Explaining how agencies charge for media outreach is always an interesting challenge. Most work on retainer (receiving a monthly fee in return for promised services). Some operate on a project basis, or charge an hourly fee. The other day, someone wrote in to Harvard-Startups, a list-serve to which I subscribe, asking if some public relations firms work on a “results” basis–that is, get paid only for coverage they obtain, not just hours.

I was impressed with a response from  Sylvia Scott, who has worked in public relations and is now  Creator & Director of Realizing A Vision Conference, Girl’s CEO Connection. She said it would be fine for me to share it, so here goes:

By “hours” do you mean paid by the hour? Most good ones are not paid on an hourly basis as the norm may be a specific number of hours devoted to you per month and the fee is determined by many variables.

Paid by results –well let’s see-an article in the New York Times may be valued at $10,000 for some companies. For others it may be more- if your PR firm gets you on Larry King vs. say GMA how would you differentiate. I got a client on Fox Morning show in San Diego-now
what would be the difference in fee from San Diego and say Chicago or Dallas? AND if you get editorial in the Tulsa World that is picked up by AP and then the article or or let’s say you get a call to be interviewed by the New York Times how do you pay for that?

Some results may take 3 months and then others 6 months-also, if the pitches are going on and accepted yet there is another scandal in the White House like it happened with Bill Clinton and the scheduled interview or placement is moved or forgotten-which is not the fault of the PR firm-are you going to not pay them for their work?

I know I did not answer you directly-just wanted you to see that “results” may not always be the same and some times one result leads to another even though no extra hours were put into place.

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I  chimed in  that the Public Relations Society of America Code of Ethics frowns on promising results that can’t be guaranteed, so most PR consultants won’t work with clients on a straight contingency basis. Because it can take three-to-six months to build relationships with reporters on clients’ behalf, I prefer to work on retainer. But I have occasionally worked on a project basis–charging a minimum fee to cover time and effort with a bonus for major media “hits”.

Media relations is a tricky business–especially in today’s shifting media landscape. If you’re hiring, I’d advise paying more attention to a PR consultant’s track record than to promises, plan on a six month minimum and, for that period, at least,  keep the faith.

—Anita M. Harris
Anita M. Harris is President of the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, MA.

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