Debunking the myth of “free” in public relations

by | May 15, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Every once in a blue moon, we public relations professionals are granted some mercy from the universe and opportunities come to us.

One on such occasion, an interview opportunity crossed my desk that was a fit for a client of one of my clients. While not directly impacting my bottom line, the referral was a gesture of goodwill on behalf of my client. And when the clients are happy, I’m happy.

During our initial call to discuss the interview and wary of media opportunities masquerading as editorial content, the business owner rightly asked me if there was a cost to fulfill this partnership.

“No, this is a true editorial opportunity,” I responded.

“Oh, so it’s free.”

Before I could breathe, I responded, “My time isn’t free.”

A hundred times before this instance, I probably wouldn’t have responded with such gusto. And despite the straightforward nature of my gut response and the fact that this business was not footing the bill for my time in this particular case, it’s not my first encounter with this conversation and an important point that we practitioners don’t emphasize enough.

Communicating earned media

While the description earned media feels stodgy to me (can we please modernize it a little? I’m open to rebranding,), it’s accurate. Media relations takes work.

Most tactics and story angles don’t grow on trees and behind most effective messages is a good deal of planning and effort to ensure they reach the right audience.

And even with the best ideas not every pitch lands on the first attempt. Follow-ups upon follow-ups to influencers, producers and editors take hours. Even then, as is the plight of anyone in the media relations realm, after all that effort we often hear no—or worse yet, crickets.

We also contend with editorial calendars, publications with long leads and breaking news that bumps our stories and alters timelines. While these are little more than facts of the business, they contribute to the time-consuming steps that are easy to overlook and underappreciate in an outcome-driven landscape.

Practitioners are therefore charged with communicating the steps associated with not only attaining that sweet, sweet coverage most associate with the practice of public relations, but also the effort associated with fielding opportunities as they happen.

Complexity of opportunity

Media cycles move at lightning speed and many practitioners, myself included, have found ourselves waking up before dawn to catch the day before it gets away from us.  Time, in every sense, is critical to our success.

In the realm of media relations especially, if your presence is desired, you’d better have your client ready and have them ready immediately.

Even with our secret tricks to make sure everyone is prepared, even under impossible deadlines, the fastest of opportunities are surrounded by elements that take time. Media training, prep, talking points, interview coordination and tracking are a few of the elements surrounding each and every opportunity that we’re able to secure.

Putting a value on time

Just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as free publicity. And while we often don’t think to put a value on our own time it does have a cost.

This isn’t just relevant to business owners—there’s a cost associated with time whether it’s that of an employee or the paid efforts of an outsourced partner. Someone is taking time away from something else to make an opportunity happen on your behalf.

Efficiencies are at play into this equation as well.  Many of us aren’t blessed (or cursed) with a siloed role within their organizations, meaning at any given moment, we’re bouncing back and forth between a wide array of marketing roles. This makes any time spent in a certain arena (whether earned, owned or paid media) more valuable.

While my initial example is an anomaly in many ways, it serves as a reminder of the unspoken need for PR practitioners to better educate and communicate our process (whether we are in-house, agency or independent.)  True, public relations is often more cost-effective than paid media opportunities, but it comes with a different kind of cost.

In my case, the clients were understanding and appreciative of the gesture, respectful of time involved and ultimately walked away with a deeper understanding of the process, thanks to a little tough love transparency.

Time for PR pros—and any service-based offering—is a commodity and should be respected as such!

Allison Schroeder
Allison Schroeder, APR, is the owner of Pomme Communications, an award-winning public relations agency specializing in strategic media relations, special event promotion and personal branding. She represents a number of regional and national clients in the B2B, B2C and non-profit space. She’s also the host of the Hot Pink Apples podcast, providing a lighter take on marketing.


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