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How to work with PR on a limited budget

3 Different Ways to Hire PR Agency on a Limited Budget

For young brands, 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 Some PR agencies believe the traditional PR model is outdated and are moving toward a performance model that uses a low retainer base and then charges additional fees only when media coverage comes in. This post explores three different ways brands can work with PR agencies at different levels of cost.

Choose a monthly retainer with a boutique agency or freelance publicist

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 behalf - so if you are paying $1,000 and your publicist charges $100 an hour, that equates to 10 hours of work done against your retainer a month. 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.

Retain a publicist for a short-term project

Unlike a retainer, a PR project is a fixed cost (based on estimated hours) for a limited amount of time. Projects may occur as an added cost with a retainer client who needs extra support - perhaps for an event or international media trip. Agencies might offer a fixed project cost to a new client as a way of proving their value and might do a short-term effort around a specific campaign or task - holiday pitching, or a blogger campaign. For full-service agencies that offer web development or graphic design, a project might be a blog installation or photo shoot. In a project the client pays one sum, no matter how many hours the project takes to complete.

A bit similar to project work, A la carte PR services can be an affordable transition into working with an agency, although not all agencies offer this option. 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. Brands can 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. Pitch! Press, a fashion and lifestyle boutique agency in Los Angeles focused on editorial, says about one-third of clients have used their a la Carte services, which range from media coaching to deskside appointments. "The desk side appointments are the hottest item we offer, " explains Pitch! Press partner, Shannon Cavanagh. "We travel with our client to New York 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."

Polina Fashion, a fashion PR agency in New York offer "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.  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!"

Negotiate for compensation based on coverage

While controversial because public relations outreach is never a guarantee for sales, you might be able to negotiate for a base retainer with a bonus fee structure based on placements. 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 have had to be. 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!

This is an update to this post. Original Image

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 March 26, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post. This will help me with my proposals for smaller emerging brands with smaller budgets. The problem I have had as i build up my clientele, is that emerging brands have a harder time paying the monthly retainer. I think I will incorporate all three options to give clients choices.

  • Posted April 16, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Great article. This is something I have developed with my clients as well. There are some startups and up and coming talent that have great potential, but limited funds. I love to work with passionate clients that have a great message, product or service to offer the world so these different types of payment options allows for the client to get the attention they deserve. The only caution is those who refuse to pay once the job is done. With a retainer the PR firm is getting the money up front before the service. What are your ideas on ways to ensure payment with the pay for placement option?

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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