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Profitable PR

Have You Lost Your Balls?

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

Let's ream the contractor. That's a nice, healthy practice of growing prevalence. The short-term strategy of "stick it to the little guy," someone who doesn't have what John Kenneth Galbraith used to call "countervailing power." Or a self-concept. Or chutzpah. The little guy -- the independent, the sole proprietor, the freelancer, the contractor or sub-contractor, the small businessperson -- who either doesn't know any better or who knows better but is too timid to stand up for himself. Timid? Why, it's a business decision, you say. A calculated judgment, based on the philosophy of a bird in the hand, don't foul your own nest or piss into the wind, don't eat the seed stock. After all, it's better to work with existing clients than to go out and find new ones. Balls! [What the hell is "don't eat the seed stock"? Email me, and I'll tell you.] Are you a businessperson, or are you a mouse? Do you have a service to sell? A professional service, prepared to high standards, one where you go the extra mile to add that extraordinary, unexpected touch? Do you have training, experience, a folder full of client raves, awards hanging on the wall? Are You As Good As a Third-Level Flack? Do you value your own work as being every bit as good as -- very likely a damn sight better than -- the work prepared by some third-level junior assistant AE with about 15 minutes' experience that the expensive PR firm is billing out at $90 an hour? Then why the hell don't you stand up for yourself? Nobody corporate bats an eye when the agency president bills them $200 or $250 an hour. Or more. Aren't YOU the president of your own agency? Oh, sure, you say, but, after all, they have all that overhead to cover. You damn betcha. And they COVER it. In addition to paying the employees' salaries and bonuses, their fees cover employee benefits, enormous back-office administration, tony art deco or mahogany-paneled offices, agency planning and promotion, new business, the corporate jet, executive perks, and on and on. They take their clients to expensive lunches and bill the client for both the lunch and the time spent entertaining him. And they charge 3.5 to 4 times salary to cover overhead and profits. AND profits! Remember that concept? That's one of the things that was a gleam in your eye when you started your business, wasn't it? Well, why should you be struggling to pay month-end bills when the big boys are laughing all the way to the bank? The Council of Public Relations Firms, to no one's surprise, comes down in favor of its biggest members in their White Paper, "Is big better ... or bad?" "In the past decade," they say, "public relations firms have indeed become very successful businesses. Margins and multiples have risen steadily, now surpassing the profitability and valuations of advertising agencies." Now surpassing the profitability and valuations of ADVERTISING AGENCIES! Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, Fleishman Hillard, Hill and Knowlton, Ketchum, Waggener Edstrom, Weber/Shandwick -- they all bill, big time, for the costs that the small independents ignore. If you're like most independents or small PR businesses, you only sell time. You sell your labor, your skill, your sweat, your thinking, your creativity. But it's really your time. Giving Away Your ASSets But -- and here's the catch -- you don't actually SELL all of it; you give much of it away. You hold preliminary meetings, introductory meetings, sales meetings, descriptive meetings, planning meetings, information-gathering meetings, and you don't bill a cent, because you want to look cooperative and eager to work with the client. You spend hours -- sometimes days -- preparing proposals and pitches and RFPs and write-ups and project outlines, but the client never gets a bill. And if they decide against the project, or in favor of a competitor, it was all effort down the rat hole, and you call Brenda to go drinking and whine and commiserate. While there are ethical clients -- I've worked for some, most recently The Duff Company, an honest marketing services company -- other clients will eagerly use and abuse you to the extent you'll let them. Anything to extend their budget. Short-term dollars versus a long-term relationship: Right now, all the unthinking companies are focusing only on the short run. They're certainly not going to look out for YOU. That's YOUR job. Handle Me, Dear As a free agent, John Rossheim says in "PR Pros Get the Free Agent Message," you live and die by your reputation. Give OUTSTANDING client service: The big firms "handle" clients all right, but, Rossheim says, they don't necessarily handle them well. Be nimble and quick, Jack; you're in a position to change strategies to adapt to the economic climate. Consider niching yourself into a specialty. It's not just a survival tactic, it's a COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE. Use it! Know your true costs, then bill for them. Include a reasonable profit. You're running a business, remember? Not a charity. Paying to Whitewash the Fence Learn more about budgeting PR programs and pricing PR services. Use a bit of that God-given creativity to find a way to get your prospect to PAY for the selling process. We'll cover that more in future articles, but it's done all the time. Not every time with every client, unfortunately, but certainly often enough that it should be a part of your strategy. Any time you convince a client to do THIS, you oughta buy drinks for the house! Figure out which accounts are profitable and which are unprofitable, then be just as ruthless as they are. Oh, sure, you can help the client you're dumping find someone more satisfactory, but why should you operate your business in a way that slowly -- or not so slowly -- bleeds you to death? Timidity is no philosophy; it's the coward's way out. You might as well be that sonofabitch Bin Laden, hiding in a cave, fearfully twitching at every sound.

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