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4 different ways to pay for public relations

4 Different Ways to Pay for Public Relations

Most PR agencies make their living off of retainer-based services, but as public relations evolves and and the market shifts (ie social media's free tools throw traditional media relations for a loop), new service offerings are popping up to either augment, modify, or provide quick solutions to the need for PR.

For an emerging fashion designer, committing to a yearly contract for a PR retainer can feel daunting, and agencies often struggle with client expectations for immediate, Oprah-style results. For new and emerging designers specifically, A la carte PR services can be an easier and more affordable transition into working with an agency while offering the agency  a chance to show the client what they can do. For in-house PR specialists, working with a PR agency just for an area of specialization in a project-setting, like media training, social media or crisis communications, can be a viable option to round out expertise. Some PR agencies believe the traditional PR model is outdated and are moving toward a performance model that uses a low retainer base and then charges additional fees only when media coverage comes in. In this post, we take a high-level approach to exploring both the traditional and alternative services agencies are offering to stay viable and relevant to the demands of today's client.

PR Retainer

The traditional model involves paying a certain amount of money up front each month. How many hours you get depends on the hourly rate of the practitioners working on your brand. Fashion PR retainers vary in size and scope, but most smaller boutique agencies consider $2,500 a month to be a minimum retainer, while larger agencies may consider $10k a month to be a starting point. Of course, the more you can spend the more time your PR team has to pitch you to the media and provide strategic support. Retainers typically require a commitment of at least three months, usually six. This is because PR is cumulative and requires consistent work and outreach to secure the best results.

Fixed Project

Unlike a retainer, a PR project is a fixed cost (based on estimated hours) for a limited amount of time. Projects may come up with a retainer client who is planning a large spring fashion party and needs additional help in the form of event planning, media invites, facilitation on the day of the event and post-event coverage. For full-service agencies that offer web development or graphic design, a project might be a blog installation and set-up or look book design.

Polina Fashion, a fashion PR agency in New York has just launched what they call "Instant Fashion PR" which gives interested clients the option to purchase packages of PR services, including SEO and graphic design, directly from the Polina Fashion web site. Turnaround time for these services is 4-7 business days, though they offer a 1 business day turn around time at increased cost. For some sample costs, a press release with distribution is $500 and  ff you are just looking for media contacts to do your own pitching,  a custom list of 100 contacts is $600. These low-risk services can be a great option for agencies and clients alike. As Polina explains, "Too many of our clients have had bad experiences with large PR firms, or they have not had any prior experience with an agency. Our Instant PR services let designers find out our standards, character, and professionalism without having the risk of buying months of PR at a time. Once we demonstrate that we can provide world-class PR, instantly, and without having to have signed up for 6-months at a time, we know you’ll be back!"

A la carte

Like an a la carte menu at your favorite happy hour, this allows designers to choose those items they need help with, like media pitching for a specific event or a press release, at a fixed cost.  Brands can then leverage a PR agency's expertise and contacts, while still being able to return PR services in-house after the event or debut is over. For new and emerging designers specifically, A la carte PR services can be an easier and more affordable transition into working with an agency. From a PR perspective, offering A la carte services can be a great way to start work with a new client, because it is low-risk, and the hope is  that after providing stellar results, that client will feel comfortable committing to an ongoing retainer.

Sometimes, A la Carte services function as add on's to a current retainer. Pitch! Press, a fashion and lifestyle boutique agency in Los Angeles focused on editorial, says about 1/3 of their clients have used their A la Carte services, which range from media coaching to deskside appointments.  Pitch! launched their a la Carte options  in their first year. As  clients grew and their needs changed, Pitch! began to provide marketing PR and branding services to continue to work as an extension of the client's team.  "The desk side appointments are the hottest item we offer, " explains Pitch! Press partner, Shannon Cavanagh-Estrada. "We travel with our client to NY present collection to editors over 4 days, sometimes we will take a  core retailer list and visit stores. Clients say its invaluable and we find that editorial often triples after doing desk side appointments."

Pay on Performance

According to David Oates, President of Stalwart Communications, a pay on performance PR firm based in San Diego, the traditional PR model as we know it is going out of fashion, simply because retainers aren't measurable and therefore agencies aren't accountable to clients in the same way that a law firms or marketing firms are. At Stalwart, the goal is above and beyond simple product placement, but to function as a facilitator between clients and media, strategically pursuing opportunities to engage media around what clients are doing, what expertise they have, and what their perspective is on current trends. The revenue model is a low base plus bonus, the bonus being a set fee for different secured opportunities - speaking at an event, positive articles, etc. Clients are not billed by the hour so that Stalwart's practitioners are, as David says, "chasing opportunities instead of hours."

The decision to work with a PR agency should be made after a thorough research phase and compared against current capabilities and specific needs. Each agency has its own personality, expertise, quirks, and set of services, so it's worth taking the time to find the perfect fit! We'd love to hear from clients and agencies alike on where they stand on the above-mentioned services and any relevant experience to share.

Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs

About the author: Crosby Noricks

Known as the "fashion publicist's most powerful accessory," (SD-UT) and the "West Coast 'It' girl of fashion PR," (YFS Magazine) Crosby Noricks is a brand strategist, author and founder of PR Couture. Crosby was included in the iMedia 25 Class of 2012 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, and enjoys helping fashion and lifestyle brands connect with their audiences in meaningful and creative ways.


  • Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Crosby,

    How are you? Your blog is amazing, I love catching up with all of your posts. I just read your most recent addition about a la carte menus and pay per result payment structures that PR firms are now using to accommodate low budget clients.

    At 5s Public Relations we have implemented this structure in February and have been able to secure several companies with our a la carte menu options. This option we created keeping new businesses in mind, those that don’t have a large marketing/PR budget. Some are also just looking to start with local coverage and do not need us to reach out to national outlets. We have divided our pricing structure in tiers local, regional, national as well as dailies, glossies and online media…this has proven to be a great option for our clients to be able to pick and choose which services they would like to utilize and which targets they would like us to focus on.
    Your loyal fans at 5s Public Relations :)

  • Posted August 12, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    At White Book Agency we typically work on retainer or per project basis, but we also have a “pitch package” that’s budget-friendly and great for individuals/entrepreneurs and small businesses. The package provides a consultation, a few story angles (for present and future pitches), and a press release. For an additional fee, we’ll also handle one-time distribution.
    It’s great for those who have a limited budget for PR and who are new to working with agencies. It’s also nice for us because we’re able to bring exposure to an emerging business and it allows a new client to experience our services.
    NV, White Book Agency

  • Posted September 25, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I handle fashion and lifestyle PR for my own firm and have just started offering a la carte services for companies that can’t afford a monthly retainer. It’s a great option for companies on a budget. Here’s the link to the blog post about it:

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Meet Crosby Noricks

Hi. I'm Crosby, Founder of PR Couture, Fashion Brand Strategist and PR Girl Mentor. I care about supporting and celebrating fashion publicists as well as helping companies connect with their audiences in more meaningful ways. Recently, iMedia included me in their annual list of 25 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, along with people from Starbucks, Twitter and Volkswagon, which I think is pretty neat. Like Elle Woods, I am a Gemini-vegetarian (that's about where the similarities end). Let's connect: Check out my full bio, Brand Elixir sessions for brands or shoot me a note at