The one thing that everybody agrees on in the music industry is that there is no ONE publicity person who is good at everything.
A lot of established PR people only have relationships in the dying world of old school media where journalists are losing their jobs and print space is declining every day. Some PR folks have terrific relationships with media but can't write a proper press release to save their life. Some are fantastic at expanding your footprint on social media platforms but can't translate that story to TV, Radio and Print. Some are really believers and passionate about their clients but simply don't have the skills to find them coverage.
ALL of these PR may have a place in your journey. It's all about defining what your current goals are and hiring the PR person who can help you reach them at this time.
Where should you be spending your marketing dollars then? At the beginning of your career the smart money will be spent on the online content (pics, video's etc) that keep a growing audience engaged while YOU handle the day to day posting on your social media platforms. (When we pay marketing people to do our daily posts it usually means we sacrifice developing our own unique voice and our brand online and that can hurt us in the long run.) When you have a BIG event like a CD launch or a batch of tour dates then it makes sense to contract the services of a PR person who can take your online story and focus old school media on what you are doing. (Beware of ongoing PR contracts without an end date, that is usually of more benefit to the PR person or firm than to the artist or act.)
Our job as the artists hiring a PR person is to have a clear understanding of what our current needs are. If we are a local act then we want a PR person who can excite local media to get turned on and become champions of what we do. If we are looking to break nationally then we want a PR person who has the national contacts and relationships. When meeting and interviewing possible PR folks that we are thinking about working with we want to be asking them a lot of questions such as what acts have you enjoyed working with etc. Get THEM talking about their world and listen carefully for what they tell you about their successes. An honest approach is always best, if you have concerns bring them up and see how the PR person reacts. If they admit their strengths and weaknesses you are in a good position to move forward knowing what area both of you are expecting to focus on!
Almost all PR people will warn their clients up front that hiring their services is no guarantee of coverage. Most clients will hear this as fair warning. BUT watch closely because any PR person worth the money will have trusted and true media relationships that should result in immediate coverage, (if only to impress the new client!) If you don't get any coverage in the first round thats a sign that the relationship isn't going to work. I recommend moving on quickly with a simple polite conversation about it. (Keep in mind that the pool of resources in this industry is small and you may well be in a position to need that PR person again in the future, so no name calling and no sour grapes. It wasn't a good fit, simply move on!)
When are you ready to start paying a PR person? As soon as you have more than a few shows in one market your marketing could probably benefit from the assistance of a publicity person who knows local media and can help position your story for coverage. But this is assuming that you have already become adept at audience building through social media. Thats how you build your brand in the marketplace NOT by spending money on a PR person. The PR person you hire is there to translate an already existing story to the TV, Radio and Print mediums. The 1st key to building your success is always going to be how you focus your brand on the various social media platforms that best target your demographic…