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Straight Talk About Public Relations Fees, Services

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

What level of support should I expect from my Public Relations Agency?

The simple answer is as much support as you'll allow them to give.  They can be a powerful and economic extension of your management team or you can treat them simply as vendors...the choice is yours.

There are some basic levels of support you should expect from your PR counsel, regardless of your situation or goal.

First of all, you should expect objective counsel and recommendations, not "yes" persons.  When you're wrong, they should strongly disagree with you.  When you're right, they should agree just as strongly.  Usually though there is a middle ground of agreement and when that is reached the agency should be solidly behind the decision.

The agency should be thoroughly familiar with your organization, your direction, your products, your competition, your channels of distribution and even your customers.  That means that you have to make the effort to make this information available.  They should be constantly on the prowl to gather that information as well as an external extension of the company so they can best present your view and products.  The best ways to gain this knowledge and expertise is by pulling booth duty at trade shows working with attendees; visiting company partners, resellers and users around the country; and constantly reading the pertinent trade and consumer media.

Next, you should have counsel that is continually prodding you into action, not vice versa.  Nothing is worse than continually having to go to the agency to ask whether or not you should be doing something in this or that area.  Your public relations counsel should be continually searching for print, on-line and speaking opportunities for you to promote your company/product image and industry position.

For example if an article appears in a publication in your firm's product, service or expertise area they should come to you with recommendations for a letter to the editor as a means of setting out the firm's position and industry leadership.  They should be in contact with the media so that they can set up management and customer interviews when appropriate.  They should be constantly encouraging you (and helping you by writing them) to produce industry white papers, trend statements, problem-solution documents and similar materials as well as seeking out speaking opportunities.

Finally, you should be provided with a public relations program that includes objectives and accountable benchmarks.  Putting out X number of news releases, getting Y pounds of clippings and making Z number of telephone calls per month aren't objectives.  Writing and placing an agreed upon number of major industry trend, technical, technology or op-ed articles, carrying out a similar schedule of one-on-one editorial or market research interviews during the month, setting up and monitoring an agreed upon number of on-line management chat activities, producing a marketplace newsletter on a monthly or bimonthly basis and similar programs are only means to achieving your objectives. 

Objectives are measurable goals.

Whether your objective is to increase your share in a particular market segment, open a new market or position yourself a certain way within the industry, your public relations counsel should be able to show you how tasks completed on your behalf have moved you closer to your predetermined goal.

What does a good public relations program include?

We recommend and use what we call an intermedia mix because regardless of whether you're using advertising, public relations or marketing/sales support, you're communicating.  And all of your communication has one ultimate objective...to sell something (the company, a product or service) to someone.  Ultimately your CEO and senior management are measured by bottomline success and despite the rhetoric of positioning, branding, crisis management, etc., at the end of the day there must be sales…profitable sales.

A good public relations plan includes a broad range of efforts and activities which must work in conjunction with your advertising and marketing/sales support programs.  All of these tools -- including today's on-line media and opportunities -- have to work together to achieve a common set of corporate and marketing goals.  They all have to be working in the same direction and with the proper mixture and timing.  If they don't, time, money and effort is wasted.

Too often public relations activities are thought of in terms of news releases and product announcements. Both of these activities are important to the company's programs but are relatively minor in terms of the overall efforts and plans.   Public relations and publicity go far beyond the simple news release. If public relations activities are carried out efficiently and effectively for the company there can be some dramatic results.

How much editorial exposure should a new product/service receive?

That depends on the merits of the product or service, the amount of time allotted the agency and the level of commitment management is willing to make.  There are essentially two classes of products/services that should be considered here.  The first is a major new product or service which your organization has spent considerable time, money and effort in developing.  The second category is a product or service that is less significant to the marketplace and your firm.  This is often a simple line extension or response to a competitive situation.

Given sufficient time, agencies should want to gain maximum and extended press coverage for a major new product or service. This includes:
  • Major new product/service article (including cover treatment if possible) with one publication on an exclusive basis
  • Major technical article on the product/service and the company's innovations written by the agency and by-lined by a senior engineer in an industry-specific publication
  • Featurette coverage with 2-3 industry publications immediately after the cover feature appears
  • Series of management and technical interviews with key local editors immediately prior to feature and featurette coverage in business, financial, trade and user press arenas
  • Product/service release and backgrounder written and distributed by the agency to all pertinent media with appropriate quality photography
  • Industry trend articles written by the agency and by-lined by senior management
  • User case study articles, researched, written and placed by the agency
That kind of publicity can give a new product or service six to nine months worth of solid press coverage.

In other instances when management is looking to hit the market quickly and prime the channel pipeline for sales consider:
  • Develop a solid company/product/service market area presentation which can be used to clearly explain the product/service, its features/benefits, its applications and the competitive situation.

  • Sound press materials including an overview release; single or multiple backgrounders covering technology, applications, industry potential/position; stock and application photography.

  • A strong series of industry analyst briefings so that key analysts are aware of the product, product positioning and target markets.  Properly briefed they provide the company with sound third-party references for the media and marketplace.

  • An aggressive set of one-on-one editorial meetings across the country with key and secondary editors to discuss and explain the product and/or service.

  • Conducting a solid program of editorial and industry analysts reviews of the product and/or service including providing them with review guidelines and liaison with good technical support assistance.

  • Web site publication of product press materials as well as favorable analyst and editorial coverage/reviews.
For a secondary new product or service, which will neither warrant nor receive major new product or technology coverage, start at the featurette level. This squeezes as much quality editorial coverage as possible out of the new product or service.

How involved should the company be in the new product and other public relations activities?

This is about a 50/50 proposition.

You have to provide all of the inputs including documentation and interviews with senior management, marketing and technical staffers.  With that information and insight, the agency can write quality articles that properly project your company, the products, the applications, the technology and your perception of industry trends.

Then you have to carefully read and edit the completed articles, backgrounders and releases to ensure that they are not only accurate, but that they get the key messages across.

The agency should interview the key people and draft company by-lined articles for placement. If the agency does a good job of interviewing and reviewing the documentation, the article will be close to releasable the first time around. Sometimes the write-up is off because the product or service is in a state-of-flux so everyone involved will have to expect changes to be made.

The agency should pre-place the articles and set drop-dead deadlines for all concerned.  They should ensure you meet those deadlines so that you can get the coverage you need and deserve.

Your agency should have people on staff who understand your product areas and the technology so that pieces can be written quickly, effectively and economically.

A good agency will have established relationships with key print and on-line trade and consumer editors, reporters as well as industry analysts to ensure you receive optimum coverage.  And they will follow-up with the editors and reporters.  They should also have the integrity to make certain that your articles are placed in the publications that reach your prospects.

How do we ensure that we are covered in all of the special reports that appear in the publications throughout the year?

There is no easy answer to this question except that the agency has to be alert to every editorial opportunity and special issue out there.  A good agency will make sure that at
the very least, your organization and products are exposed to the right editors and reporters at the appropriate time.  Remember that the media is in as much change as the markets it serves people and editorial schedules constantly change.  As much as is humanly possible they have to keep up with these changes to keep the company and its products in front of the right people...at the right time.

Every publication has beat reporters who focus on specific product areas.  They also have feature reporters, special report writers, and freelance reporters.  In any given, year we will work with ten or more editors and reporters with a given publication, on a variety of subject areas...all for the same client.  The big challenge is that editors and reporters change jobs  frequently.  Just when you have a good relationship established at a given publication with someone he or she will change jobs and often start covering a totally different product area.  So you start the relationship building job all over again.

To ensure that we stay on top of the publications' special issues and reports, we maintain an editorial calendar database of more than 2,500 publications (nationally and internationally) as well as a dramatically growing list of on-line media and general consumer press.  We have to continually update the application and subject areas on our editorial calendars.  This process is time consuming and expensive, but necessary.  Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof and you miss some opportunities because of last minute editorial changes that blindside the agency.

For round-up reports, we provide the editor or reporter responsible for the article with background information on the client's company, their products and applications.  Then discuss the key company and/or product points with the editor, offer to arrange interviews with key management and users and provide trend pieces.

For cover issue special reports, work with senior editors as early as possible.   Provide the editor or reporter with the information they need to complete their report...including reseller and customer references, comprehensive background material, white papers and other information/materials to help them do their job.  Approach the publication about developing an industry trend, technology or user case study series that is tailored to that
special issue.

The more help you provide the editors, the better the client's coverage-- and that's where the rubber hits the road.

What kind of editorial activity should an agency carry out for us at a trade show?

In many instances, a trade show is the deadline management needs to get a product out of development and into production.

Because this is usually the case, nearly every company introduces new products at shows.  In the best situation you will try to rollout the announcement with the media prior to the show so that coverage appears at least 2-3 weeks prior to the show.  This gives you the best pre-show visibility so that people come to your booth for a reason and your sales efforts are more productive.

When this isn't possible and in the highly competitive trade show environment it is up to your agency to ensure that you get the editorial coverage your products deserve.

This process starts with a comprehensive, professional and attractive press kit that includes:
  • Stock and user photos

  • Summary news releases

  • Editorial reference list -- industry analysts, resellers, beta users, etc.

  • New product editorial presentation

    • Product/technology backgrounders

    • Application backgrounders

    • Company backgrounder
After the written materials are produced they need to focus on setting up a series of one-on-one editorial meetings for senior management with senior editors and reporters.  The one-on-one format is mutually beneficial in that it provides both parties the opportunity to discuss the company, the products, the applications, the technology, trends in the market and the company's market position.  A four-day show typically means anywhere from 10 to 30 editorial meetings.

Additional activities like hospitality suites at shows can also induce editorial coverage because it gives management a chance to talk with the media in a relaxed environment where both parties have a chance to think and digest information. Activities that can be carried out include:
  • Key editor dinners- designed to say thank you for editorial support, but not designed to be product pitches

  • Industry position press seminars- an opportunity for the press to meet industry luminaries, key management and even highly visible buyers/users

  • Press conferences- when appropriate, an effective means for management to unveil the product, the technology and the applications
What kind of guarantees should a client expect from an agency on article placements?

If you believe any agency can guarantee and deliver the placement of articles, releases or interviews then you need to consider buying the summer home on the San Andreas Fault I have for sale.

You don't get a guarantee from your lawyer that he's going to win a case, from a salesperson that they are going to double your sales or from an engineer that he or she is going to develop the next quantum leap forward in technology.

A reputable agency though will only plan and carry out those activities they are highly confident they can achieve.  That means they won't recommend the development of an article they don't feel they can place or an activity they don't feel will have a positive impact on your sales and profits.

The reputable agency will only recommend those things that will achieve mutually agreed upon objectives.  The reputable agency doesn't need to practice at your expense.  After all, in this field a big part of the satisfaction they get is seeing positive results for the client.  If their big kick is big billings then something is terribly wrong with the relationship.

How much should a sound public relations program cost a company?

Sound public relations efforts don't cost a company, they are an investment in the firm's market position, image and future that will translate into increased sales.  An organization won't think twice about investing millions to develop a next generation product.  They will invest added millions to retool manufacturing facilities.  They will invest tens of millions in advertising and sales promotion.  Then they will entrust their corporate media efforts to a marketing assistant or have the agency send out a new product release and feel the PR effort has been handled.

They've wasted millions of dollars in editorial and media opportunities and made the task of raising visibility and credibility through advertising expensive and challenging. 

The investment in a sound public relations program varies since agencies use a variety of compensation schedules.  They include:
  • a base counseling fee with all activities/projects billed at an hourly or project fee rate plus out-of-pocket expenses billed at cost or with standard agency mark-up

  • straight hourly or project charges for each and every project plus out-of-pocket expenses billed at cost or with standard agency mark-up

  • fee for a certain number of hours of counsel, effort and activity with additional hours charged at the prevailing hourly rate plus out-of-pocket expenses billed at cost or with standard agency mark-up

  • flat fee for all agency time and activities plus out-of-pocket expenses billed at cost or with standard agency mark-up
Our opinion (and every agency is different) is that flat fee approach for an agreed upon set of hours plus special effort/activity budgets which must be approved prior to execution works best.  This approach usually doesn't produce any financial surprises to management or their accounting department when special opportunities arise.

If you work with your agency as a partner and pay your bills promptly you shouldn't be paying a mark-up on outside expenses or purchases.  The goal should be to consistently do the best job at the lowest possible cost free of any consideration of additional
compensation from agency mark-up.

Today's agency fees typically ranges from $5,000 - $20,000 per month, based on time and activity.  This fee approach allows the agency to focus on results; not how long the meter has been running.  But if your key selection criterion is the budget then you are looking at the effort from the wrong end of the telescope.  Make certain you’re comfortable with the agency’s experience and expertise.  Make certain there is good chemistry between senior management and the people working on your account.  Make certain there is strong mutual trust and respect.  Then worry about funding the program.

A program should generally include: 
  • research and writing any number of news releases a month

  • all special issue/special report activities including interviews and articles

  • development and placement of one or more major articles a month (technical, technology, industry trend, end user case study)

  • setting up, coordinating and following up on local editorial meetings throughout the month

  • complete support at major trade shows

  • unlimited counsel

  • at least one annual editorial, analyst tour

  • on-line media contact/placements

  • aggressive product review efforts

  • reseller and user case studies and profiles

  • external newsletter/magazine research, writing and production coordination

  • and similar activities/efforts
That type of program can produce tangible results for the company.  It can also keep the agency interested, involved and concerned with the company's long-term growth and success.  And in the final analysis that's where both parties benefit...the success of the company.

© Copyright 2000, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.

 

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