A couple of weeks ago I had a really straightforward, but smart question from someone looking to hire a PR firm. He asked, “What should I watch out for when interviewing PR firms?” I thought it was a great question to ask and I find it a little puzzling that I don’t hear it more often when meeting with prospective clients.

There have been several helpful blog posts and articles written to address this question. I particularly liked this Huffington Post contributed column by PivotDesk CEO David Mandell: Five Things Every Startup CEO Should Know About Hiring a PR Firm. He offers insightful questions and tips to start-ups looking to bring on an agency and I would recommend using them.

Having spent more than 11 years in PR and communications, I have been exposed to many different approaches to selling a firm’s services. And while I can attest that most people in my industry are honest and conduct themselves with integrity, I have come across some pretty slick conference room sales tactics. Here are a few to watch out for:

“Our relationship with <insert top journalist> will land you this feature story in <insert top outlet>”

Name-dropping can be a powerful tool of persuasion in the midst of an agency pitch. I’ve been amazed to hear firms who promise big spreads in outlets like The Wall Street Journal within the first month or two of representation based on their “relationships” with certain editors. When you hear this, keep in mind reporters know a lot of PR people. Whether reporters like a PR representative or not, they are not going to write a story unless it is relevant and interesting to his or her readers. Moreover, the big names in journalism may not be the best route to success. Reporters or bloggers that cover a certain niche could be your company’s best option.

Our firm has had lots of success landing high profile coverage in top national outlets, and while our relationships do help open doors, ultimately it is the story we pitch versus our relationship that secures the story. Sometimes these stories come together in a matter of days, but many take months as we build our clients’ credibility with the reporters who have the biggest impact on our target audiences.

“We know social and digital”

There are so many self-proclaimed social media gurus and digital experts. Beware of claims of overnight transformations of your brand through social and digital channels. Does the firm understand how to strategically integrate a social campaign into a broader PR/MarCom strategy? How active and successful is the firm on their own social digital channels? Does the firm have a strategic basis for why social media is the right strategy for your business? Ask yourself these questions before becoming wooed by claims of mastery.

Bait and Switch

As Mandell alludes to in his blog, many firms don’t show up to your meeting with the account team that will actually work on your business. They often bring their best and brightest to the pitch and imply that this is the talent that will be working for you (this tends to happen more frequently with larger firms). Only later do you learn that junior staff with limited experience is handling your account without the strategic insight needed to give your company the best possible results. Make sure to ask who will actually be working on your account team before you hire a firm.

“Your brand or product is terrific”

One of the most important aspects of public relations is managing clients’ expectations. Not all companies, products, or services are newsworthy. Some may only appeal to specific markets while others are trying to be heard in an over-saturated news environment. Look for an agency that is willing to be blunt and provides a frank assessment. This shows integrity and the capacity to be a strategic advisor rather than a client-pleaser who later fails to live up to the flattery.

Whether you are a CEO, VP of Corporate Strategy or a Marketing Communications Director, you need to be aware of these tactics when evaluating an agency. Most firms can talk a good game. You just want to be sure their game is based on truth and integrity, rather than the smoke and mirrors of a sales pitch.