In the past, the PR budgets I worked on with household name clients were an all-you-can-eat buffet. My days were spent working on long-term, budget-healthy projects, my evenings at fancy events with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails.
Three years ago, I left those household names, and I started an agency out of my Brooklyn apartment called Pear the Agency. With one employee at the time, we had to scratch and claw for everything.
Office? Too expensive, we worked from home. Clients? We started with one. New business pipeline? Limited.
The new clients we did manage to sign were only willing to start for minimum budget and maximum expectations. We've since grown considerably and have built a respectable client roster, but I truly will never forget what it felt like to have to grind for every inch.
In a lot of ways, the scenarios I encountered when starting the agency resurfaced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly the entire industry now works remotely and has seen budget cuts from clients one way or another.
According to a recent survey of the Influence 100, PRovoke's annual list of the world's most powerful brand and corporate communicators, 56% of respondents saw a budget cut as a direct result of COVID-19. In addition, 57% of respondents have raised their expectations of agency partners. Those big-budget clients are requesting that PR cost a little (or a lot) less. Startups are feeling it too, reluctant to pour sacred budget into an effort that's not guaranteed.
Like many agencies out there at the start of COVID, we needed to sure up the business we had and look for new opportunities. Additionally, we were again asked by many companies out there to do more with less. Luckily for my team and I, it's a situation we've been in before (along with Zooming from home, we've been doing that a while now).
Below are some of the ways that we navigate these sometimes budget-unfriendly waters.
Redefine your daily approach When PR pros think about their day, it's often with a client-first approach. To-do lists are formed based on hours allocated per client, and before you know it, you're buried in tasks. Of course, servicing clients is the most essential part of our business, but they want results when it comes down to it. They don't necessarily care how you got there.
If you're striving to be more efficient in your result-getting efforts, you must first be a PR pro, then serve your clients. What do I mean by this?
Well, let's take your morning routine, for example. When you log into your computer, what's the first thing you do? If you're jumping right into client work or internal meetings, it may not be the most beneficial for your new efficient and lower-budget efforts.
Instead, it would benefit you to broadly survey the news landscape and dive into trends or things you find interesting. I'd suggest starting your day with one or two morning talk shows, three to four newsletters and maybe even a quick podcast as well. This effort will arm you with the trends, ideas and creative insights to then BRING to your clients and authentically apply them to their business.
It's a shift in thinking that's much more efficient and in the end, will be more welcomed by journalists. You're working to serve both the journalist and your client instead of just trying to serve your client.
This better understanding of broader trends will lead to fewer pitches, but the ones you send out will be relevant and exciting. In theory, it should land you with higher-quality media placements that took fewer hours for each client. The takeaway is don't forget to be a PR pro first and know your news! Here are some of my morning go-to quick bites for broad trends.
- Robinhood Snacks Podcast - The three-minute newsletter with fresh takes on the financial news you need to start your day.
- theHUSTLE - Business and tech in five minutes or less.
- Morning Brew - Get the daily email that makes reading the news actually enjoyable. Stay informed and entertained for free.
Assess the 'relationship dip' In Seth Godin's "The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit", he discusses the importance of knowing when an investment of time will be worthwhile. In one part of the book, he explicitly discusses the relationship dip, which talks about identifying if an investment in a given relationship is worth the time you're giving it.
If you feel like you have a relationship with a client that maybe isn't the best fit for your agency and what you're building, it may not be worth representing them for a budget that's less than ideal. However, on the contrary, if you do share values and ideals with a client and have a unified vision for their communications program, then I'd argue that budget during these trying times is much less important than the fulfillment and opportunity that they provide now and in the future. If you feel that they're an essential part of what you're building, now is not the time for holding firm on budget requests and it is the time to power through and show them your commitment.
Invest in productivity tools Less budget in the door means every minute in the day is a little more precious. Think about the time it takes to manually fill in an excel sheet or have a Zoom call with somebody to give them a quick update. Each effort on its own may only be 15-20 minutes, but when you add them up for each person across an entire agency, hours upon hours are potentially wasted when these tasks can be handled by technology.
I can genuinely say that Muck Rack's tools have been a tremendous timesaver for my team. I don't mean for this to come off as biased (since this is obviously on the Muck Rack blog), I've had these thoughts since day one of using the platform.
A helpful trick my team implements is setting up alerts for specific media lists. This easily-implemented tactic allows us to receive news directly rather than searching each reporter we're monitoring day after day. Having this inbound research pull of reporter coverage saves us hours of research each week.
My team has also recently implemented Monday.com and we've integrated the tool with our Slack account. This effort is saving us precious time in updating other team members automatically on the status of projects.
Show, don't tell Now that you and your team may have fewer hours at their disposal, it may bring up some difficult scenarios in your workflow. You're used to delivering a certain level of service that may not be appropriate any longer due to budget reduction, leaving you with a choice. Continue to do the things you were doing that make the client comfortable for less or remove elements of your program.
When I've been faced with this scenario, I land somewhere in the middle of those two. What I've done is identify the extra work that's no longer budgeted for to the client and let them know that this is not part of the new retainer, but we're willing to complete it for a specific strategic reason.
Showing how the removal of one part of your program affects the others gives the removed piece value in the client's eyes. They then see it as something that's a need that should eventually be worked into the budget again. If you're honest about the need for the removed portion and the client does see the value, they will add it back, so it's good to continue it for a bit if it's not too detrimental to the team's hours. For example, a quick few social copy lines don't take long and show your client that you're willing to have their back and invest in their efforts.
Overall, working with less budget means that you need to take inventory of your processes and relationships. Building a more efficient agency for clients that you value and want to go far with will only help in the long run. We're all in this together, so embrace this challenge and come out stronger for it!
Stephen Karaolis is the CEO and Founder of Pear the Agency, a boutique public relations agency specializing primarily in earned media services for early-stage startups. He's an avid cyclist and homebrewer who loves his cockapoo named Rafi.