3 Benefits of PR Retainers

3Over the years, I’ve fielded a number of questions about how PR retainer structures work.  

Operating under a retainer agreement, clients essentially agree in advance to buy/pay for a specific amount of time in professional PR services over the life of a project. Just as importantly, your PR firm reserves-and protects-that time for you and your work.

Here’s why PR retainers are a smart choice:

1.  Flexibility in the resources invested on your behalf

For example, at the onset of your PR campaign, your PR team will likely invest extra time in getting to know you, your product, your industry landscape, your competition, etc. At other times, the team will invest less time-ultimately achieving a balance at the end of the project.

2.  Budget control

In other words, clients know exactly how much they will invest each month in public relations; there are no variables as there are with an hourly agreement.

3.  Sometimes, a reduced hourly “rate”

Retainer agreements allow adequate long-term and short-term planning to accomplish specific goals. Your work can be more easily balanced with resources allocated to other clients.

How PR Firms Measure and Manage Retainer Accounts

time watchHow retainer budgets are measured and managed is sometimes a hot-button topic with PR practitioners, especially when the conversation focuses on sharing details with the clients. More specifically, whether to share billable rates with clients.

PR companies large and small have finite resources (time and man hours) that can be invested into any client account. This is measured in billable hours. While most PR firms don’t proactively offer hourly equivalents in the retainer proposal, all retainer work is measured and/or managed by tracking billable hours.

In estimating time and calculating retainer value, PR firms use an average billable rate. This is different for every firm, but it includes the varying billable rate of each member of the PR team-senior leaders (billed at the highest hourly rate) to entry-level and admin contributors (billed at the lowest hourly rate).

There is a direct correlation between the billable hourly rate and amount of time a PR firm will invest in your project. Let’s examine two 12-month retainer proposals based on dollar value only:  Firm #1 – $5,000/month   Firm #2 – $4,000/month

Assuming that the two PR firms and their proposals are equal in strategies, tactics and expertise it appears that the proposal from Firm #2 is a better value. However, if we consider the average hourly rate as part of the evaluation, we can see a significant difference:

  • Firm #1: $5,000/ month ÷ $75/hour = 67 hours invested on your behalf each month (on average)
  • Firm #2: $4,000/month ÷ $165/hour = 25 hours invested on your behalf each month (on average)

Over the life of a 12-month retainer, the difference looks like this:

  • Firm #1: The client will invest a total of $60,000 for 800 hours of PR work
  • Firm #2: The client will invest a total of $48,000 for 290 hours of PR work

Smaller accounts, to ensure profitability, are often managed by team members who bill at a lower rate but are less experienced. Larger accounts garner the attention of senior-level practitioners who bill at a higher rate.

While one should never select a PR firm based on cost alone, the ACTUAL cost should be part of the larger evaluation. This can be accomplished by asking three simple questions:

  1. What is your average hourly rate?
  2. How do you calculate how much time and effort will be allocated to my account?
  3. Who will be serving on my account and what are their billable rates?

7 Things PR Firms Value in their Clients

7At a PR conference, I listened as other PR professionals bemoaned their experiences with “bad clients.”  Some were horrendous—egregious breaches of integrity, ethics and finances.  Truthfully, it’s probably easy for a client to know they’ve landed on the “naughty list” when they’ve intentionally lied, been rude or not paid their PR providers.

But the heft of the conversation centered around situations where clients probably didn’t even know that their behavior was damaging to the “marriage.”  Like the client who finally responded to requests for feedback on website content only after five emails and three voice messages…and no, he was not on vacation!

PR professionals can look at a lot of project issues—tight timelines, squeaky budgets, soft deliverables and more—as fun challenges.  But we all fear the bad client!

Clients pay good money and, in return, should receive great service—no doubt about it!  On the other side of the pendulum swing, PR practitioners, who invest their most precious commodities—time and thinking—into their work, should be able to expect clients/client contacts to:

1.  Provide timely feedback and approvals

Projects are always scoped and managed to meet clients’ mission-critical deadlines.  At any firm, finite resources are allocated to multiple clients. Delays in feedback and approvals not only put kinks in your project and timeline, they have the potential to impact work being done for other clients.

2. Be fully engaged

Once an idea, message, strategy or tactic is approved, your PR team will run with it.  Clients who are not fully engaged WILL 1) give approvals and then 2) change their minds or make costly, last-minute changes that can derail timelines and budgets.

3. Represent themselves, their companies and their initiatives wholly and truthfully

Misrepresentation of the truth or half-truths waste time and budget.  Remember, your PR team is on your side rooting for you, there should be no reason to “test” this.  If you have a need to withhold information or test your PR team, you need to rethink the relationship altogether.

4.  Ensure that the day-to-day contact is a bona-fide decision maker

Because clients are in control of what their PR firm does on their behalf, it is imperative that our day-to-day client contact has the authority to make decisions for their organization.  Working through an administrative assistant, for example, typically slows the process and causes confusion and unnecessary reworks.

5.  Know their budget, deliverables and timeline

Your PR team will help establish deliverables and timelines based on your budget and provide regular activity reports detailing  what has been accomplished, upcoming priorities and next steps.  It is essential that clients keep up with these details, too.

6. Know that Time + Resources = Money/Your Budget

Whether you engage a PR firm under a retainer agreement or for short-term project work, you are essentially agreeing in advance to buy/pay for a specific amount of time in professional PR services. Just as importantly, your PR firm reserves-and protects-that time for you and your work.  Clients who misuse their provider’s time, essentially misuse their own budget.  Reputable PR firms will make good on time that they have inadvertently lost, but they cannot make up for time that has been mismanaged by their clients.

7.  Pay on time

PR practitioners work on good faith.  Often, they will invest hours of time on your behalf before the first payment has arrived.  If you question whether you might not have the funds to make good on your financial commitment, let your PR team know ASAP.  Allow them to be part of the process in finding a solution that is equitable for all parties.

4 Things PR Clients SHOULD Be Able to Expect

Great expectationOccasionally I’ve come across stories about client/firm relationships gone awry. Two examples stand out in my mind: The mass email debacle (Google) and the client that publicly fired the PR firm for making the client look silly (FedEx).

I’ve personally encountered organizations recovering from bad service-provider relationships. While I’ll never know all sides of these stories, I can say that clients pay good money and, in return, should receive great service! As part of this, clients should be able to expect to:

1.  Be part of the creative process

including developing media angles, shaping how you will be represented to media/influencers and identifying appropriate media groups. In the second example, the client should not have been surprised at how he was being positioned with media. And, while his PR team can control what is provided to media, they cannot control what media write, say or do with that information.  NOTE: Sometimes PR professionals provide wise counsel to clients who choose to ignore it—I’ve seen that happen, too!

2.  Approve EVERYTHING that goes out.

After all, your PR professional is representing you, your brand/product/service. Read and evaluate carefully before “approving.” Unfortunately, some clients are not truly engaged in the process or are afraid to push back. This can be catastrophic for both parties.

3.  See and work from a formalized plan or timeline

This facilitates accomplishing goals and prevents busy work.

4.  Receive PR activity reports from their PR team on a regular basis (or as the activity level demands).

Reports should include accomplishments/deliverables, priorities and action items with due dates.

Clients need to pay attention, communicate often and respond promptly to questions and recommendations offered by their PR team. A client that is ignores important counsel, requests and mission-critical due dates is a serious concern. Experienced PR practitioners will walk away from these clients with good reason…there’s a storm-a-brewin’.

Tracy Richardson Clement

When School Crisis Comm Plans Fail

Parent's cars pack in at the pick-up office, before notification by school officials.

Why would any school in the U.S.  NOT have a crisis communications plan in place and ready to go? I’m not talking about a school system-wide plan at the county/parish or city level. I mean at the school. A local, community-focused plan that includes immediate notifications to parents of emergency–or potential emergency–situations.  What if the plan is in place but the activation component fails.  A successful plan depends on both.  Here’s what it looks like up close and personal.

This morning, my local high school was threatened with gun violence via social media. Apparently, a few students became aware of a threat of gun violence last night. The school was made aware and consulted with law enforcement. As news circulated at the school, fearful students texted their parents from the classroom. Parents called the school, confirmed the threat and, not surprisingly, headed to the school to take their children home.

Parents line up to take their children home...before the school notified parents of the shooting threat.

Given recent school shooting tragedies, parents began arriving in droves. Within a short period of time  TV helicopters were circling overhead, television news crews and law enforcement had arrived on campus.

THREE hours into the ordeal–after the school was mostly empty, after Facebook and Twitter had alerted parents, after news crews were on the scene, after facts began to blur into fiction on Twitter–parents received the first official message fromWill Schofield, Superintendent Hall County School District

Mark Coleman, Principal Flowery Branch High School

Parents in line, outside the check-out office...before any school notification.

Parents are mad and they have a right to be.  They wanted–NEEDED–to hear details from school leadership early.  We know that many if not most colleges have implemented immediate emergency notification plans, so the technology is available and best practices are already in place. No school is immune to threats, therefore, no school should be unprepared to act and quickly communicate critical information to parents.

As a PR practitioner, I’m curious to know: How many schools in the U.S. would still struggle with executing a crisis communications plan?  What would you say is the top priority in school-related crisis comm plans?

4 Tips to Use Twitter to Gather Industry Intel at Events

This week, one of our clients will be at the TRB (Transportation and Research Board) Annual Meeting in Washington D.C.  TRB is a gathering of some 11,000 transportation professionals. That’s quite a pool of thinkers!

While the client team is in D.C.—interacting face-to-face and via Twitter—we are monitoring #TRBAM, #Transpo and more from the RTPR offices. Of course we are not alone.  Others are monitoring, too.  For example, TRB, as the hosting organization, is tracking sentiments, success and trends by measuring volume and content in tweets.

The gold nugget here is that social media can be an amazing source of industry information, and it’s completely free!

Here are 4 Tips to Use Twitter to Gather Industry Intel at Events, whether you attend the event or not:

  1. Create an event calendar of events that are important to your industry.  Duh! It’s the obvious basic, I know, but it really is the first step.
  2. Identify and the monitor hashtags associated with event. Annual events may use the same hashtags each year.  However, the nature of social media means that new ones will organically emerge, so do this during the week before the event.
  3. ID key contacts and follow them. Review tweets and profiles strategically. Create and add them to lists so you can reference them later.   You can interact with them, too, of course.
  4. Capture key findings that will be impactful for your organization…and then act on them.

 Tracy Richardson Clement

Saying goodbye to offset press?

This week I went to a press check. Not for the press check, though. I ended up at the printer by happenstance:  The gal I was meeting had to be parked there for hours to oversee the completion of her brochure project.  We needed to meet. It worked.

When I walked through the door, I could smell the wonderful, familiar smells of the press room…the same smell you find when you open a new book. (Who doesn’t sniff the innards of a brand new book, right?) Since childhood, I’ve loved this smell.  And I love paper.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling screen fatigue, I work from printed copies of documents. I use my highlighters and colored pens to mark up, edits and organize.  It feels good to go old school.  So the migration to an all-digital world, which is leaving behind the art of the press and the use of paper, sometimes saddens me.

My stop at the printer really magnified an article I had used earlier in the week as part of an online training session on improving blogs and blog posts.  This oldie-but-goodie over at Slate.com, titled Lazy Eyes: How we read online, was written by  in 2008.  I love  Agger’s summary of paper:

We’ll do more and more reading on screens, but they won’t replace paper—never mind what your friend with a Kindle tells you. Rather, paper seems to be the new Prozac. A balm for the distracted mind. It’s contained, offline, tactile. William Powers writes about this elegantly in his essay “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal.” He describes the white stuff as “a still point, an anchor for the consciousness.”

P.S.: If you are tasked with creating and managing content marketing in any capacity, this is an essential read…even though it’s now five years old.

Tracy Richardson Clement

When communicating, ‘Start with Why’

A while ago, my brother gave me the book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. While not a public relations book, I began thinking about its concepts from a public relations perspective. All clients have information and stories they want to share. “Let’s distribute a press release,” they say. Too often though, those press releases begin with the wrong message and clients miss out on opportunities for their audiences to buy-in and support their message. Instead of starting with what is important to their audiences, clients oftentimes want to start with what is important to them.

I recently came across a press release that announced a large monetary investment into Belk department stores’ technology (excerpt below).

CHARLOTTE, N.C., November 19, 2010 – Belk, Inc. has announced a major overhaul of its information technology (IT) infrastructure, which began earlier this year, as part of a three-year, $150 million initiative designed to transform the company’s business capabilities and performance.

The initiative will focus on systems that support the company’s merchandise planning and replenishment, store point-of-sale and e-commerce functions, and approximately 75 IT positions are expected to be added at the Belk corporate office in Charlotte this year and next year. This is in addition to the 39 merchandising positions previously announced.


In this economy, this message would have been much stronger had the press release started with “Belk adds 75 new IT positions with $150 million initiative.” Instead you have to get to the second paragraph to learn what most people would value. Who cares that Belk is announcing and overhaul? What does it even mean to “transform the company’s business capabilities and performance”? The whole first paragraph is a waste. And, unfortunately for Belk, many people don’t have time to continue reading if they aren’t “grabbed” in the first paragraph.


All communications would be much stronger if it started by answering:

  1. Why does it matter?
  2. Why would/should anyone care?

When communicating on behalf of my clients—whether via media relations, social media or other channels—I start by answering ‘why’.

Bumper Stickers: Good PR or Bad PR?

Recently I asked my husband if we could try a new church closer to our house.  His reply: “The bumper sticker church.  We will never go there.  Those people are the worst drivers.”  It’s true.  Or at least it seems that the drivers with those bumper stickers are some of the worst: slow, absent-minded, bad parkers, etc.  Before even setting foot in their church we already had formed an opinion.  I was willing to go and experience it for myself before shutting down the option, but the bad opinion my husband formed—simply from the bumper stickers—has made the idea of visiting that church an impossibility.

This made me wonder: is it a good idea for organizations to pass out bumper stickers to constituents?  On the one hand, an organization’s name becomes more visible.  But on the other hand, the organization loses control of telling their message.  Each time someone with an organizational bumper sticker cuts someone off, slams on their brakes, flips someone the bird, curses, drives too slow or any other way that bothers other drivers, the organization’s message is associated with the bad driver.

In PR, the message vehicle (no pun intended) can be just as important as the message.  When an organization hands over the control of spreading its message, a new, unintended message can be communicated; this can ultimately hurt and organization’s brand.

So are bumper stickers good PR or bad PR (yes, there is such a thing as bad PR but that is for another post)?  It depends on your organization and message.  But for one church in the Charlotte-area, it kept us from visiting.  Have you ever formed a negative opinion of an organization based on the drivers that display its bumper sticker?

4 Tips to Create an Intriguing Elevator Speech

When someone asks what you or your organization does, are you prepared with an on-message, concise explanation?  If not, you may be missing countless opportunities to win advocates for you, your brand, endeavor or organization.  To maximize these opportunities, create, memorize and practice your elevator speech.

What is an elevator speech?
An elevator speech is brief description of your endeavor and/or organization—who you are, what you do and why it matters—delivered in the time of an average elevator ride—1 – 2 minutes.  An effective elevator speech should leave your audience wanting more while answering the essential questions about your organization.
A great place to start your elevator speech is to adapt your boilerplate (e.g. the paragraph at the end of press releases or other marketing collateral).  Don’t have a boilerplate?  Well, you need one of those to, but you can use the tips below to create an effective elevator speech.

  1. Incorporate a positioning statement.  Why should someone care about you, your organization or endeavor?  When possible, leverage an emotional connection.
  2. Include a distinctive.  For example were you the first or only one to do something?  Perhaps you are the largest or oldest.  These distinctives help set you apart and provide credibility.
  3. Don’t forget the basics.  Who does your organization/endeavor benefit?  How does your organization benefit someone?
  4. Finish with an ‘ask’.  If applicable, be sure to close by saying what others can do to get involved and incorporate a website address where people can get more information.

Take a look at this elevator speech, tongue-and-cheekily delivered in an elevator.