3 Ways to Spot a Fake PR Agency

Has your company hired a fake PR firm? Many companies that label themselves as a PR agency, even some of the high-profile ones, are actually fake. For the US market, I define a fake PR agency as one that does not use real employees to execute client programs. Fake PR agencies hire freelancers.

Unfortunately, this business practice is common in the agency world for two reasons. First, there are low barriers to entry for the freelancer-based business model. Second, a large number of senior PR executives would prefer part-time freelance work to full-time employment.

Why should you be concerned about hiring a fake PR agency? Because agencies built using independent contractors cannot deliver what PR agencies were originally designed to do.

PR agencies, at their finest, deliver a team that collaboratively provides the full scope of strengths and skills required to consistently deliver PR campaigns that are both highly strategic and creative without losing steam at execution. With the freelancer model, you can’t have both. For example, even if your assigned senior PR agency rep is well rounded and has the right relationships, they will have their preferences on what they like to do. As a result, either the big picture strategic creativity or detail-oriented execution will pay a quality price.

For global marketing executives looking to hire US-based agencies, it is important to consider cultural differences in relation to loyalty, and also understand a few fundamentals of US independent contractor law. Independent contractors in London-based agencies are used as a standard practice. Using freelancers tends to works better in European markets due to labor law differences and the loyalty attitudes and expectations of the European freelancer.

A key difference in the US market is that US freelancers need to, based on labor laws regarding independent contractors, have other clients besides the agency they are outsourcing for on behalf of your company. Those other clients, perhaps direct clients, will take priority.

Independent contractors in the US are also required to use their own software and systems in the delivery of services to the agency on behalf of your account. This is not conducive to a systems-based, team-oriented agency infrastructure that can sustain creativity and consistently execute.

In a true PR agency, a team is committed, engaged and loyal on behalf of the agency’s clients, bringing the energy, passion and focus that will drive PR campaign success. Employees of a PR agency know their career is tied to the clients of the agency. The success of those client programs defines their career success.

How do you avoid being burned by an agency that is not selling based on reality? It can be accomplished by evaluating these three factors:

Beware of team spin

You may find yourself mesmerized by a team of senior talent that makes an impressive new business presentation. Remember that those people may be set up to fail in a bad PR agency business model that is not primed to deliver. It may also be possible that the agency has no intention of having those people work on your account with any degree of focus. 

  • Ask each presented team member if they are a “W-2 employee” or an independent contractor.
  • Check their LinkedIn profile to see if they are telling the truth. Unless you have a multimillion-dollar PR budget, it is better to have 3-4 smart, focused professionals on your PR team than a boat-load of people that will never actually pay attention to your account.

Realize “all senior talent” and “distributed team” are red flags

Know the two common ways fake agencies apply PR spin to their agency story. “We offer all senior talent” and “we have a distributed team” are the tell tale signs. You should read these statements as, “we are not investing in full-time employees” and “this agency business model will not provide me the consistency, efficiency and combined team talents that will lead to a long-term client/agency relationship.”

You actually don’t want all senior talent on your account. To be efficient, cost effective and sustainable, you want just the right number of senior people on your account, with junior people doing things that the senior people no longer want, or need, to do. This keeps your senior talent happy long term.

  • Check the agency web site for the “all senior talent” or “distributed” spin.
  • Ask for their office address, and ask if it is a real office that the team works in on a daily basis.

Check if number of agency employees is realistic based on number of current clients

Freelancers listed on an agency web site do not necessarily work that many hours for the agency. Or, the agency may not have tapped their talents for 6 months. Yet the biography remains.

  • Do some math. If an agency with 15 current clients paying $15K retainers and has 50 employees then something is not right. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure they really can’t afford that many senior people as full-time employees with those revenues.

With this empowering information, perhaps you will more easily narrow your PR agency search to a list of valid PR agencies with a solid business foundation.