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It is up to PROs to educate brands about the value of PR if they are to get the budgets they deserve

Things ain’t what they used to be in media, marketing and PR. Those working in the 1980s and 1990s remember when good work always meant good money. Nowadays, with so much free content available and many media firms struggling to stay afloat, clients are expecting more bang for their buck. That is if they are prepared to part with the cash at all.

PR agencies are having to work harder to justify fees. Richard Houghton, founder of PR agency Carrot Communications, says that when he started in PR in 1987 it was not unusual for monthly fees to run at £3,000, and he is still seeing plenty of new business briefs with fees at the same level. This means considerably less profits for agencies: “Starting salaries in agencies in the late 1980s were around £6,000 to £8,000 a year and now sit at £16,000 to £18,000, while office costs have more than tripled.”

Houghton is not surprised that clients are trying to get PR work as cheaply as possible, and even for free if they can. He says: “Their job is to get the very best value for their company at the lowest price.” However, as with anything, you tend to get what you pay for, and it is up to agencies to offer expert services for a fair price: “I, for one, politely decline when asked to provide work for free, suggest the client accepts any agency who agrees to such terms, and then wait for the call that often comes 12 weeks later once the client realises that agencies that provide services for free do so with junior, inexperienced staff.”

PROs need to educate brand owners about the value of a brand’s reputation to stop clients demanding a great deal of work for little reward. Rick Guttridge, managing director of PR agency Smoking Gun, says "Issues arise when clients want to engage PR services but don't commit the relevant budget to it. At worst they see it as 'free advertising' and believe that minimal investment will lead to maximum results.” This is why PROs must explain to a potential client how PR works, what it can achieve and what it costs. Guttridge says: “If the business doesn't agree, then walking away from the brief is often the best answer.”

Once a client is on board, PROs should not undersell their efforts, for example by agreeing to fixed budgets rather than charging for the work undertaken. Guttridge explains: “The solicitor's chargeable time analogy is often drawn to highlight how PR should position itself as a strategic, professional service and be paid accordingly. It's an industry-wide problem and clearer guidelines on day rates from the CIPR could help."

Not all clients are ignorant of the value of PR, thank goodness. Mandy Hassall, director at PR agency Six Degrees, says she is finding that more and more companies are prioritising PR. She acknowledges that budgets are being squeezed, but believes this encourages agencies to become more creative as well as more accountable. She adds: “We are always looking for more efficient ways of spending budgets, to deliver a measurable return on the investment. In many cases what’s required is simply a return to true public relations, fostering strong, one-to-one relationships with media, bloggers, brand ambassadors and other communities, both on and offline.”

Case Studies

1. Jo Jamieson, director Berkeley PR, describes how her agency was once asked to work for nothing:

“It’s always quite exciting to receive a new brief from a prospective client, especially if you’ve been courting them for weeks/months/years. Sometimes you get them completely out of the blue, and that’s nice too. Until you read the bit at the bottom of the briefing document, in very small letters, that says: ‘It is expected that you will provide an initial trial period of six months’ PR support which would be provided free of charge…’ Yes, really. In what other industry would this be acceptable?

“I remain astounded. At what point did we become a desperate bunch of monkeys prepared to ply our wares for nada in return? And, more to the point, what sort of PR agency would agree to this? Yet, in response to our thanks-but-no-thanks email, we were informed that ‘…we already have such an offer on the table.‘ I can only hazard a guess at the quality of service on offer. What do you get if you don’t even pay peanuts?”

2. However, Craig McGill, managing director of Contently-Managed, gives an example of how some clients mistrust a bargain:

“To try and encourage small businesses in Scotland to get involved with social media, I offered a full-on PR and social media service for £1,000 a month for small businesses. There was not one taker.

“I think it's a catch-22. People think PR is expensive, so if you offer them material for free or inexpensively then they think it is of lesser quality.”

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