Does Pay-For-Placement PR Work?

When companies choose a PR firm, the compensation model is usually a factor. Most PR agencies bill on an hourly basis, or in monthly retainer fees. But there’s another way of billing that’s fairly controversial among agency professionals,  — the pay-for-placement method.

Can it work?

We may be biased, because we’ve never worked on a pay-for-publicity basis, but it’s fair to ask if it can be a better model for some clients. So, we talked with someone here who used to work at a pay-for-placement agency and did a little research.

The pros & cons of pay-for-placement PR

Pro: You get what you pay for

When hiring a PR agency, companies often ask, “How do I know you’ll generate results?” And it’s true, when it comes to earned media, PR teams can’t guarantee exactly when the coverage will be generated, nor do we have perfect control over the content. Clients may wonder if their firm is working as hard as they should for the retainer, or billing the right amount of hours. In theory, at least, pay-for-placement eliminates the uncertainty that comes with other billing methods.

Pro: Just gimme publicity

Maybe the model works for a smaller company whose PR needs are limited to earned media. If an early-stage company or startup feels it just doesn’t need a PR agency partner to help develop communication strategy and it has little need for overall reputation management, messaging, thought leadership, media training, or other benefits of a PR services partnership, then a simple pay-to-play publicity package may suffice. But it’s hard for us to imagine how the publicity results can be truly high-quality without a proper strategy, message development, and ongoing agency advice.

Con: Quantity over quality?

You get what you incentivize. So the pay-for-publicity method would seem to emphasize quantity over story quality. X dollars for X media placements sounds equitable, but a given story may have far less actual publicity value than another. Some articles may feature the company or product prominently, while others may only include a mention; articles vary in length and tone; some stories may be highly searchable, while others are behind a paywall. For a B2B tech company, great coverage in a trade publication or a good review by an analyst may yield greater value than a feature in Forbes. The dollar value doesn’t consider any of these factors, and if it does, it’s probably hopelessly complicated.

Con: It discourages fence-swinging by the agency

Generating large, high-impact media coverage in a top-tier business publication or TV news program can take months. An agency that operates on the pay-for-publicity model still has to pay its salaries, so chances are its team won’t invest the time in the big-ticket stories that take time to deliver. And the client may lose out on a typical agency’s value-adds related to media relations and merchandising of earned coverage. A good PR team will seize reactive media pitching opportunities that pop up with breaking news, but they don’t quit when the article goes live. PR pros amplify and leverage any earned media wins to maximize impact. This can be absent in a pay-for-placement relationship.

Con: It’s too transactional

The highly transactional nature of the pay-to-play system can limit the client-agency relationship, and the value both parties derive from it. When a PR team truly knows the client’s brand voice and is immersed in its culture, it can tell its story most effectively. But again, that takes time. PR teams whose financial model encourage them to invest the time in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with clients will offer a deeper level of service than those simply looking to score media placements for fees.

Big con: Pay-for-placement can invite abuse

The pay-to-play mindset may tempt some to cut corners or worse. Just last month, Buzzfeed exposed a  contributor who was taking payments from clients in exchange for linked mentions in his own articles in media outlets like Entrepreneur. PR agencies have also been caught offering journalists kickbacks to publish for their clients —  payola, plain and simple. Because of this, many journalists frown on the PR pay-for-placement compensation practice; TechCrunch announced it wouldn’t work with such agencies.

Done right, the pay-for-placement model can probably work for companies at certain stages of development. But given PR’s relevance to a company’s overall reputation and its role in helping attain business objectives, most can’t afford to neglect a fully realized PR approach, no matter the client-agency billing system. For a deeper dive on various agency billing models, check out this post on how PR agencies budget and bill.

5 Reasons To Fire Your Tech PR Firm

An early-stage company with limited resources expects a good return on investment from any tech PR firm it uses. This is true of any organization, but for a startup, the stakes are a bit higher than for a long-established business. Young companies may not have much experience outsourcing public relations work, and they may not fully realize when they’ve chosen the wrong team to help lead them to greater glory.

Any new agency of record deserves a 90-day trial period. Good PR pros still make mistakes. No PR firm is perfect, but chances are, there’s an agency perfect for you. If a young tech business enters a partnership with the right like-minded agency, then it will be better equipped to compete in a crowded marketplace.
Instead of moving forward wondering if your agency is providing the best possible service, let’s take a look at some of the warning signs that it’s time for a come-to-Jesus meeting.

A great PR team has eyes on the prize

The big picture, that is. If, after placing your story in a key outlet, your agency congratulates itself and moves on, they may be wasting valuable opportunities for building momentum. A good PR agency will have a plan to ride the wave with additional tactics like follow-up interviews, panels, and bylines. They should also offer ideas for merchandising high-value earned media placements. Some teams are good practitioners, but if they execute from week to week without looking at mid and long-range goals, they’re shortchanging the client. A unified PR or communications strategy that is revisited once per quarter will support the strongest outcomes.

If they don’t create, they wait

Your agency should be producing a consistent flow of fresh new ideas. They should call you with new angles for bylines in key outlets. They will skillfully insert you into trending conversations within media and influencers. They should make your brand a fixture in relevant industry conversations with minimal lift on your part. The best PR teams will seek out and build new relationships with influencers, analysts, and media – on your behalf. Rapidly growing businesses usually don’t have the time to come up with all the ideas, or to nag about deadlines. They need a team who waits to be told what to do like they need a third leg. If your agency is just an arms-and-legs team skilled at execution, that’s okay, but it’s not optimal.

Your PR team should bring it — and measure it

A startup or mid-sized tech company should expect specific deliverables and outcomes – and the two aren’t the same thing. Your thought leaders should have at least one published byline each month and meet with industry analysts each quarter if those are key plan elements. In addition to weekly calls, you should receive a monthly results report, with specific industry-relevant KPIs. The PR agency should send over press recaps promptly after a story runs. If the agency is not producing desired results, it should be able to clearly explain and offer solutions to course-correct. They should be accountable and reliable.

They feel the connection

If they don’t “get you,” then they won’t be able to inspire the press and the public. They need to speak the language of your brand fluently. The agency should show genuine passion for your story, and know how best to tell it. This is not to say that they shouldn’t push back or question aspects of the brief, the PR plan, or the messaging. In fact, critical thinking is an important benefit of a PR agency relationship. But the ideal agency team shows an understanding of your ethos and mission. If not, they must be able to get up-to-speed very quickly.
Your agency contacts should feel like seasoned members of your own team. If your PR agency of record behaves like a distant vendor who mechanically does the minimum, it’s time to make them permanently distant.

Never get ghosted

A good technology PR team will respond in short order to any emails or calls. They should be enthusiastic and well prepared for a regular check-in phone call at least once a week. These are communications professionals. They should be aces at proactive communication. You shouldn’t feel like one of many in a long roster of clients. If your agency of record is ghosting you, it’s time to make them disappear.
If your company spots one of these red flags, it need not be fatal. A candid conversation may clear up misconceptions and improve performance. But if your PR firm is dropping the ball on more than one of these issues, a conversation may not be enough. For additional guidelines on what companies should expect from their agencies, see this earlier post.

How To Run A PR Agency Search

Lou Hoffman wrote a great post on the “broken” PR agency review process. Certainly the classic client-agency dating ritual could use improvement. The process rewards many skills, from powerpoint graphics to research capabilities, and not all are equally important to a successful PR relationship. Lou’s post makes the often-overlooked point that an agency’s ability to execute shouldn’t be considered a commodity.

But how is a client to tell? How to go beyond a beauty contest to zero in on the PR team that is truly a match? Most businesses we speak to understand that an agency review is an investment of time and talent, and they’re sophisticated about the process. But even smart clients overlook simple steps in the search.

Let your goals drive the PR search process

Goals should go beyond vague criteria like “increasing visibility” or “enhancing reputation.” A new product launch is often distinct from an international expansion or defensive strategy. The current business environment, competitive climate, financial objectives, and corporate values should inform the PR brief.

Don’t pull an off-the-shelf RFP

A search for a creative services partner isn’t like a procurement bid for raw materials, and a document that reads like a procurement brief will inspire neither creativity nor strategic insights. Many agencies loathe the RFP, but in my opinion, it’s a useful and time-efficient way to ensure a level playing field at the outset. But the document should be brief, concise, and clear.

Narrow the agency field

Consider an RFI (short questionnaire) if there are size, geographic or specialist expertise parameters, and narrow the number of agencies under consideration early in the game. It will save time and anguish on both sides. Getting to know the agency teams is a critical step in a mutually productive outcome, and it’s simply impossible with a field of more than five agencies.

Respect the agency’s IP

Don’t make the agencies give away their best ideas. In my large-agency career spent in consumer PR where we routinely pitched elaborate creative concepts, I was astonished at how seldom the winning idea was actually executed. The creative idea review is more often just an intensely time-consuming chemistry test, but, again, it’s a highly imperfect one.

Get to know the finalists

It’s more time-efficient to get to know fewer agency teams better than to cast the net widely after the initial RFI stage. If you don’t have time for real conversations with prospective partners, you probably don’t have time to manage an agency team.

Allow access to decision-makers

Too often a search is managed by an inexperienced executive who lacks access to the insights that can make the difference between a boilerplate response and one that cuts through the fluff. Better information will naturally lead to more on-target recommendations.

Be transparent

The clearer and more transparent the process is, the more committed the participating agencies will be. And that’s what both parties are after in the long run.

Five Ways To Win The Big Pitch

Guest post by Patricia Gibney

A large, competitive agency search can be time-consuming and crazy-making for everyone. It helps when a search consultant is involved, but that happens less frequently in these days of tight budgets. Often the client is on its own — and frequently in unfamiliar territory. The result:  agency teams don’t have the information they need, clients are overwhelmed, and the pitch is hit-or-miss.

Here are a few tips to tilt the balance in your favor.

Pose thoughtful questions. Always ask for a call with the prospect, and use it as a first step in demonstrating your qualifications. If the prospect can’t speak to you due to time constraints or concerns about a level playing field, ask for a blind call, where all interested firms participate, with no one identified. The prospect may appreciate your desire for quality information and see the benefit.

Be transparent.  Frequently clients want to know where they will fit within your current roster. They’ll ask about billings, size, conflicts, market reach, etc. Don’t hedge. Be up front. In the end, putting your cards on the table may take you out of the game but will demonstrate your ethics – and may buy you another opportunity down the road.

Follow directions. In my years as a search consultant, I was astonished by how many firms colored outside the lines. One well-known advertising personality, famous for his on-camera appearances, made a point to flout every rule we set forth. Needless to say, he didn’t win the business.

Yes, you need to stand out, but you’re better off doing that in other ways. When a potential client requests information in a specific format, asks you to limit the team size, or is strict about internal access, be respectful and follow the rules. If you can’t honor simple requests, what kind of partner will you be when there’s a critical issue at hand? If you really have an issue with the request, call and discuss it. Most people are very understanding when there’s a good reason.

Why you? Many agencies focus so much on the creative presentation that they forget to hone their own elevator pitch. What are the two or three things that will really show why you’re the best choice? Set yourself apart here.

Don’t get hung up on chemistry. Easy to say. Not so easy to do. When creative is on target, you show an understanding of the business, and your qualifications are apparent, then chemistry takes care of itself. Focus on demonstrating why you can do the job better than anyone else. If you do, who wouldn’t want to hire you to do it?

Patricia Gibney is a communications professional and a former advertising and PR search consultant.