John Romaniello
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Aug 18, 2013

Is Hiring a PR Company Worth It?

I got an email a few days back from a friend of mine posing a question that, since my book was published, I am asked at least once a week. My friend–let’s call him So-Crates–wanted to know my opinions on a PR company. Specifically, he was asking if using a particular PR company would be a good move for one of the people whose fitness business he’s a partner in. We’ll call this person Helen of Troy.

Here’s the email:

Hey Roman, I’d value your opinion on this.  Not sure if you know our friend [Helen of Troy] yet or not. Anyway, see her email below. I’m a partner with her on her business (we’ve been growing her list fast through paid ads on Facebook), but this PR agency thing ventures into unexplored territory for me.

Let me know if you think this particular PR firm is legit, and if the $5k per month they’re asking for 6 months is worth it’s weight in gold or not.

Helen is good on camera and wants to get more TV appearances, so this might be worth it if they can seal good deals for us.”

Below his email, he forwarded a short email thread between Helen and the PR agency in question. It was pretty long, so here are the most important paragraphs:

…[this company] handles the PR for people such as Deepak Chopra, Reid Tracy, Annie Kagen (who wrote Hungry for Change), Neale Donald Walsh, and many other celebrities that I’m sure you’ve heard of. They just featured Annie Kagen on Access Hollywood and have had other clients on Oprah, The Talk, Dr. Oz and The Doctors.

After a few phone conferences and research on their part, they feel that my brand could go national and be a huge enterprise. It’s worth noting that these ladies only take on 4-5 clients at a time and turn people away all the time.

With their help, we believe we can get in front of a national audience through major media (national TV, radio shows, and magazine covers). [One of the women at the company], who is good friends with the executive producers of the Dr. Oz show, said that a lot of people with great products do not get on the show because they are not “Ozified,” meaning that they are just not “great” on TV.  [Both representatives from the company] feel strongly that I have that presence and they can get me on a lot of talk shows, radio shows and covers of magazines.

So, as you can see, that’s a pretty appealing pitch. For anyone who has spent time and energy building a brand, being able to get national TV media is one of the highest goals. Not only does it usually lead to direct sales, but it’s a cool feather in the cap. There’s also a chance it might lead to something else. But, we’ll get to that.

I wanted to give So-Crates the best information possible, and so rather than simply give him my thoughts on the specific PR company he and his partner were discussing, I thought it more effective to completely lay out my thoughts on PR in general, as well as give some highlights from my own experiences so far. And I think it will help others, as well.

Overall, the point of this post is to address the question in the title: is it worth it to hire a PR company? It’s an interesting question, and once I’ve been getting asked a lot, lately. Hopefully, the information herein will help some people answer that question for themselves.

 

Should You Hire A PR Agency?

(Probably Not)

 

Before anything else, I want to address the elephant in the room, and state something as clearly as possible: for most people, PR agencies are a complete waste of money. That’s the sad an unfortunate truth.

This is not to say that getting mainstream media is useless, because that isn’t the case. Mainstream media is exceptionally valuable–particularly television–,and regardless of the business you’re in, you should be looking to get that kind of attention. But working with a PR company isn’t the same as getting mainstream media.

When you’re talking about PR, you’re dealing in a lot of ifs. The more important if is “this might be worth the money IF the company can do what it says it can do.” Put another way, IF a PR company could really guarantee you placement, I wouldn’t say that it was a waste of money. The problem is, you’re not guaranteed any outcome, at all.

When you hire a PR firm, you’re entering into a contract that obligates you to pay for services they may not actually render. Regardless of whether you actually wind up with any significant placement, you’re paying your them a pretty hefty monthly fee. No matter what.

Now, that presents two very scary problems. The obvious is that you’re paying for something you might not get. Less obvious and more scary is the realization that because of the nature of the business (payment regardless of delivery), most established agencies have no real incentive to perform well; you’re paying a monthly retainer either way.

I’ve spoken to a few people who work (or used to work) at PR firms, and they seem to agree that the average client stays with the company for 3-5 months, whether or not they get any valuable media in it. The monthly fee for a really good agency can run as high as $10,000 per month; but, for the sake of argument, let’s use the price that Carol was quoted by the PR company in her email, and call it $5K/month.

If your budget is tight, paying 5k/month for something without a guaranteed outcome is hard to justify. Even if you have a lot of expendable cash, it’s a risky move.

Recently, I was speaking at an event in San Diego, and the subject of PR came up. My friend Craig Ballantyne, who has served as a business coach for a number of high level people, is pretty outspoken against paying for PR, and used the example of one of his clients, who is a mutual friend of ours.

Our mutual friend, who I’ll call Penelope, received a pitch from a PR company very similar to the one Helen of Troy received: “your content is great, you’d be perfect for Oz, you’re awesome on camera, yadda yadda yadda.”

This woman is a pretty big name in the fitness industry, has a business that generates tens of thousands of dollars per month, and is very telegenic. Or, to use the term from Carol’s email, very “Ozified.” Despite those advantages, and the fact that she came with a built-in audience, Sarah got absolutely nothing from her PR company. Literally, not one placement. Not even on local media. Because, as I said, the biggest if is about whether they can do what they say.

Again, according to my friends in the publicity field (and a few friends who have used public relations firms), the average person pays for 3-5 months. Or, to quote Craig, “most people won’t even think to cancel until they’ve hit the 25K mark.” That’s basically what happened with Penelope: she stayed with the company for about 6 months, dutifully paying $5,000 every month, and sending in pitches as often as possible. Still, nothing.

I don’t care how much money your business generates, it’s next to impossible to justify paying $30,000 for absolutely no ROI.

All of which is to say, as I stated earlier:  for most people, PR agencies are a complete waste of money. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time for all people. There are a few select types of people who can do really well with traditional public relations.

 

Who Should Use PR Company?

 

CELEBRITIES

 

For starters, it should go without saying that PR agencies are great for celebrities for three main reasons.

  1. These firms can help manage their brand, sometimes even working with a celebrity’s manager to look into endorsement deals.
  2. Additionally, PR firms work for celebrities to keep their promotion schedule organized and in check; for example, getting someone booked on 9 talk shows in a single week to promote a new movie or TV show is the job of the publicity people.
  3. Finally, PR firms do damage control when something goes awry–anything from a faux pas like saying “I hope [Anne Frank] would have been a Belieber” to something like putting a positive spin on a third stint in rehab.

 

BIG TIME AUTHORS

PR firms also seem to work exceptionally well for authors who can organically sell a ton of books. For example, in her email, Helen of Troy mentioned Deepak Chopra. Chopra’s books sell like crazy, and any time he comes out with a new one, he’s on all the major morning shows and all that.

With someone like Chopra, the level of success creates a big of a chicken-egg question, and you’ve got to question whether he’s getting on Dr. Oz because he’s selling a lot of books, or selling a lot of books because he’s on Dr. Oz. The answer is probably a bit of both, and it’s hard to quantify an answer, but I will say that his multiple successes make it a lot easier to get media.

So, if you’ve got one of those books that everyone is talking about, it’s not going to be overly hard to get some national media, and a PR firm can help you strike while the iron is hot and get bigger placement than you can get on your own.

 

Who Should Consider PR?

 

Mid-Level Authors 

Not everyone is Gwyneth Paltrow or Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra and can move books by leveraging their platform. Not everyone is a Stephen King or Dan Brown or JK Rowling who has had some massive previous success and can move books based on that. If you’re one of those people, I have no advice for you–and I’m all ears if you have any for me.

On the other hand, if you’re an author who can sell some books, but can’t guarantee multiple weeks on the best-seller list or you don’t have at least a few ins to national media, a PR company might be able to get you some impressive placements.

Realistically, I’m a great example of someone who is a potentially good candidate for benefiting from a PR firm: I’m a best-selling author, well-known in my field, telegenic and well-spoken, and have some previous TV experience. If you’re in a position similar to mine (and, Helen of Troy isn’t, yet), then hiring a PR company is worth considering.

Based on my general position and attributes, we realized it was worth looking into, and leading up to the launch of ETA, we did check out a few agencies. In our discussion with various firms we picked up a bit of useful information and made decent connections, which was great.

The most impressive firm we were looking at was $11K/month, and predicted a three month project window. They were well-connected and had worked with a lot of authors in situations similar to ours with some good success with a very few people in situations similar to mine, so this particular agency was very, very appealing.

In the end, however, we didn’t pull the trigger. Why? Well, because of the main PR dilemma: we couldn’t be guaranteed a return. Sure, they talked a lot about potential placements–but, they couldn’t definitively promise to deliver a home run.

That lack of guarantee bled into a number of other considerations that led us not to hire them. And there really were a few reasons, outside of the obvious budgetary concerns. One of these is that we had the PR department of our publishing company working on major media. Given that the people at Harper were pitching on our behalf, we weren’t convinced that paying $33K for PR was going to get us any better results than the PR we were getting for free.

Of course, I must mention we didn’t get a lot of major, national media for the book; so looking back at it, I’m not sure if passing on an established firm was a misstep. But, that’s the way it played out, and it’s something I’ll definitely think about for the next book.

Anyway, if you’re in a similar position, you’ll beed to at least roll the idea of hiring a PR company around in your noodle. When you’re weighing your options, take a moment and analyze the types of media appearances that would be real home runs: if you’re in an industry like fitness, health, wellness or general self-improvement, then the home runs are Dr. Oz, The Doctors, Rachel Ray, Kelly & Michael, the View, Good Morning America, and the Today Show.

The reasons these are home runs is that it’s national media that brings with it two things:

  1. An Audience of Buyers – Something to mention upfront is that it’s going to be much easier to get on to one of these shows if you have an book to sell, rather than just an online presence. Holding a physical item has value to old school media, because they don’t understand (and therefore fear) anything digital. That said, whether you have a book or digital products, you’ll see a spike in sales, traffic, and opt-ins over a two week period after the media piece. How much is impossible to say, but I think a conservative estimate would be an 1000 new prospects during that period. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider how many eyeballs are actually glued to that show, you’ll realize that conversion from TV to opt-in is woefully low. A physical book that can be purchased in the book stores tends to do much better; not only will you sell a lot of copies directly, but you’ll often get better placement in book stores. The heading “As seen on Dr. Oz!” in a book display is going to result in a lot of sales, as well.
  2.  Implied Credibility – Outside of the direct benefit of increased sales, there are some indirect benefits as well. Getting on TV has a mystique about it that’s hard to measure, or even describe. People just assume that because you were on some show, you know more; they automatically impart more authority to you and anything you say. Secondly, being on TV makes you look like a celebrity, and the more famous you are, the more you can charge (and the more you’ll sell). Not to mention, if it’s a good appearance, if gives you great content that you can use to your benefit–every new person that walks through the funnel will eventually see the piece and be like ooh this chick is legit. If you’re savvy, you’ll be able to use that clip for sales and general marketing.

A good example of the value of the second point is the time I had an appearance on Good Morning America in 2011. Although it’s easier to get on if you have a book, it’s possible to get on without one. At that point, I had no book to pitch, just information to share. Somehow I managed to get on. Anyway, although I didn’t see a huge increase in sales or opt-ins immediately, we used that clip in the second FPFL launch and it did really well for us.

The funny thing is that I didn’t pay to get on GMA–it just sort of happened, as a result of working with a start-up who had a relationship with the show. However, for that appearance, it would have–in the long run–been worth it to pay, if it had come to that. You see, based on my metrics, I can tell you that using the video in the launch funnel made a LOT more people more likely to buy, and directly led to a lot of sales. I can comfortably say the video helped us do an extra $15-20K in revenue.

Even if I’d paid a PR agency to get me on GMA, a $5-10K investment for a $15-20K return is a solid pay off. The problem is, of course, that even if a PR company can/will get you placement on a home run show, there’s no way to know how long it will take from the time you ink the PR deal to getting on TV.

A good take home point is that if you are considering hiring a PR company, look at it like any other business decision, and assess cost:benefit ratio. That’s a bit more difficult in this case than most others because, again, you can’t be guaranteed an outcome, so it’s helpful to look at both sides of it.

The questions you need to ask yourself (as I did) are: 1) how much is ONE major appearance worth to the business? and, 2) how much are you willing to lose if you can’t get on?

To answer the first question, determine in advance what your break even point will be. First, estimate how much you believe you can stand to profit from a huge appearance. If you’re confident that you can stand to make–either immediately, or in the long run–an additional $25,000-30,000 (or the rough equivalent in book sales), from a home run appearance on something like Good Morning America or the View, then that’s your break even point.

Answering the second question just requires you to decide–ahead of time–your spending limit. If you can afford to shell out $30,000 (assume 5K/month for 6 months) to potentially hit a home run, that’s one thing. But, assuming you swing and miss, are you still comfortable losing the $30,000? If not, decide your comfortable loss threshold, and aim for that as a goal to get placement and head towards your break even point.

Deciding both of these things in advance is hugely important. The last thing you want do is go in without a predetermined idea about acceptable loss and knowing when to cut your losses. If you do that, you’re a lot more likely to fall prey to thinking about sunk cost and other crap that convinces you to make decisions because, well, I’ve already spent 30K, what’s another 5?  As you might imagine, that could very quickly become an expensive thought process.

 

Alternatives to Traditional PR

 

I said in the beginning of this article that PR agencies are a waste of money for most people. I probably should have said traditional PR agencies. There are a few new ways to get PR that I think are infinitely more beneficial to most non-celebrities than traditional PR firms.

While there are numerous ways to get publicity and press, some are worth paying for. Below, I’ve outlined the ones that I’ve used, and given some resources.

 

A La Carte PR 

As you by now know, my biggest problem with traditional PR is that you are obligated to pay and they are not obligated to deliver. What if that wasn’t the case? What if, for example, you could work with a PR company that only charged you if they actually booked placement on you?

Welcome to the world of A La Carte PR, which I personally believe will become the standard over the next five or so years. With a la carte PR, you don’t pay a monthly retainer. Rather than charging you a flat fee every month, these agencies will only bill you if they actually do something for you.

This solves the two largest problems with traditional PR: the expense and the risk. Since you’re only paying for each individual placement, even in a really good month with a few big placements, you’re probably not going to cross the 5K mark that a decent PR company would cost over that same time frame. Or, if you did, you’d be paying for a placement that was actually worth that kind of expense.

For example, I’d pay $5K to appear on the Dr. Oz show or Rachel Ray or something like that. I would do it in a heartbeat, no questions asked. Because I know the value that kind of exposure could have. And I have no problem paying good money for that exposure–I just don’t want to pay it for nothing.

As for risk, it’s pretty obvious that that won’t be an issue. Not only are you freed up from a huge monthly obligation, but you’re also freed from the fear of lack of results. Whereas traditional PR firms have no real incentive to perform well, a la carte PR firms are incentivized to do exactly that. The only way they get paid is if they perform successfully and get you booked. If they don’t, they don’t make money.

Resultantly, a la carte PR agencies have something most traditional ones don’t: hustle. And you can’t put a price on that.

The only potential downside is that because a la carte PR companies are still relatively new, they’re probably not as well connected or powerful as traditional, established firms. So, they may not be able to do quite as much for you. That’s temporary, though–a few years from now they’ll be on even footing.

For those interested, I have used an a la carte firm. They’re great, and I do recommend them. Check out PRServe.

 

Disruptive PR 

I really don’t know what to call this other than disruptive. Basically, this is the type of guerrilla marketing we used for Engineering the Alpha. Disruptive PR basically results in blanketing the space with information about your project. Think of it as a media takeover; for Alpha, we focused on the fitness, health, wellness, and beauty industries, and in a two week period published something like 30 articles and appeared on about 20 podcasts. (I’ll do a full launch breakdown with links to all of them at some point.)

This was possible because of a guy named Ryan Holiday. If you’re heard of Ryan, you know he’s the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. In that book, he pretty much outlines how disruptive PR works. In addition to leveraging a lot of connections that Ryan, Adam and I all had, Ryan is very good at moving placement up the chain.

For example, during our Reddit AskMeAnything (which Ryan set up), we had Arnold Schwarzenegger stop by and answer a few questions. Ryan took that and sent it to a few news sites. The story was in turn picked up by the Daily Dot and the New York Post. Both sites ran the story because they thought it was cool that Arnie would stop by someone else’s AMA. That drove extra traffic to the AMA, which in turn drove more traffic to the book.

Personally, when you’re a “mid-level” persona (someone with a following of your own, but not a celebrity) I think disruptive PR is far more valuable than traditional PR, for a few reasons. The most obvious of these is that it’s easier to get placement on mid-sized online outlets than major TV outlets. If these outlets have a responsive readership, you’re a lot more likely to see conversions/sales than on TV. This is especially true if there are 30-50 of them, like we had.

Secondly, the nature of doing anything online is that it’s easier to get people do anything, compared to TV. Online, they just click a link. If they see something on TV, they have to remember the name, go to the computer, google it, go to the site, read, etc. It’s just too many steps, which is why the conversation are so abysmally low.

Finally, it’s cheaper, and has a pre-determined endpoint. I can only speak from my experience with Ryan (and I don’t know anyone else who offers the service), but the way he works is on a per-project basis, instead of a per month basis. Ryan and I had dinner and discussed the goals of the book, and when he signed on, he charged us a flat fee.

Now, we did establish a basic timeline that started the moment I hired him and ostensibly ended a month or so after the launch, but really, Ryan’s position was “as long as it takes, it takes.” I knew that if he had the opportunity to do something beneficial for the book and it was well after the launch, he’d still make it happen.

Overall, we paid Ryan about $15,000 for the entire Alpha project. Definitely money well spent; his company is great at what they do, and definitely helped us. If you’re looking to make a splash, I would check them out: Brass Check Marketing.

 

Do It Yo’ Damn Self

The truth is, you don’t need a PR company to get publicity; they certainly do a better job than you can, but if you’re willing to start on the local level, it’s not overly difficult to get some media.

I know a lot of people in smaller cities (Baltimore, Madison, Minneapolis) who are on local TV all the time because it’s a much less competitive market. You can just send out a press kit, or get in touch with their producers (much easier on local shows), and send out some pitches. Local news stations need content, so as long as you have some good content and make a pitch, it won’t be overly difficult to get placement on small, local news affiliates.

Once you’ve done that, you can then take the clips from your appearance(s) to bigger affiliates. Something to remember is that nothing says “you should put me on TV” to a producer better than proof that you’ve been on TV before. Using those clips allows you to work your way up the chain–under the best cases, you can work all the way up to the national level.

For further reading on how to do this, check out this blog post by Tim Ferriss on how he ratcheted all the way up to Dr. Oz without a PR company. Pretty impressive!

 

Final Thinkingzez

As I told my buddy So-Crates when I emailed him back, PR is tricky. Media is incredibly valuable, but so are time, energy, and money. Spending a lot of those three resources to get media may not be worth it, unless you can really guarantee a result.

Meaning that unless you’re super successful author, a celebrity, or on the cusp of becoming one of those two things, 95% of the time you’re better off skipping the PR companies and doing something less traditional. It’s been working out pretty well for me.

Hope that helps!

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