At one time or another you've probably heard someone say, "All publicity is good publicity!"
The old phrase is usually used to comfort someone after, say, a nasty review in the trades. The thought behind it is, "Hey, at least people are looking at you!" Well, those optimistic folks get good karma points for positivity and kindness, but sadly, what they are saying is not entirely true. Good publicity is the only good publicity.
Not to say you should get freaked out over one bad review. Big deal. It probably won't hurt you. But that being said, it won't help you either--so calling it "good" is a stretch. And bad publicity is, well, bad. For example, if your company is outed in The New York Times for selling tainted products? That's bad publicity. A big company might be able to bounce back from something like that if it has die-hard fans. A new small business? Not so much.
That is an extreme example of bad publicity that will almost certainly never happen to you (thank goodness). So let's talk about mediocre publicity, which is a problem many small businesses face.
It is common for new entrepreneurs to want to blow their entire marketing budget on publicity. They are sure that even one mention in the news and they will be flooded with sales, which will take care of all their other marketing concerns.
Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Marketing is a great deal more strategic than that; in order to be effective, PR typically has to be balanced with other marketing efforts including SEO, digital ads, social media, and special events. If you want your brand to stick in people's brains, they need to continuously see it and recognize it in multiple places. Sure, PR is a part of that--but it can't be the only part of that.
Publicity is certainly valuable, but you have to find the right firm or in-house employee who shares your vision. Because public relations firms are continually inundated with new products, some of them (by no means all) start to lack vision. The bad ones are only concerned with getting you some press--any press--to fulfill their monthly retainer. So they go on their reporter database, generate a list of writers who cover your genre, and paper them with a couple pitches to see which one hits.
You might get some publicity out of it, but it is not strategic--so it won't really equate to traffic to your site. Again, this is not good publicity. It's not even really mediocre publicity--given the fact that you're probably out thousands of dollars with nothing to show for it. We could safely label this bad publicity.
How to Avoid Mediocre/Bad Publicity
As you are interviewing publicists, make sure they are interviewing you! In order for them to be strategic, they need to know the ins and outs of your business model so they can properly grow your reputation in key markets.
For example, you might offer "business solutions," which is very general. A good publicist will ask what specific industries you cater to and what you do for each one of them. That might be five different strategies right there! If providing business solutions to the hospitality industry is your bread and butter, your firm will want to target hotel magazines, travel bloggers, social media influencers, etc. Many great contacts will not be on the publicist's generated lists because they are industry-specific. Your publicist needs to think about these things and not take the easy way out. Ask as many questions as you need to in order to fully understand that publicist's strategic capabilities. Your message must be audience specific if you want to see a return.
Look, it's 2014--the age of YouTube. Anyone can be seen. It's less about you being seen and more about how you're being seen. Make sure it's the right way!