VIRTUAL PR: Can a virtual PR firm provide real service? - PR pros have been buzzing about the newest virtual PR agencies that offer a la carte PR services. Are these companies doing a disservice to clients and the PR industry, or do they fill a lucrative

Smaller PR agencies have for years spoken out against larger agencies that only take clients who can pay a high monthly retainer. But recently a new breed of PR firm has appeared, with a model that seems to offend those who insist that ongoing relationships between a firm and its clients, as well as a high level of strategy, are a must for successful PR.

Smaller PR agencies have for years spoken out against larger agencies that only take clients who can pay a high monthly retainer. But recently a new breed of PR firm has appeared, with a model that seems to offend those who insist that ongoing relationships between a firm and its clients, as well as a high level of strategy, are a must for successful PR.

Smaller PR agencies have for years spoken out against larger

agencies that only take clients who can pay a high monthly retainer. But

recently a new breed of PR firm has appeared, with a model that seems to

offend those who insist that ongoing relationships between a firm and

its clients, as well as a high level of strategy, are a must for

successful PR.



UK-based getpress.com and Boston-based pranswers.com burst onto the

scene this spring, offering PR services a la carte through their Web

sites.



Clients are asked to fill out a form to aid the firms in developing

materials on their behalf and then bill the services to a credit card.

Services range from press releases to annual reports, even crisis

communications.



’Any PR question answered for just pounds 100! (dollars 160)’ boasts the

pranswers.com site. ’Responses guaranteed within 24 hours.’



While that may bring to mind palm readers hawking their services along a

carnival strip rather than PR pros offering strategic counsel, both

sites have employees with impressive credentials. For example,

pranswers.com has a staff of five former pros, all of whom have at least

10 years of experience with companies like BP Amoco, Dow Chemical and

Kellogg’s. Getpress.com has a staff of 22, including several former AP

reporters and a mix of PR pros from the agency and corporate side.





Filling a niche



Despite the knowledge that they are staffed by experienced professionals

rather than a random person purporting PR knowledge in his garage, these

sites still beg the question, Do they fill a void in PR services or are

they doing a disservice to both clients and the industry?



’In theory, at least, they’ve got a halfway decent idea,’ says Jon

Boroshok, president of Techmarcom, a firm that also offers a la carte PR

to companies that can’t afford large retainers. ’Start-ups and

technology companies in general need an alternative to large agencies

that demand a dollars 25,000-a-month retainer.’ But he’s frightened by

the fact that these sites are ’taking away some of the quality of

PR.’



Both sites say they target small- and mid-size businesses, but those

types of companies arguably have just as much to lose by not working

with a PR firm on an ongoing basis as Blue Chip firms do. ’Small

accounts do need senior counsel and expertise,’ says Boroshok. ’There’s

an education process that works both ways.’



Getpress.com SVP and COO Robert Skelly says that while customers who

choose an online PR firm may sacrifice face-to-face contact, the

trade-off is worth it. ’In order to get hand-holding from a traditional

firm, customers have to put out some very serious money,’ he says. ’So

many small- and mid-cap clients can’t afford to do that or don’t want to

do that.’



But will potential clients be willing to exchange ongoing support for a

quick shot of PR? When getpress.com launched several weeks ago it was

handling work for 15 clients, indicating that there is a demand for its

services. Marla Grossman, director of the Internet venture group of

Washington, DC law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand,

says she chose to work with getpress.com because the firm needed

assistance with a press release to announce the formation of the group.

She says that she was not interested in hiring an outside PR agency that

had a minimum retainer and was pleased with the outcome.



However, Tara Burgess, director of marketing services for financial Web

site Raging Bull, says that she wouldn’t use a site like getpress.com or

pranswers.com. ’In order to get the best strategic PR services, people

working on the business need to understand the business and its

audience,’ she says. ’I find it hard to believe that if I enter basic

information, I’ll get good, high-quality work.’ And while she says that

using those sites for a quick press release might be a good ’I need it

and I need it now’ solution, she adds, ’I’d rather have people in the

company who aren’t necessarily schooled in PR do it because they know

the business.’



For a field still struggling to prove its value amidst an onslaught of

damaging articles, Mark Williams, president of Harpell/Martins Public

Relations, says that this type of service is really a disservice.



’Clients need someone who understands the business, the marketplace and

their competition,’ says Williams. ’That’s not to say that what these

sites are providing is bad, but it is very limited and can, in some

ways, contribute to the commoditization of the PR industry. If anyone

can write a press release and send it out to a bunch of press, what’s

the purpose of schools like BU (Boston University) or the PRSA?’



’PR already is a commodity,’ argues Andy Miller, chairman and CEO of

Miller Consulting Group. ’It’s pretty easy to write a press release, and

if I’m a tactical PR firm, that’s what I’m selling. If you can get

something done online, good for you.’



As for the notion that these sites will harm the PR profession, Miller

counters: ’I don’t think it hurts the practice at all. The industry

hasn’t changed that much, despite people saying that it’s evolved and

changed.



You want to welcome any innovation in that sector of the economy, and

this is an innovation.’



But can they help in a crisis?



While most pros concede that it may make sense for a virtual PR firm to

develop a press release for a small company on a tight budget, the fact

that these sites claim to offer crisis support irks many. Getpress.com

has an 800 number for crisis support, while those using pranswers.com

could wait up to 24 hours for a response.



’Any crisis communications professional will tell you that helping a

client through a crisis starts before the crisis begins,’ says

Williams.



And while the sites tout cheaper services, they may be no more

affordable than what some small agencies and freelancers charge, with

the added benefit of a longer relationship. For instance, Boroshok says

that his hourly rate is dollars 125, and he estimates that writing and

getting approval for a press release takes four hours. A press release

from pranswers.com is roughly dollars 473, while a two-page new product

press release from getpress.com costs dollars 475.



’There are good freelancers out there who go beyond what getpress.com

has and offer much more value,’ says Williams. ’I don’t see a lot of

added value in the getpress.com kind of model.’ Over the long haul,

Williams believes larger market trends will determine the fate of this

new breed of firm: ’Wall Street will have a lot to say on whether they

survive.’



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