Should PR agencies ever work for free?

Should PR agencies ever work for free?

Phil Szomszor

Phil Szomszor

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” said The Joker in The Dark Knight Batman film. That’s the theme behind a piece in today’s Financial Times, “No Pay? You Must Be Joking?”, which explores whether it’s a good idea to provide free labour to get experience or contacts, or whether you’re devaluing what you do by giving away your time and expertise for nothing.

It begs the question, should PR agencies work for free?

Putting aside working for free as part of a pro bono arrangement to support a cause or charity, the issue of providing free consultancy time has bubbled away for a while - but I fear the practice could become more prevalent.

There’s always been an element of free PR consulting time. Whether it’s those agencies who take on a high-profile client as a loss leader, or even just the time investment taken to pitch your ideas to a prospect - which could end up being used without receiving a fee.

Then there’s the issue of over-servicing. In the cases where agencies knowingly over-service by, say, 20%, they are effectively giving Fridays to their clients for free.

These are issues which PRs been wrestling with for a while, but I think the pressure to provide free work has become greater. I remember pitching at my last agency to a tech company, and was pretty pleased with the way it went. We then found out one of the other agencies had gone to the trouble of getting a piece of BBC news coverage “to show what they could do”. They got the business.

Last year we were asked whether we would take on an internet start-up and provide our services in exchange for a stake in the business (OK, not free work; theoretically an exchange). We turned the offer down, but know that their web design agency didn’t and the job became so big that it almost bust the company.

I’ve had a few approaches from tech start ups in the last couple of years to do their PR on the promise of future business. I guess they think they’re bootstrapping the business; why shouldn’t their partners show the same commitment?

Exceptions? Well, there's a case when you're learning new skills. Better to hone them on your own marketing or give them away. But the point they have value, they should have a price.

The challenge is to decide what qualifies as free work. I’m always happy to give some initial free advice and you could argue that the content marketing or running events is, in effect, giving away free services or expertise.

The acid test is, usually: do I feel like I’m being taken for a ride? If I feel that way, then I’m I'll walk away. It’s not always easy - and ironically it feels counter-intuitive - but we should always value what we do. Otherwise, how can anyone else?

If you’re good at something, never do it for free: The Joker

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