PR Budgeting in a Downturn

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

In an economic downturn, PR budgets come under increasing scrutiny, as do most business expenses. PR agency fees, long accepted both as exorbitant and tolerated as a cost of doing business (in many cases funded by free-flowing VC dollars) are a prime candidate for budget cutting as the focus turns to increasing profitability. But obtaining better value for your PR budget dollar requires a change in the PR resource selection and management procedures as well. Here's how to make sure your PR program directly supports your bottom line - and not just that of the PR agency.

Objectives - as obvious as this may seem, many companies purchase PR services with only the faintest clue of what the objectives of the PR program will be in a terms of output, deliverables or process. It's very similar to those who buy a car based on how it looks, or its perceived cachet - with no regard for actual, utilized performance, economy or capabilities (like the car with a top speed of 120 mph - just where do you use that capability?) And there are a lot of PR Ferraris out there that do little more than generate extremely expensive, mundane press releases. So the first order of business is to establish objectives for the PR program that can be benchmarked quarterly, and that will serve as a basis for a capabilities specification.

Capabilities - once objectives are established , then a fit of the PR advisor's capabilities to those objectives is the next step. Both inadequate and excessive capabilities will generate similar results - disappointment. But in the more common of the two extremes (over buying), this experience becomes very expensive. Horror stories abound in the PR business concerning corporate clients who paid premium prices for non-existent (or non-delivered) capabilities. Many buyers of PR services assume they are off the hook with the cliche of wanting ‘full service'. What they don't realize is that this is mostly an agency overhead specification, not a capability statement. The best value in PR services comes from aligning your actual needs for the next twelve months with the core competencies of the PR provider. Anything else is fluff - and a lot of fluff is both sold and bought in the PR business.

Scope - PR can be broken down into a series of projects or definable events, and does not have to be a nebulous years-long ‘awareness' campaign. A common example is a product introduction. Just as you do not continuously introduce a new product (there is a definable window) the rest of your PR should not be a mundane, continuous repetition of the same announcements of financing, strategic partnerships and additions to the staff that everyone else has. There can (an should be) well defined themes of competitive distinction and your customer value proposition that are developed and propagated over a defined period. This definition of program content and time period serves as a basis of the PR program evaluation.

Evaluation - this is where the ‘rubber meets the road' (hopefully it's not a Firestone.) Does your program hold the road and get you where you want to go, or is it a candidate for a blowout and rollover? If you specified your objectives properly and got a program proposal that was supposed to meet them - this will become pretty apparent. You will have a good idea within the first three months, better and sharper at the six month mark, and by nine months - what you see is what you get. But it shouldn't really take you that long to know how your program is performing. PR, like many professional tasks - is actually a process. If the process is not unfolding in measured, clearly definable steps - then it isn't really taking place. This is where management often makes a mistake of assuming some ‘magic' is taking place, or they simply ‘throw it over the wall' and neglect it until the scheduled reporting points. That's a formula for surprises - which are usually unpleasant. The next time you hear about a disappointing PR experience - ask about how tightly it was managed from the client side. You'll always find that it wasn't. Favorite management line: "I thought they were taking care of that." That line doesn't play well with the board when it comes to reporting earnings or profits, and it shouldn't be used for the PR, either.

The economic downturn has taken its toll. Companies that clearly focus their PR on supporting their sales and marketing and insist on getting better value for their PR budget dollar will be among the profitable survivors. Will you be one of them?

Copyright 2009 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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