By Melissa A Vitale
While Public Relations retainers are usually higher than other marketing and creative services for their multifaceted longterm strategies in a highly competitive media market, the recent inflation following a three-year pandemic has seen costs skyrocket. When I started in public relations, agency starting monthly retainers ran between $5,000 and $15,000; today those numbers for agencies begin at $15,000 and can go as high as of $50,000 per month for global PR firms. Before the recession, Freelance Publicists usually offered monthly retainers between $1,500 and $5,000 and today freelance retainers cost between $4,000 and $15,000 and beyond depending on the scope of work.
So why is PR so expensive in 2023?
You don't have to look past the homepage of Twitter--or is it X now?-- to see why public relations focusing on press coverage has become so competitive. It feels like every week at the start and end of each quarter, there's an onslaught of layoff headlines, tweets and union condemnations. Coupled with the reopening of life-as-we-know it post pandemic, there's more news and stories to cover and less people available to write about them.
It's estimated that for everyone one journalist or editor, there are six publicists. Most publicists have multiple clients and each client can be doing multiple launches, events or collaborations at a given time (Just look at the recent Barbie marketing! I do not envy the PR team coordinating all those releases). Journalists and editors are inundated with thousands of pitches a week, for some that number can be daily. Each round of layoffs also brings budget cuts, limiting how many stories editors can commission to freelancers, making them more discerning on what stories they will greenlight. There's not enough staff available to cover all the stories that could be covered.
With all these hurdles, publicists have to get exceptionally crafty to cut through the noise of all the brands hoping to garner their attention. Events, campaigns, new imagery, launches, unique storylines and fresh angles are all tools for a publicists battle to get their clients in media coverage. It's an enormous amount of work to get a single greenlight; sometimes you need to hear a dozen nos before a yes. And publicists often turn around multiple placements per month to a client to move the needle. There's a price for all those man-hours and creativity to keep a long-term client exciting in the eyes of media.
Will the market change?
As long as Public Relations is tied to media coverage, PR retainers will continue to reflect the media industry. Though many of us in the industry don't see how it can continue much longer: editors are burned out, writers come on staff for a few months before going to freelance, run dry from volume of stories in a single day. Now, Unions are so important: flighting for media in ways that hopefully allows for more staff to share in the still-growing demand for news coverage. Until then publicists continue to support journalists and editors while moving the needle on their clients' media goals in the process.
While Public Relations prices continue to rise, so does the value of media relations. With higher editorial scrutiny of what can be covered, getting into a publication now can lead to larger audiences and even viral pickup. A competitive market is not an impossible market and often has more value longterm.
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