Becoming known as an expert in your field remains as important as ever for promoting a product or service, but many businesses and professionals want to make sure they achieve their public relations goals without busting the publicity budget.
That outcome-oriented approach is helping fuel a growing trend of pay-for-performance public relations firms that bill only for services successfully rendered, unlike the traditional model in which agencies charge a monthly retainer or hourly fees.
“For any business or individual looking for a PR firm, pay for performance has advantages because there is accountability,” says Marsha Friedman, one of the pioneers of the pay-for-performance model.
She founded EMSI Public Relations in 1990, and today Friedman sees evidence that more clients and PR professionals recognize the value of pay for performance than she saw back then.
“I spent years experimenting with different ways of charging for services to come up with a way that made sense both for the clients and my company,” she says.
Even today, not every pay-for-performance firm bills the same way. For example, some use a tier system to bill clients for coverage in print publications. Charges vary based on whether the client was mentioned in a sentence, a paragraph or was the subject of an entire article.
Some pay-for-performance firms charge based on carrying out specific services, such as a flat fee for writing a press release. But they don’t guarantee the release will result in media exposure.
“If you are hiring a public relations firm, it’s critical to know how the fees are structured, regardless of whether the firm is a traditional agency or pay for performance,” Friedman says.
She offers these additional tips for any business or professional exploring whether to contract with a PR firm:
• Your message and the media. Understand the medium or media the public relations firm specializes in and make sure that medium is a match for your message. Some clients work well in any medium, whether it’s print, radio, TV or social media, Friedman says. But some messages are better suited for print than radio, for example. Sometimes the reverse is true.
• Check the firm’s track record. See what kind of recent coverage the firm has gotten for clients. Also, find out how long it took to get that coverage. Retainer firms have an incentive to take longer, Friedman says, but pay-for-performance firms have a vested interest in getting a placement quickly. “And timing is everything in PR,” she says.
• Publicity is NOT advertising. Advertising is paid for and is intended to lead directly to sales. Public relations is earned news coverage designed to get visibility. “I would argue with any PR firm that tells clients the value of public relations is in sales,” Friedman says. “It’s not.” The value, she says, is the credibility that comes from the media’s implicit endorsement of the client. A journalist or radio talk show host’s decision to interview the client indicates that this is someone whose views have merit. That helps develop a positive, trustworthy image that can be used to attract new customers and facilitate sales. “But if a PR firm tells clients that they can expect a big boost in sales as a direct result of being featured in the media,” Friedman says, “they are setting up the wrong expectations.”