Remember It’s About Ethics

The other day, a new client asked me if I ever “offer success-based pricing
— normal rates if no success, but above normal rates if success?” By
“success” he meant getting press coverage for his company.

This is the kind of question that shows up on my PR listservs from time to time, and it always stirs up a hornet’s nest of indignation. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty to witness.

I drew in my breath and replied to my client that any self-respecting PR type avoids success based pricing because this is anathema to the journalists with whom we have relationships. It would make us more akin to advertising reps, from whom we are quite different. We rely on getting articles in publications based on good story angles, I explained. I should also have mentioned that at the end of the day it depends on the product or service, but since I try to look for clients that have “all the goods” so to speak, that seemed a moot point.

He said he thought what I said made sense, but … “on the other hand investment bankers (like I used to be) have success based pricing and greatly rely on their relationships with the banks and financial service orgs.”

What can I say? It takes years of exposure to PR and training in journalism to even begin to understand and embrace the ethics behind this question. This discussion cuts particularly close to the bone for me, a recovering journalist. After 12 plus years as a foreign affairs/defense reporter for various industry pubs, I went to the “dark side” and became a PR flak. Actually, I try never to use that term “flak” even in jest because I take my job very seriously and getting a client published exercises every bit of journalism training I have accumulated. Sometimes I think I spend more time thinking about the readership of my press targets, and sweating over what would make a good story for them, than I ever did for the publications that I spun out thousands of words for over the years. I wrote about whatever I happened to be interested in — after I dealt with the breaking news, of course.

As I log nearly 11 years in public relations now, I find I have become just as passionate about PR, and what it stands for, as I was about journalism. I would never have left journalism had I not uprooted myself from the East Coast to follow my heart to California. That proved to be a serendipitous voyage because I landed in what was to become a plum PR position. I was fortunate to join one of the two companies that launched Travelocity. I learned about PR on the job as that brand grew almost overnight with the advent of the Web for the masses.

Until then, I had a myopic view of PR. I had contactwith the communications departments of the foreign embassies that were part of my beat, and I dealt with the PR heads at the major defense companies — when I couldn’t find any other way around them. I gave little thought to what their jobs entailed. They always seemed to be throwing parties and inviting me on junkets. They were never my source of news, but in the government they were the only gateway to the military brass and foreign dignitaries that I wrote so intimately about.

It
is only now when I have spent an equal amount of time as a journalist
and a PR professional that I can see many similarities and admirable
qualities in both disciplines. There are good and bad in every
profession, and there are always stumbles along the way, but the codes of ethics are always clear. It’s tempting to cut corners when you are stressed and facing seemingly impossible deadlines or when you are struggling to launch a new PR practice or magazine. Professionals have to make decisions every step of the way, but they should remember that there have been many others that tread the same path earlier and the course is clearly charted.

Blogs and listservs serve as an invaluable communication channel for sharing such information and experiences. There has never been this much information so readily available.

So what’s all this got to do with my client’s question about whether he could just pay me for success? It’s an example of the important role that PR people play in educating their clients on what PR and journalism are all about. We PR folks are the frontline to the companies who make the products and offer the services. Without us there would be no code of ethics.

Technology companies have become savvier to PR in the past five years as their industry took a beating and the press turned on many of them because of their irrational exuberance in the dot-com boom. Today clip counts are not as important to C-level corporate types as they used to be. Volume has given way to quality. CEO’s now tend to ask: Was the article accurate? Did it reach the right audience? Was it positive? Did it result in customer sales?

We’ve come a long way baby, but there are always new entrants to the market, and boutique PR agencies like the JAG Wire Group, must help in educating these shiny new CEOs that are our future success stories.

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