Which is the best way for tech companies to work with Public Relations agencies - retainer or project?
Both and either! It all depends what you want the agency to achieve. Here I look at the pros and cons of each approach, and how to get the best out of your PR agency whichever route you take.
A retainer is where the PR agency works with you for an ongoing period of time. The range of services could be limited or broad range, depending on the agreement, and typically you will have a regular team supporting you.
The advantages of retainers for tech firms should be (and usually are!):
- The relationship builds as PR agency team gets to know you well, while you become familiar with their approach and requirements.
- 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.
- The agency is in a position to cultivate journalists on your behalf and generally watch out for opportunities, so they are actively generating both immediate coverage and investing in future opportunities for you too.
- Kelso Consulting usually works with clients on retainer, making us very much part of their team.
- For most SME tech businesses having one agency on retainer is sufficient, but it is common for large firms with different market segments to have a roster of PR agencies who specialise in different areas.
Retainers work well in many situations, particularly where:
- You need regular PR support across a range of evolving communication areas.
- Your firm needs regular and experienced communications counsel.
- There is a regular and reasonably predictable need for PR support (such as a regular flow of announcements, campaigns, press enquiries or whatever).
- 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 but has little to do or, vice versa, it is being run ragged through over-servicing). Quite frankly there is no good reason why firms which feel they are paying for unused time can't immediately resolve the matter with their PR agency and seek a mutual agreement to temporarily reduce the monthly amount.
- The agency's performance slips and the client feels they are paying for poor support. Assuming this has happened then it is time for a tough conversation on a "fix it quick or it's over basis".
- Another common problem is where there is a lack of realism about what an agency can achieve . Examples of this are feeling that the agency can get lots of interest for the technical features of a tech product/service (and that is tough - few journalists are interested!), and also where the client feels the PR agency can get on with it with little direction and input. Over the long term the best results come where a client gives its PR agency suitable direction, support, access, context, and responsiveness... and listens to their advice.
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 PR agency team repeatedly, you won't get the benefits of acquired knowledge.
- It needs to be a suitably chunky piece of work. If every press release and small bit of work becomes a project, quoting and assessing proposals quickly becomes an unpopular process for all involved (and maybe costs quoted will increase to reflect this).
- A lot of the best press coverage opportunities do not fit into neat campaigns. For instance, if you are an cybersecurity business, the best opportunities may well come up suddenly through opportunities to comment breaking news. 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.
- Often opting for a project-based relationships comes from a misunderstanding of that journalists are sitting around waiting to write up an announcement from a tech firm they have never heard of! This transactional view of how to deal with the media is common... but clearly it is misconceived. The best coverage comes from repetition and building up awareness and relationships (as with sales) and one-off projects don't deliver this... unless the campaign is big, creative and/or on something that is genuinely ground-breaking.
What do we do at Kelso Consulting? Retainer and projects combined!
As mentioned, virtually all our clients are on retainers. This generally covers an agreed base level of regular activity, such as ongoing media coverage generation and blogging, with chunkier campaigns, crisis management and time-intensive irregular activities usually treated 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 fit 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.
Click here to read about our experience with tech firms (we've been advising tech, SaaS and IT consultants for over 20+ years now, including gaining three national awards for our thought leadership campaigns for tech clients).
Click here to read about our PR services for consultancy, financial, HR and professional services businesses.