Should you pay for media placements?

I am often asked by contacts and colleagues to create and implement effective public relations campaigns.

One time I was asked by a friend to provide PR for his highly innovative product. I was thrilled with the idea of working with him again because he is super smart and the product was original, relevant and he had a good story – the perfect recipe for good PR. The ideas were churning, as we chatted back and forth, we came to the part of the conversation where we needed to discuss compensation.

I have blocked out the details, but it went something like this: He would pay me a percentage of sales generated by any media coverage garnered or just per article. This is what is known in the Public Relations industry as PPP or Pay-Per-Placement. I had to pass, because, having worked in PR for so very long, I know that my skills, knowledge, time, and expertise are worth compensation, even before I earn my first piece of coverage. He didn’t see it that way. (But of course, he was lovely about it and I still dig you dude, just in case you’re reading this.)

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Z group PR should you pay for media placementsCoincidentally, this issue had already been bothering me because I am often asked to provide public relations services for free. And not from non-profits looking for volunteers. I am also having to defend my fees to potential clients (which, actually, I don’t…I give them the fees and we possibly negotiate and either I get paid or we don’t work together.) But it is an issue that I have seen consistently throughout my career; the idea that PR is FREE and therefore the person who makes it happen 40, 50, 60 hours per week will do it for free. To compound the issue, most of the people who are asking me to do this work have zero marketing budget or marketing experience, but still expect to successfully promote their company or product.

Now, with social media, people really think it’s free. Yes, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts are free – but that is not a PR campaign. It’s barely a tactic and not even close to a comprehensive strategy. The whole idea of real companies being launched with zero marketing budget is an issue that intrigues and irritates me so incredibly, I was forced to do what I often do in these situations: I did one of my not-so-famous totally non-scientific online polls to see how other PR professional felt about the matter.

No sooner than I typed my query, the emails, notes, and posts began flying! My PR friends were so fired up about this issue that I just knew I had to share some comments with you.

Reasons we do not do Pay-for-Play in PR:

Question: Just got another request to do PR on a pay-for-placement basis…had to pass. In this economy, as a PR pro, are you going PPP, lowering fees, changing fee structures, or doing what you always did? Please share!

Sample of responses (some edited for clarity):

  • Good for you for taking a pass. No matter how good you are, you can’t guarantee placements and it is outrageous for a “client” to want to pay you that way.

  • It’s a violation of the PRSA Code if you happen to be a PRSA member.

  • Whenever this comes up, I counter that my time is worth something and that PR work can not guarantee desired results, unlike advertising.

  • Counter pay-for-placement suggestions with a different model: A base fee (either a fixed fee or monthly retainer) combined with a “success fee” that’s paid out only if they meet one or more measurable business objectives tied to the communications effort.

  • The other factor about PR not being advertising is that, sometimes, while you don’t get immediate results, you do establish a genuine relationship with the media that could eventually bear fruit. Sometimes, too, a journalist may like your idea, but can’t follow through on it right away. How would you charge such an intangible? Finally, in today’s internet-driven world, your press release gets a lot more visibility independent of editorial placements that could drive business.

  • I think PPP is a bad idea, not because it transfers risk to the practitioner, but because it belittles the role PR should be playing in business. It puts PR practitioners into the “media relations” box, which we have outgrown considerably. I think it’s a sign of a client who is not really going to value the practitioner’s services, skills, and expertise. A potential client asking for PPP sets off lots of red flags to me.

  • When a potential client asks for a PPP payment arrangement, run the other way. You’re dealing with a naive client. Plus, as others have stated, PPP is a violation of PRSA standard of ethics. Besides, any PR consultant worth their salt knows that PPP is wrong. Tell the prospect to “GO BUY AN AD.”

  • Publicists, media strategists, and others in the field should know a good story when they see one. If the client has a legitimate story or message, with tenacity and pitching talent, you’ll get the placements.

  • Analogy: If you need a medical procedure, do you think a surgeon would accept a Pay for Success arrangement? Not all surgeries are successful! Just as there are no guarantees in medicine, and there are no guarantees in media relations/publicity placements.

  • Public Relations is a fee for service business. Any client who pays on spec or for placements will go to the bottom of the workload pile. Why should you spend a minute on someone who “might” pay you, when you have three clients who trust you, like you and pay you at the beginning of every month.

  • How the heck do you price a story that goes viral? Ludicrous.

  • As far as PFP, I would never consider working ‘on spec.’ Obviously, the client doesn’t think they should pay for anyone’s time. And again, stories pitched now are seeds being planted for future stories. If and when a story generates, will that client be willing to pay for it or will they say it “happened on its own”?

  • You draft and pitch a story that either runs later on or gets used, but your clip service misses it. You did the work, you got the story placed, but you didn’t get the credit. Yikes!

  • To be paid only upon placement undercuts every reason to go into this business. When I was on the client-side, I would never hire anyone who could guarantee me placement, because it simply can’t be done. Ideally, it should, however, spark another conversation: why does the client desire media attention? What do they want to accomplish? Once you understand that, you may realize that media placement isn’t the right tool for them. I’ve had experiences where that’s been the case and have ended up with longer-term, much more lucrative contracts because I’m able to link communications efforts to their business goals.

  • I think you were smart to stick to your guns regarding compensation. Doing something for nothing will give you some nice pieces to show off to other clients but does not pay the bills. I would ask this firm, do they pay for their legal and accounting services the same way they wanted to pay you.

And my favorite comment:

  • It’s obviously a prospect that doesn’t understand our business. I don’t understand law or accountancy either, but I expect to pay for expert advice from those who do.

I agree with all of the above. Now that we have heard what the PR pros think, I would love to hear from clients/end users. What makes the fee for professional services format such an issue? When I visit the doctor, he doesn’t guarantee that I will be cured, but I certainly have to pay for his time and effort…same thing with accountants, engineers, architects, interior decorators, and therapists.

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