By Melissa A Vitale
It’s not exactly a “To be or not to be” Shakespearean conundrum, but eventually the founders of every startup must answer this question: “Big fee or not big fee?” In other words, should you hire an established, decorated, and pricey public relations agency or a comparatively cheaper independent or freelance publicist? So long as you do your research before investing in a PR campaign, which means choosing someone with a proven track record, either option should yield top-tier results. PR agencies have teams of publicists, each with a wealth of contacts and relationships with media outlets, but they also have higher overhead: posh offices, MacBook computers, Pellegrino instead of Poland Spring water, etc. Independent publicists have a leaner business model, but they typically have fewer contacts and influential relationships.
Deciding whether an agency or a freelancer is the best fit for your brand depends on a variety of factors:
Scope of work
Depending on your marketing and communications needs, press coverage alone may not be the only goal when hiring a publicity professional. Brands often want a one-stop shop for content curation, branding deck, content writing, video production, affiliate marketing, and social media management. Not every PR agency offers all those services, but an agency likely can activate all these channels within the first month.
Independent publicists have only so much time in a day to satisfy myriad clients. Often times, rather than spreading themselves too thin, freelancers focus on one service. For public relations, that is press outreach and securing coverage.
Is there a brand story to be told?
When I worked at agencies, I rarely saw what we in the industry call a “one-off,” a single email to a journalist. Most PR agencies have massive lists of industry contacts built over years. Although often outdated, these media lists usually range from 300 to 2,000 contacts. Getting your message into the in-box of 2,000 contacts sounds amazing, but let’s look at what is really happening:
An account coordinator writes a lengthy pitch about the brand and hits send on a Mail Merge program, but there is no vetting to see whether the recipients of the pitch are a fit for the brand or whether there is a unique coverage point. As a result, the relationship between these publicists and journalists is often superficial and reliant on a single pitch. In a PR firm with 10 employees or more, each account coordinator could be sending up to 2,000 emails a day. Now multiply that by the number of PR agencies in the world. If you were an editor, would you open ever single blast pitch you received? Absolutely not, and that’s why media lists exceed 1,500 people, to ensure that at least one person opens the pitch. We call this method “Spray Then Pray.” Some agencies rely on press releases and media alerts without even diving into a unique storyline or engaging angle that press can sink their teeth into, making their outreach no more valuable than a mail-chimp email campaign, which is not the reason for public relations.
Freelance publicists, even those with extensive media lists, hand-pick the best journalists for the story. Rather than spraying then praying, a single publicist is more likely to curate storylines with journalists within her network or work closely with existing media relationships. If your brand is more product-focused, a PR agency likely will have the contacts needed to place the product. If your brand has a unique story, avoid a PR campaign that relies on mass pitches and press-release distribution, as your story will get lost in the crowd.
If you have a specific goal in mind or a dream list, be sure that whatever option you pick is capable of meeting your goals.
As I mentioned earlier, most PR agencies have hundreds, maybe thousands, of media contacts they have been pitching for years. About half of them are bloggers or lower-tier or regional publications. Many PR firms work with multiple bloggers to show an ROI based on ad value (the cost of an advertisement equivalent) or inflate the value of a blog based on an often arbitrary industry standard. If a client is paying $7K a month, the PR firm wants to show $14K in ad value. Reaching that total could mean placements on a blog and in two regional magazines. If you’re a regional company, that is great coverage. If you’re a startup servicing financial professionals in NYC, a write-up in a Silicon Valley magazine isn’t going to be worth what you’re paying.
Independent publicists run leaner operations and often cut out the fluff of blogs and regional magazines. While larger brands appreciate blog reviews and regional features, most startups want to see their name in the Forbeses, Fortunes, and Tech Crunches of the business world, not Joe’s tech blog with 5,000 unique visitors per month. Many startups don’t see the value in the smaller outlets, and freelancers don’t typically have time to cultivate them either.
Just because you’re not pitching your own brand doesn’t mean you don’t need to reserve time for a PR commitment. If you have little time to do interviews or take intro calls from journalists, a public relations firm likely will have a senior partner who can answer questions or speak on your behalf or train another employee to represent the brand until the actual interview.
If you have a little more time to dedicate to a PR campaign, a freelancer will make the introductions and set up the calls, allowing you to tell your brand’s story from your perspective.
Disruptive startups are going to want a media campaign personalized for their brand. Many PR firms work with a regimented PR strategy that is applied across all clients based on their capabilities as an agency, not your goals as a brand. To keep everyone in the agency on the same track across different accounts, most agencies employ standard practices. Everything from new business proposals to pitches are templated and ready for modification, based on the brand they are pitching that day.
PR freelancers often curate a campaign from the ground up, looking first at the goals and newsworthiness of a brand. Because freelancers aren’t typically onboarding 15 brands a month, or even a year, they look at every campaign carefully. Not being beholden to a team of people and one stringent strategy, a freelancer can customize a campaign to better fit a company’s goals throughout the PR process.
If you have a rapid deadline, then, by all means, hire a PR agency, which has more people and, thusly, more contacts at media houses to quickly launch a timely story.
No matter what any freelancer says, independent publicists do not carry the same weight as a firm of 10 professionals and often only know a few people at each publication. This makes them much less likely to be able to accelerate the process.
If your story must be published next week, speak to an agency. If you can wait two weeks or more to allow a strategy to unfold and be implemented, then consider a freelancer.
Public relations agencies aren’t cheap; retainers typically start at $8K per month for a minimum of twelve (12) months’ work. Smaller agencies will start at $5k for startups and budget clients. That $5K doesn’t guarantee star treatment either. PR principals constantly check on their teams to make sure members are not “overservicing” a client. This often means that a startup is cast aside by mid-month in favor of older clients. I've even seen an agency who would stop pitching a client at the end of the month because they had spent too much time on the client, completely halting their outbound media campaign because of their own account mismanagement.
Independent publicists usually charge in the range of $3K per month and limit the size of their business, thereby guaranteeing them the time necessary to commit themselves to their clients’ needs, campaign, and goals.
If you have a big budget for public relations, a PR firm has multiple publicists, each with a wealth contacts, who will ensure that your brand receives coverage.
If you’re more restricted financially, a freelance publicist will work within your budget and still deliver terrific service.
Some publicists, including Melissa A, Vitale, offer hybrid services. Some clients require one publicist, while others require a team of publicists, content and copywriters. To learn more about our services, visit https://www.melissaavitale.com/services.html
A public relations agency specializing in brands and startups across plant and intimate wellness