Apr 11, 2017 / by Gini Dietrich


As public relations professionals, we’re dealing with industry data every day, using it to help our clients or executives make better decisions. But when it comes to our own data, most of us fly blind when it comes to benchmarking against our peers.

Questions such as, “Is our monthly retainer minimum too high?”, “Is our client tenure below average?”, and “What kinds of results are acceptable?” come up regularly in my conversations with other communicators, and although we can informally compare notes, we haven’t had a definitive industry resource for this information.

That’s why earlier this year we asked the Spin Sucks community and our colleagues to take part in our first Independent PR Survey. We need to check the pulse on the current state of the business. Our intent is to revisit this survey annually so it becomes a dependable benchmark we can all use to inform our annual business plan updates.

We went into the survey with a few questions we wanted to answer:

  • Is client tenure decreasing or shorter than the approximately three years we’d previously considered to be typical?
  • Are more clients downsizing their budgets or pulling PR in-house due to economic concerns?
  • Are PR firms using their communications expertise in support of their own business development efforts?

Here’s what we found.

Client Tenure Holding Steady

Despite business sentiment amongst many industry leaders being concerned with customer attrition due to economic concerns, more than a third (41 percent) of survey respondents reported long-term client relationships lasting three or more years. Very few respondents (14 percent) reported working primarily on a short-term, project basis with a duration of less than one year.

Budget Woes Affecting Some Client Relationships

Although client tenure doesn’t seem to be affected by the current economic and political uncertainty, the most commonly cited reason for clients leaving (49 percent) is budget constraints.

A number of respondents reported seeing a “race to the bottom” in the average size of client retainers, with many clients not understanding the value of PR. This may be due to a lack of agreed upon metrics in place at the start of PR engagements, or an inability on the communications side to insert measurable outcomes into the work being done.

Independent PR Firms Lagging on Proactive Business Development

Organic growth through word-of-mouth was overwhelmingly the most cited business development process cited by respondents. This emphasis on closing business that comes to them was reflected in the average business development cycle being 90 days or less for 72 percent of respondents.

The reliance on referrals for business leads creates a high level of volatility and budget uncertainty, especially amongst smaller firms. Despite the same skills PR pros apply for their clients being valuable business development tools, a lack of time and resources to devote to business development impedes those efforts.

“It’s a balancing act, to be sure,” says John Lonsdorf, president, R&J Strategic Communications.  “But the key is to having the fundamental understanding (perhaps it’s also a fundamental fear) that if I am NOT doing business development, I risk a slow death process… I am fortunate that I DO have a good, smart management team, and I lean on them quite a bit for the day-to-day, and to supplement the BizDev efforts.  But there is no doubt it’s an ongoing dilemma.”

Applying These Benchmarks to Your Firm

I encourage you to take a look at the full survey results and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Should we increase our minimum engagement amount?
  • Is our business development cycle lagging?
  • Do we have a process in place for the day our pipeline dries up?
  • Are we exceeding the average client tenure?

After considering these questions, take another look at your business plan for the year, and think about where you might want to adjust your goals or refocus your business development efforts.

Once you have that data in hand, it arms you with what you need to know to make different decisions that can help you close the glaring business development holes.

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About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.