Trading “Value” for Lack of Skill: Pay-for-Performance PR Hits a Roadblock

As an agency selection criterion, pay-for-performance keeps getting retreaded like an old tire.

Pay-for-performance usually comes back during choppier economic times, like when there is a global pandemic and PR budgets are typically more closely scrutinized. Providers of PR automation and technology tools often seek new business by offering pay-for-performance solutions – usually automated PR services or content hubs that offer some sort of “secret sauce” for achieving media results. Their promises rarely come true.

That’s because agency selection is far more nuanced. Tech companies require more tailored expertise than any off-the-shelf solution can deliver. What early-stage companies need is focused attention from PR firms that have sector experience that maps to client needs. This expertise is paramount because a company’s story can’t be effectively articulated if a firm doesn’t grok the technology or fails to work with the appropriate journalists on a regular basis.

The calling card of pay-for-performance PR is publicity, yet results are usually just brief mentions in round-up articles. There is no substitute for true earned media, such as inclusion in significant industry pieces, being featured in a company profile, or placing thought leadership bylines in influential media outlets. What’s more, firms that do pay for performance often engage in “payola” journalism that violates ethical norms.

At best, pay-for-performance is shady, and PR pros often receive pitches from bloggers that explicitly put forward fee-based coverage scenarios that fail to mention to the public that they are seeing paid/promotional information. This is why numerous publications disavow pay-for-play PR because it tarnishes their editorial reputation.

As a client, one should be aware of the potential for brand damage by being associated with such practices, as well as the potential to violate Federal Trade Commission endorsement guidelines. The best-case scenario with pay-for-play PR is that you’ll gain some low-value placements, with the trade-off being risk to your brand’s reputation.

What’s more, pay-for-play firms don’t have reach beyond bloggers and online publications, lacking the expertise to break through gatekeepers. Most are incapable of building relationships with thought leaders and influencers like the analyst community. The skill of a true PR firm comes more sharply into focus when one considers that generating press is more challenging in today’s era of consolidated media ownership, and connections with editors and journalists are key.

Growing companies have PR needs that scale, too. Most need PR firms that possess a range of capabilities, including branding, social media, content creation, crisis communications, and public affairs skills, potentially combined with speaking programs or sponsorship management. Even for small clients, more than just a single approach is required for effective PR, and pay-for-play publicity shops just can’t deliver. They fall critically short when it comes to delivering value.

True value from a PR firm comes in the longer term, because real agencies deliver more than specific PR services and media results. They deliver valuable counsel at strategic corporate inflection points. Events like IPOs, executive changes, or significant product launches simply are not in the purview of publicity mills. A true PR firm’s broad-based expertise and media and influencer relationships drive real value, far beyond a few point-in-time news clips.