In today's competitive business landscape, effective communication and strategic public relations campaigns play a critical role in the success of any company. However, when you're looking for a PR firm, there are several red flags that can signal to a mature PR agency that you are not serious about your search. This can cause the agency to pull out of the bid process and reduce your chances of locking in a firm that's worth its weight in gold.

One thing that causes my firm to stop considering a potential sales lead is when a company requests "conceptualized ideas or an overview of ideas for their specific launch." Why? Well, my firm has been around for 18 years, and our sales antennas immediately go up when we see this.

There are numerous benefits to tapping into the expertise of a PR firm, but there are better approaches than asking them for ideas before retaining them. Here are a few reasons why you should never ask for ideas during the sales process and some suggestions on what you can ask for instead.

1. You could use the ideas yourself or take them to a competitor firm.

The PR landscape is competitive, and if a potential client doesn't select an agency during the sales process, they could take their high-level ideas and have their internal team run them, or even take them to a competitor that did not generate those ideas with their own creativity.

2. Their reputation should precede them.

If you are approaching a PR agency that is well established within the industry, then they will more than likely have accolades such as awards, memberships, valuable networks and more. How can they build your reputation if they don't have an effectively managed reputation of their own?

If their work shows that they are creative mavens, then they shouldn't be giving away ideas free of charge. Why? Well, because those ideas have proven to be award-winning. Would you want your team to give away award-winning ideas for free?

3. Their brain power is valuable.

The cost of a PR agency's brain power is covered by their retainer. This includes the firm's creativity and time they spend sitting with their teams and thinking through a full strategy that can last three, six or even 12 months.

Each idea within a PR campaign should be a perfect puzzle piece that fits into the end goal. This means each idea should be well thought out, run by senior team members, revised and then presented instead of throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks. Before signing a contract, a PR firm should not be expected to put that kind of time in and incur those hourly costs.

A common misconception is that ideas are a dime a dozen. If that were true, would you be searching for someone with the creative mastery to come up with ideas for your company? A firm's energy and brain power should be reserved for their clients.

Here's what you can ask them instead.

1. What are their accolades?

Look at the agency's awards and honors and ask more insightful questions, such as which staff members and publicists worked on the projects that won the awards. This can give you negotiating wiggle room to ensure you have their best and brightest on your project, specifically if the award was won within your industry vertical. Has senior management changed hands since the awards were won?

2. Can they show you case studies?

Reading through case studies should show you a solid creative pattern. Make sure you google their work to see their results for yourself, and then share your findings with your entire team. Case studies can show you whether a firm's employees are out-of-the-box thinkers, whether they piggyback off of other brands, whether they run exceptional campaigns and more. If they cannot provide case studies, that's a major red flag.

3. How long do their clients generally stay with them?

Ask about their client timelines. Hot tip: Google the clients' news during their time together. This will also help you verify the information within the case studies provided.

4. Have they had clients within your industry vertical before?

They may have yet to create case studies for all of their clients, especially if the agency has been around for years. However, they should be able to tell you about some successful campaigns they ran for previous clients similar to your brand. You don't want them to come up with the same ideas; a reputable PR agency would never do that. However, you want a firm that's an expert insider for your industry vertical, as each industry and the media within can all be exceptionally different.

Trusting that a PR agency is qualified before retaining them can be scary—mainly because it is a significant upfront investment. However, the answer to calming your nerves appears right in the industry name. Public relations is a very public business; all agencies' work and wins should be searchable, and their client placements should be visible. This can give you a better idea of their campaign launch processes and their work speed, enabling you to make a much more informed decision and find the PR agency that might be the perfect fit for your brand.

This article was originally published on Forbes by Monique Tatum is President and CEO of BPM-PR Firm. A leading public relations firm known for innovative media messages that move the world. Read Monique Tatum’s full executive profile here.