5 Things I Learned From 5 Years Running a PR Firm

When I first started dabbling in public relations, all I knew about it was what I learned previously as a full-time newspaper journalist, i.e. very little. To learn the ins and outs of PR, I picked up any client that came my way, be it a Texan real estate company, a fine jewelry brand, or an eco product line for kids. I didn’t have a trainer or any friends in PR, so I used those early clients to learn the job on the job.

Eventually, I got enough experience and launched my own agency, I Do PR, with a focus on weddings. Now, looking back on the last 5 years of running my agency full-time, here’s what I’ve learned, and what I wish someone told me when I was starting out.

1. Choose a Niche within a Niche

In the beginning, I didn’t want to pick a niche in PR because I was afraid of limiting myself. What I’ve learned since is that picking a specialty actually has the opposite effect. A niche differentiates you from thousands of other firms and professionals doing general PR, positions you as an expert in your field, and keeps you top of mind of businesses in your chosen industry. For me, deciding to switch from general PR to wedding PR turned out to be the smartest business decision I’ve ever made. Instead of spending a ton of time on hunting for clients, by virtue of specializing, I’ve become one of the go-to people for wedding brands seeking a publicist.

Are you a fashion publicist? Great, that’s a niche. But if you’re still struggling to find clients (or have them find you), I suggest you find a niche within that niche. There are a gazillion fashion publicists out there, so what differentiates you from all of them? Perhaps you can focus only on accessories or on men’s athletic wear or Italian luxury brands. Whatever it is, stick to it and you will see how clients start to seek you out. Just make sure to pick a niche that you truly enjoy because you’ll be reading, writing and thinking a lot about it every single day of your PR life.

2. Charge for your worth, not for your time

When I first started out in PR, I didn’t know how to charge clients. I explored hourly billing, a monthly retainer, a commission structure based on performance (i.e. when clients pay a low retainer plus a commission for every placement), but I didn’t know what was best.

Through trial and error, I determined that a retainer works best and then arrived at this super simple formula to determine how much it should be: the total sum of how much you want to make per month divided by how many clients you can/want to handle. (Try not to go over 5 clients if you want to stay sane!)

Most importantly, do not charge by the hour. Why? Because you’re a publicist, not a plumber. In our job, sometimes one 30-second pitch email can nab a major story. Other times, you’re pitching and pitching for a week and you get nowhere. What you’re charging for isn’t the hours you’re putting in, but the sum of your experience, your finesse, your understanding of the media, your research and, of course, your contacts. So charge for your total value, not your time.

3. Develop a tiered pricing structure

I’ve heard lots of publicists complain that the biggest time suck of running a PR agency is creating proposals for clients that don’t end up signing on. Don’t worry, I did it too. Then, I figured out an easier way: creating a tiered price structure for our services. For example, my firm offers 3 tiers at different price ranges that include different services. They can of course be customized, but that initial 3-tier structure gives clients an immediate idea of what they’re getting and for how much. Once they’re in, I can create a detailed proposal, knowing that they’re already committed.

The tiered structure also gives you a way to work with different sized clients and spreads out your workload. You can tweak the price or the services it includes until you determine what most of your typical clients want and can afford. The general rule of thumb is that if you’re getting a ton of clients, your prices may be too low. If it’s a struggle to sign on any, they may be too high. The good thing about a tier structure is that most clients will find something that works for their budget.

4. Only sign what you can secure

If you want to build a lasting business and not spend your time working with clients that drive you crazy, then you have to establish a positive and mutually trusting rapport with your client from day one. I think we publicists often forget what we ask of our clients – hand over their business’ reputation, pay decent sums of money, and in return not get any guarantee of results. Just think about how much trust that takes from their end.

So how to make sure you and your client enter into a relationship as trusting partners? Here is the system I’ve developed. Before I sign on a new client, I research them to determine if I’m the best person to help them, then I talk to them over the phone (or meet them in person if possible) to see if we like each other, and then I have them fill out a detailed questionnaire. The questionnaire asks about their team, marketing efforts and past experience with press. But most importantly, it asks about their goals and expectations of PR and of their business overall. Their answers help both of us get on the same page.

What you’re charging for isn’t the hours you’re putting in, but the sum of your experience, your finesse, your understanding of the media, your research and, of course, your contacts.

And then, before we sign any contracts, I tell them exactly what is realistic. If a client expects to be on the cover of Vogue tomorrow, in Forbes the next week and hanging out with Oprah the week after that, and I know for a fact that I won’t be able to make that happen, I tell them that upfront. It’s not just because I want to be honest, but because it saves me from dealing with the biggest source of stress in our profession – the guilt and the self-loathing that come with not being able to deliver. While a bit of a challenge is good, overpromising and underdelivering will cause more struggle than it’s worth.

4. Automate business operations

It’s easy to simply say yes to a new client, jump in and start pitching. But I’ve learned that a proper client onboarding procedure helps prevent many disruptions and misunderstandings. So now, when I bring on a new client, I send them an information sheet on how we work, which includes practical information on press requests, timing, procedures, invoices and basically, everything that previous clients have asked me about. This helps me spend less time on client admin work and more on actual work they pay me to do.

In fact, I’ve learned that especially in service business like ours, automating processes is a huge time saver that will help preserve your sanity and keep you in PR for the long haul.

The simplest way start is by creating templates for everything that you find yourself doing over and over. That can include:

  • Pricing information sheet to send to potential clients.
  • Invoice template, where you can quickly plug in client name, date and amount.
  • Email responder text to potential clients, so you don’t have to type it over and over. Make two versions – for clients you’d like to sign and for clients you don’t.
  • Bookkeeping template to help keep track of your expenses and have something to hand to your accountant at the end of the year.
  • Inbound contact form on your website. Switching from having our email on our website to having a short web form was a huge time-saver. It cut down on spam and helped me get the information I needed on potential clients before we engage further.
  • Mailing list and newsletter, which you can easily do with a tool like Mailchimp.

5. Partner Up with like-minded experts

PR is one of those fields that remain a mystery to many clients, so you’ll be often asked to do things that are beyond the scope of what you actually do: branding, social media, newsletter writing, content marketing. The list grows every year. Instead of taking all of it on yourself, find people to outsource these requests, either as contractors or through a simple business referral network. In my own business, finding a content strategist, writer, social media expert, branding, web developer and analytics expert has been essential.

Also, find and befriend other publicists. When I started out, I avoided other publicists, terrified they might steal my ideas or my clients. As a result, I was completely alone. I had no one to ask for advice and no one to talk to about my successes or struggles. Then, one day I joined a local group of independent PR professionals, and now, I wish I did it five years earlier.

It not only gave me a community of people who understood me, but also gave me potential collaborators. When I got a client who needed placement in tech publications, I was able to hire one of the women from the group to help me out. I also started referring business that wasn’t a fit for me and they did the same. And whenever I had a question to ask or wanted to vent about our PR world a little, I felt no longer alone.

About Sasha

Sasha Vasilyuk is the founder and CEO of I DO PR, a public relations agency for wedding and lifestyle brands. She is also an award-winning journalist published in USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Newsweek, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle as well as the author of Marry the Media: How to Gain Publicity for Your Wedding Business.