No retainer for PR services?

Why is the traditional PR retainer being replaced by a project fee?

A retainer is a fee paid in advance to secure the first option on a service, and is the traditional fee structure used to employ a public relations consultancy. The agency is effectively on stand-by to assist the client company with work as it arises. If the work relates to news events – or possibly crisis management – the agency’s tasks are driven by external events and could be needed at any time. This means that the service can’t be planned into a calendar in the normal way. In these cases the retainer is probably the most appropriate way to structure the business relationship.

That was the traditional way to hire a PR consultancy, but today many companies are looking for a different kind of PR service which is more often a promotional communications service. It comes under the umbrella of Marketing and is closely allied with Content Marketing and Digital Marketing. For this kind of work, the client company will have a marketing communications plan that’s probably constructed around planned announcements, product launches and trade shows, and possibly a content plan as well. This can all be pre-arranged in detail, so the PR consultant’s work is mostly planned, and the work can be costed fairly accurately.

This is the reason why my own consultancy works on project fees, with no retainers, and why I have always worked this way.

While a freelance PR consultant is valued for the flexible service they offer, it is usually better if there is some continuity to the work. Working on an ad hoc basis, for example issuing a single press release, is not always efficient. There are several reasons for this. A consultant can work more effectively when he or she has a warm relationship with the editors who matter, can gain a deep understanding of the client’s company and  market, and is well acquainted with the senior executives in the client company.

Also, the best PR consultancies usually have ongoing commitments to their regular clients, and may not be willing to take on occasional tasks.

There is another, more subtle reason for preferring an ongoing client/consultancy relationship. This becomes obvious when you begin working with journalists. The relationship with editors and publications is not just a one-way street. We can send them our news material, but they may also contact us with requests when they need information. These requests will be outside your marketing plan, but if you have a regular  arrangement with your PR consultancy, you are likely to benefit from extra opportunities to provide interviews, case studies and images.