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  • Writer's pictureTim Prizeman

How to work with a Public Relations agency: Retainer vs Project

Public relations retainers vs projects - which is best

One of the questions I frequently get asked is "which is best, retainer or project when working with a PR agency?". Both and neither! It all depends what you want the agency to do. So, as Harry Hill used to say on his TV Burp! "there's only one way to sort it out... fight!".

In the left corner: Retainers A retainer is where the PR agency works with you for a long or ongoing period of time, and they provide a limited or broad range of services... depending on the agreement. The advantages of retainers for businesses should be (and usually are!):

  • The relationship builds and the agency gets to know your business well, while you become familiar with their team and vice versa.

  • The agency is in a position to cultivate journalists on your behalf and generally watching out for opportunities, so they are actively generating both short term coverage and investing in future opportunities for you too.

  • The agency is available at short notice when you need them, so you can pick up the phone to them without worrying about charges, confidentiality agreements, and all the other things you have to think about if a supplier is irregular.

  • RB-Public Relations normally works with our clients on retainer, making us very much part of their team on a wide range of projects.

Retainers work well in many situations, particularly where:

  • The firm is not really doing anything spectacularly interesting that it can talk about, and instead is mainly looking for regular expert comment opportunities (which is typically the case for most SME firms); and/or

  • There is a regular and reasonably predictable need for PR support (such as a regular flow of announcements, campaigns, press enquiries or whatever); and/or

  • Where there is some sort of "outsourced press office" arrangement requiring continued regular activity.

Problems arise from retainers where:

  • The amount of work for the PR agency is substantially different to that covered by the retainer (so either the agency is being paid to "sit around" or, vice versa, it is being run ragged through over-servicing). Quite frankly there is no good reason why SME firms which feel they are paying for unused time can't immediately resolve the matter with a conversation with their PR agency and seek a mutual agreement to temporarily reduce the monthly amount... there seems to be a strange unwillingness among many, especially professional services firms, to have such conversations.

  • The agency's performance slips and the client feels they are paying for poor support.

  • A similar and often linked problem is when a favourite PR agency team member moves off the account. Assuming this has happened (and that agency performance has slipped, as opposed to other problems such as the client fails to give the agency suitable direction, support, access,context, and responsiveness) then the natural inclination of many firms seems to be to wait it out until the agreement finishes in X months. Again, I really don't understand the reluctance at many firms to have tough conversations on a "fix it quick or it's over basis".

In the right corner: Projects The advantages of projects include:

  • You are paying a finite amount for a finite piece of work.

  • You can focus the PR agency on a specific campaign or activity where they can particularly add value, with all involved (including your internal support and spokespeople) aligned to make it a particular success.

The disadvantage of projects are:

  • Unless you use the same agency team on multiple projects, you won't get the benefits of acquired knowledge.

  • It needs to be a suitable chunky piece of work. If every press release and small bit of work becomes a project to be quoted for, it quickly becomes an unpopular process for all involved (and probably the costs quoted increase to reflect this).

  • A lot of the best press coverage opportunities do not fit into neat campaigns. For instance, if you are an employment law expert, the best opportunities may well come up suddenly from breaking news stories and tribunal decisions. As another example, your PR activity may get a journalist keen to write on the subject, but in a few months as they have other things on at the moment... well after the project concludes. Both of these are examples of the sorts of coverage that gets lost if there is no ongoing relationship with an agency charged with responding to breaking opportunities and cultivating long term opportunities.

What do we do at RB-PR? Retainer and projects combined! As mentioned, virtually all our clients are on retainers. This generally covers an agreed base level of regular activity, with chunkier campaigns, crisis management and irregular activities as separate projects. For my mind this brings the benefit for clients of having regular and close support from a PR agency, so we are able to spring into action for immediate opportunities while having the sort of ongoing relationship that allows us to also cultivate longer term press relationships and media opportunities. It also brings the benefit that fees are flexed according to the work undertaken so, for instance, if an anticipated campaign gets postpone then it does not cause a disparity between retainer fees and work done since this will be separate to the retainer.

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