Thinking about hiring a public relations firm? Maybe you should check out its reputation with the reporters who cover your industry. "Reporters know better than anyone if we're good at our job," notes Sally Jackson, president of Newton, Jackson & Co., a Boston public relations firm. Reporters, after all, are on the receiving end of a PR agency's letters and calls. They know which firms they pay attention to, and which they ignore. And they generally won't hesitate to tell you if the agency you're considering is one that makes them cringe. If so, ask for the name of a better, more credible publicist.

There's a secondary benefit to calling reporters for references: at the same time, you will be introducing them to your company, which probably won't hurt your future public relations efforts. And you may someday be glad that you have your own direct contacts with the media -- in case your PR firm doesn't work out.