Thinkpiece: Clients who use PR as 'free' advertising should instead treat it like any other creative resource

There's a flaw in the saying: 'Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?' It assumes that there's such a thing as a free milk supply. We should know better; after all nothing is really free. But then why is public relations considered free or, well, cheap?

There's a flaw in the saying: 'Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?' It assumes that there's such a thing as a free milk supply. We should know better; after all nothing is really free. But then why is public relations considered free or, well, cheap?

There's a flaw in the saying: 'Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?' It assumes that there's such a thing as a free milk supply. We should know better; after all nothing is really free. But then why is public relations considered free or, well, cheap?

The erroneous yet prevailing belief about PR is that it's 'free advertising.' In other words, getting your client covered in a feature story in Fortune is a fraction of the cost of a quarter page ad in the same magazine. Granted, it is a fraction, as in less costly than purchasing page space, but that high cost is in large part attributable to the magazine, not necessarily the agency that produces the advertisement. Yet somehow, even the cost of the creative effort to make the ad is acceptable compared with the cost of the effort behind convincing a Fortune reporter to include your client in a story. As if the planning, counseling, writing and communicating that PR people do should be free simply because no media is paid for.

Take for example the effort that goes into the drafting of a seemingly simple press release. There's research for starters, reading background materials and interviewing. Although it should be written like a news story, it takes longer to write a press release. It must be 'strategized,' which means meetings, and an approval process that often rivals the size and speed of a congressional committee. Approvals require editing, re-editing, and more editing, which takes time, and time equals money. All this work excludes media relations and the associated costs of delivering the news to and building trust with the media.

While it should be argued that a press release does cost money to produce and distribute, it's more often true that the press release as a tactic is the ineffectual knee-jerk reaction of a company that thinks it has news. Too often clients (particularly non-public clients) command PR agencies to pump out releases filled with blather about inconsequential product enhancements and anemic partner-ships punctuated by quotes so sweet you can see the gleam in the CEO's teeth. Many agencies oblige clients despite the fact that such releases generate lackluster coverage, which ultimately casts a poor light on the PR profession. Clients think we over-promise results and the media just thinks we're annoying. The untold truth is that the best PR counselors can save clients money by not writing press releases.

So it's not just our time but also our wisdom that equals money. But until we're able to convince clients that we should be treated like other consultants - attorneys, accountants, network administrators - PR will have to scratch and claw its way on to the balance sheet, hopefully somewhere far above free milk.



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