When searching for a PR firm, one of the obvious criteria is whether you can afford them. You can find the best PR firm in the world, but if you can’t afford them, then you’re wasting your time. That’s why it is important to understand how PR firms charge and get an understanding of what the total costs may be.
After you’ve made the decision to retain the services of a PR firm, the hard part starts. How do you find the right firm? How do you know they will provide what you want and need? And perhaps most important, can your budget handle their cost requirements?
It is first important to understand the billing practices of most PR firms (there are exceptions to everything, but the following is the basic system of billings). Because PR firms are consultants, they bill in much the same way as any consultancy organizations such as a law firm, CPA firm, architectural firm and so forth. The basic difference is that in the PR business, there often is more flexibility in cost/budget arrangements. This is because every client’s needs are different and PR firms must adapt to the needs of their clients.
The major cost is the fee for service. PR firms typically charge in one of three ways: hourly, monthly retainer or project basis. Let’s look briefly at each:
Hourly – This is self-explanatory. The PR firm tells you their hourly rate, usually based on the level of person working on your account, and then they bill for the hours worked during any given month. Because paying hourly can get out of hand, or leave the client unaware of how many hours the firm is racking up, they may either put a cap on the number of hours they will bill during a month and continue working without charging the additional hours, or tell you when they reached their hourly allotment and then it is your decision whether to approve additional hours of billable work or not.
The hourly billing arrangement is much like how a law firm charges, however, law firms usually bill per six minute increments and every call, email and certainly meeting is accounted for. Most PR firms, I am generalizing here, are not as strict as a law firm in counting the minutes, but this varies and if a PR firm’s policy is to charge by the hour, you should get a clear understanding of what an hour means.
Monthly retainer – This is the most common billing method because most PR campaigns are ongoing without stops and starts. After the PR firm has a clear understanding of your goals, objectives and expectations, they will consider how much time they need to devote to you as a client and then come up with a monthly fee. Almost always, they will put a cap on the number of hours the monthly fee will cover. If more hours are needed, some PR firms will ask for permission to work more hours, while others will just keep working to keep the client happy. Question: what if the PR firm works fewer hours in a given month? Does the client get a credit for the next month’s work? Hard to say. It is unusual for a PR firm to give a client credit for hours not worked simply because the next month they may work more hours than allotted. So it all works out in the end.
Project basis – This is a common billing method when you have a self-contained project that you need help with. A common example would be a special event. There is a point when work needs to start, and a point when the work ends, after the special event is over. In this case, the PR firm will arrive at a price to produce what we call a “scope of work” meaning the firm outlines precisely what it will do for you within the timeframe and put a price tag on it. This is a very clean and clear way of working with a PR firm in that you know going in what your costs will be for the PR firm to handle the special event or project for you.
When discussing PR firm costs, we can’t ignore expenses, as they can be significant. When talking to a PR firm, the potential client needs to get a clear understanding of expense billings, as they vary. Expenses range from local and long distance telephone, messenger services, travel and other standard operational expenses the PR firm incurs on your behalf, to vendor expenses such as photographers, graphic designers, web programmers, printers and the like. The larger PR firms have some of these services in-house such as graphic designers, but they usually bill separately for them.
The most critical aspect of determining what your bottom line costs will be with a PR firm is to have a candid discussion with them about their billing practices and not to allow a PR firm to brush off or belittle expenses. When beginning a relationship with a PR firm, there usually is excitement and a positive attitude going in and elements such as how they bill for their services and what expenses they bill for are often set aside because the chemistry feels right. Unfortunately, not paying close attention to the billing practices of a PR firm often leads to invoice shock after the first 30 days and all that goodwill going in can dissipate rather quickly.