Pay-for-play PR, or “PR by the pound” is topical again. For years, it’s been on the radar as an alternative to the traditional way of billing among PR agencies, which is a monthly retainer representing either actual or estimated time spent to reach client goals. But though such pay-per-publicity-placement work has its place among start-ups or financially strapped clients, it’s never been more than a niche thing, and it carries a vague ethical taint.
This week, a firm called PRServe was part of a story linked to its performance-based billing model. PRServe openly charges clients a set fee of $750 for posts in an “A-level blog like TechCrunch” and $400 for “lesser” blog placements.
When TechCrunch editor Alexis Tsotsis heard about PRServe’s billing methods, she made her repugnance clear in an indignant post blasting the PRServe model and vowing to block its client pitches in the future. In her words, “there’s something smarmy about putting an a la carte price tag on an individual article like this, even if it’s a relatively inexpensive $750.”
I admit to feeling a “Go, girl!” kind of thrill on reading Tsotsis’s post. Most PR firms view pay-for-play as questionable and, yes, kind of smarmy. Yet PRServe founder Chris Barrett makes an articulate case for his so-called performance pricing. Instead of charging clients hefty retainers, he maintains, his firm only charges for secured placements. And it does so openly and honestly. How is that less ethical, he asks, than charging retainers for less-than-certain results?
It’s a legitimate question. The first and most obvious objection is that pay-per-play reduces PR to publicity, arguably its lowest common denominator. This means a devaluation of services like planning, media strategy, and messaging.
It’s also a woefully short-term approach to PR and reputation. Most of us like to take the long view, seeing our role as involving big-picture reputation management.
Then there are practical considerations. What if a top-tier blog post results, but the content is unfavorable, or mixed, about the client? What about clients who need quality over quantity when it comes to publicity results? How does a firm adjust its pricing to meet client goals, while accommodating wildly variable situations and expectations? All publicity results simply aren’t created equal.
And for that matter, how does the agency pay its staff when actual publicity results take two or three months to germinate? True performance pricing requires the commitment of many like-minded clients.
Finally, the pay-for-placement model is a slippery slope. When PR outcomes can be priced and marked like supermarket items, and when that result depends upon persuasion of a journalist or blogger, it’s all too easy to see how it could verge into bribes or kickbacks. Admittedly, there are scores of incentives that PR pros offer to media, from event swag bags, to fam trips, to meals and entertainment. But with a cash price per post, a line has been crossed.
Make no mistake, there’s much to be said for tying agency compensation to performance. In fact, the greatest advantage may be that it forces both agency and client to agree on results. But when results are defined so narrowly, and by sheer quantity over quality, it can’t be good for our business.