$500K For Monitoring: Big Firm Embarrasses With Greed

Ironic as it may be, the PR agency business has worked very hard to earn its reputation as greedy and superfluous.

Now, for the eyes of the nation to see, one of the largest firms in the world has been caught fleecing a public institution in crisis. If only this was an aberration.

This Lansing State Journal story details how the global firm billed $517,343 for social media monitoring (not strategy – monitoring!) during the early days of the Michigan State University sexual abuse crisis. Some math even a PR guy can do shows the average billing rate for the work was an obscene $359 per hour. Some of the work was performed for an astronomical $600 per hour. 18 employees worked on the business – the size of an entire medium-to-large local firm. One employee billed $96,000 alone.

Here’s a secret – monitoring isn’t necessarily hard work. It isn’t even time-consuming work. There are shortcuts, via software, that help ethical firms do the work very time efficiently. This work not only could have been done at a small fraction of the cost, it should have been done that way, by a small fraction of the people for a small fraction of the time. This is a complete ripoff in every sense.

“So what?” you ask. There are bad actors in every profession. True. But this kind of embarrassing larceny has been going on for so long in the PR industry that it damages the rest of us. Too often, potential clients think they can live without our services because they have been burned so badly in the past by corporations disguised as agencies that want to cover their opulent overhead and receive fat executive bonuses more than they want to build successful, long-term client relationships. It’s nothing more than unadulterated greed.

To put the $500,000 bill in some perspective, there are good, small local shops that might not bill that in a year. $359 per hour, on average? That’s extreme even for New York. 18 people on the account for monitoring? That’s right out of the typical big firm playbook, one that we blew up when we started our firm.

While doing some work in New York and Los Angeles for a client over the past year or so, I, tongue-in-cheek, came up with the faux tagline “National Caliber Work at Detroit Rates,” while saving the client thousands of dollars per trip versus what they would have paid preposterously, otherwise.

But this situation isn’t about the East Coast or the West Coast or anywhere in particular in between. At best, it’s about an ignorant client. It’s a fee arrangement that, with some education, should have been rejected. At worst, it’s about price gouging and, if that’s the case, it’s just despicable.