PR: fee-earner or fee-drainer?

Posted by Kerry Jack, chief executive of legal PR specialists Black Letter Communications

Jack: Demonstrating your worth is critical

For me the greatest challenge has always been, and continues to be, how to demonstrate the value of PR.

I remember early on in my career being told by the senior partner of a firm I had just started consulting with that I faced an almost impossible task to get some partners’ attention because I was a fee-drainer, not a fee-earner.

This soon changed when an article in The Times that I had devised and written on behalf of the firm was read by a major investment bank. The bank contacted and subsequently appointed the firm.

Suddenly all those partners who were too busy to meet me had their secretaries on the phone wanting to know how soon I could meet to discuss their ‘media profile’.

It’s not always that easy but the idea of the fee-earner versus fee-drainer has stuck with me. Demonstrating your worth in an industry still largely hidebound by the hourly rate is critical. It got me thinking about the characteristics of a PR fee-earner versus a fee-drainer.

Although not exhaustive, here are my thoughts:

A PR fee-earner:

  • Will say ‘no’ when it’s appropriate and with good reason. It might not be a popular response and may mean delivering advice that a client doesn’t want to hear but I would much rather be honest and open at the outset – and if necessary not get the work – than face a disgruntled and disappointed client down the line. As with all things, there’s nothing worse than over-promising and under-delivering.
  • Will value quality over volume. It isn’t about how fat the cuttings book is that you take into see a client or show the partnership. It’s about being heard and understood by the right people, in the right place and at the right time. An article series or blog will have little or no impact if it isn’t carefully targeted for maximum effect.
  • Will work hard to demonstrate value. Evaluation isn’t easy but a good PR will work hard to prove the value in their work, whether that’s employing a research company to track and measure against agreed objectives, working hand in hand with marketing metrics or even collating anecdotal feedback. The latter has proved to be one of the most insightful I’ve used and it’s free.
  • Will naturally align any creative ideas to the business and marketing strategy – otherwise, what is the point? PR shouldn’t be a vanity exercise.
  • Will appreciate that there’s more to PR than a press release. Long gone are the days of advertising and marketing holding the creative mantle; there’s been a real blurring of the lines between the different disciplines. I have been proud to be part of PR agencies at the forefront of driving this change and making sure that PR engagement is much wider than just the media.

A PR fee-drainer will:

  • Automatically do what a partner tells them to do without questioning the rationale and likely impact. It’s not about being disrespectful, but any PR effort will be wasted if the initial brief is not interrogated.
  • Write in legal-speak with no consideration for the target audience. Legal-speak has its place and is fine for a journal or when writing for a legal publication. However, if your message is for clients, then the message must be delivered to them in an accessible manner.
  • Target journalists without first finding out what the journalist writes about it and is interested in. This typically comes from those PRs who use a media database, search for the word vaguely relevant to their subject matter and then target all those on the list that the database throws up. This is my pet hate. It is pure laziness and also shows a lack of respect to journalists.
  • Respond to ‘breaking news’ three days after the event. This is a criticism I regularly hear from journalists when I ask them what frustrates them about PRs. Of course, we all appreciate that partners will have many demands on their time but if they want to be heard on a particular matter, they have to respond when the media is writing about the news, not when they want to respond to the news. It is the PR’s job to educate partners about how the media works.

Agree, disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop me a line.

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