Like weeds blighting a beautiful garden each summer, the same mediocre PR ideas seem to keep reappearing. Among these is the tired notion of using pay-for-performance as a PR agency selection criterion. And just like a weed, the pay-for-performance concept is difficult to uproot.
This model often returns in times of economic uncertainty, like during today's pandemic-driven downturn. When budgets are under scrutiny, some agencies, as well as automation and technology providers, troll for business by claiming they understand the "new austerity" before presenting pay-for-performance as the solution.
Their promises of value and better results are usually based on some sort of automated PR service or content hub and are accompanied by assurances that they've "cracked the code" when it comes to pitching and placing articles.
These assertions are rarely true, and selecting an agency is a far more nuanced process. Tech companies in particular, need a more focused set of skills and expertise than any canned solution, self-styled media relations guru or software can provide.
In speaking with tech entrepreneurs, investors and marketers I discovered a consensus that early-stage companies benefit from the focused attention of agencies with industry expertise, whether the firm is large or small.
Expertise in a given sector — such as AI, big data, cloud, or security — is critical, because a firm cannot articulate your story if they don't understand the technology and don't regularly work with the right reporters.
Also, pay-for-performance PR is built around one thing, publicity. But quick mentions in roundup articles are no substitute for real earned media, like being included in a major industry feature or a company-specific profile or achieving the benefits of a byline in an influential industry publication.
Pay-for-play firms blur ethical lines and sometimes work with payola journalists to gain media "hits." However, the value of the coverage is suspect and is often a violation of journalistic ethics.
PR pros I know have even seen proposals and price lists from bloggers that guarantee fee-based coverage, without identifying it as paid or promotional content. In fact, some publications have come out strongly against pay-for-play PR because it diminishes their editorial credibility.
Working with a pay-for-play firm (or publication) can damage your brand and reputation and put you at risk of violating Federal Trade Commission endorsement guidelines. Indeed, by using pay-for-play PR, companies risk blowback in the form of negative publicity and potential legal proceedings, all for low value B-list media placements.
Even when they aren't violating journalistic norms or breaking the law, pay-for-play agencies don't have the skills or capability to reach beyond the realm of bloggers and online publications.
In terms of pitching broadcast media or even traditional print media that serve a gatekeeping function, they lack the expertise of a real PR agency and aren't able to do much more than email blast press releases.
They are out of their depth when it comes to building relationships with thought leaders and key influencers like industry and financial analysts, arguably a company's most high-value constituents.
The ability to generate more than simple publicity is particularly important as media ownership consolidates, the number of journalists shrinks, and true earned media coverage becomes more difficult to secure.
Finding the Optimal Agency Relationship
As companies grow — or even prepare to grow — their needs scale, and they often require a PR shop with a mix of skills including branding, social media, content creation, and perhaps even public affairs and crisis communications capabilities, as well as management of speaking programs or sponsorships.
Overall, it takes more than just one single approach to pull off an effective PR program to serve even a small company on a reasonable budget.
When it comes to value, non pay-for-play agencies are more likely to deliver in the long term.
In addition to specific offerings, they provide valuable counsel — guidance that's needed at various corporate inflection points, such as IPOs, executive shakeups or a high-stakes product launches.
Just like weeds, the bogus idea of pay-for-performance PR will never stop coming around. But thankfully, the broad-based capabilities of real PR firms can help companies cultivate bountiful relationships with the media, influencers and key markets.
Curtis Sparrer is a principal with Bospar.