Stop Giving Away Work for Free: The Real Critical Issue That Came Out of the PR Council Critical Issues Forum

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Wanting to hash out the critical issues in any industry is a lofty goal, but I think we unintentionally hit gold at last week’s Critical Issues Forum. The agenda boasted topics ranging from how to differentiate influence from popularity, what is going on inside the minds of CMOs, how the client/agency relationship is evolving, where brand journalism fits into the news cycle and even “viral” content, but for me the unexpected hero of the hour was “Why does PR continue to give the milk away for free?”

A quick “tip” shared by MasterCard CCO, Chris Monteiro, was that PR agencies are notorious for “giving us [clients] stuff for free” which makes it easier for procurement people to get into heavy price negotiations year after year. His advice was simple: stop doing it. Stop thinking of freebies as “investments” and stop thinking that “if they liked it once, they’ll pay the next time,” reminding us that it’s more likely that if they liked it for free, they’ll never see the point in paying for it at the price you eventually ask for. In short, you will always be losing money.

It landed almost as a joke in the room, receiving soft chuckles, knowing glances from colleagues and more than a few Twitter shout-outs, but it was a concept that left me really thinking. Why is PR like the Souq? Why do clients think that everything is up for negotiation? Why do we allow it? More to the point, what can we do to correct it?

As PR increasingly gets a “seat at the marketing table” this issue rises in importance for the industry. As suggested by moderator, Elise Mitchell, we may have a seat (finally) but are still seen as the low man on the totem pole. And why might that be? Because we control the smallest budgets. Personally, I think she’s on to something.

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But how do we go from issue to solution? I think the below ideas might, at the very least, be a good starting place.

No simple answers here. But a topic that I hope to hear more and more about in 2016.

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