app? Then you may want to use pay-per-install Facebook ads. They'll be more economical and direct than PR. Do you want to make your company look bigger, or show investors you're for real? Then you want people to write about you. Don't just get PR because you think it's the thing to have. Great media can drive traffic. But if traffic is ultimately not guaranteed in even the biggest outlets.

2. No PR startup is truly automated. 

PressFriendly educates you on how to pitch, and who to pitch, and hopefully when to pitch too. Depending on the plan you use, they'll give you direct consultancy with a PR guru of their choice (I am not one of them). You will, in the end, have to pitch. will do most of this for you--but you still have to put in your time and energy into making it the right launch.

3. Does the person or agency get it? And are they the ones you're working with?

You sit down in the boardroom with the potential PR agency. They're very nice-looking. They say cool things--things you want to hear--but do they understand what you're doing? Are they feeding your ego or telling you things that show that they know and love what you're doing? If you ask them more complex questions about the product and the industry, do they answer specifically or generally? If they don't, they're not for you. You want a PR agency that gets you, and your product.

4. If you hire an agency, do they actually get results?

Case studies have become the classic sales tool--a glossy powerpoint saying, "We got these pieces!" The best advice I have is to ask them to show you real links or articles, from the last six months at latest. Get the real links. See if these are the kind of things that you'd want. Furthermore, someone getting press just for a funding announcement (say, an investment of $2.5 million) is easier to get than a feature story. It is quality AND quantity you're searching for.

5. Does this company want YOUR business or just ANY business? 

Ask why they want to work with you. Get a specific answer. And be happy with it. If you walk away not really understanding the answer to why beyond, "we really like money, it's great," or, "your story is important," that's not enough. If they are not excited about talking about you guys beyond the check clearing, that's a poisonous experience waiting to happen.

6. Make sure the team that presents is the team that represents.  

The most common bait-and-switch I've heard of in PR is the very nice sales team you meet and the eventual team you get of younger, lower-level people. If you want to get through this, be blunt: Ask who they are. Ask to speak to them separately. And ask for their results. If you can do this, you can skim out the bad players, but also potentially hire the best team in the world. Be picky. It's your money.

7. If you don't have the time to spend, don't do it alone. 

Initially it seems like a great idea to do your own PR. For the launch it may even make sense: Just get the word out and hope for the best. In the end, you should at least get some help, even if it's from a simple DIY company to help knock out some dents.

Overall PR can cost you a great deal of money and completely change your business for the better. It can also burn a thousand-to-a hundred thousand dollar hole in your pocket.