NEW YORK—5W Public Relations, the firm launched late in 2002 by MWW and KCSA veteran Ronn Torossian, is offering one month of free public relations services to any corporation that has terminated its previous PR agency in the past three months.

At a time when several firms have offered financial incentives—including the first month of PR services for free—to attract new business, the offer drew a largely negative reaction from other PR agency leaders, several of whom felt it would contribute to the idea of public relations as a commodity business.

“In this difficult economy, so many agencies aren’t delivering the results clients are looking for,” says Torossian. “So they get fired. We have top-notch relationships and are confident we can deliver
results, strategic counsel, and make companies understand that PR is not a waste of money, but rather a worthwhile investment.

“Any corporation that has fired their PR agency in the last three months can call us, and we will
deliver outstanding full-scale services for free, with no obligation whatsoever. The PR industry needs to break the cycle of win a client, lose a client.”

Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, worried about the precedent, and the message the offer sends to clients: “If the service is free to clients, there’s no investment,” she says. “This is a bad idea and the logic is faulty. If they are confident they will deliver results why give away the
counsel? It de-values what we do. If I were the client this gimmick would not impress me; I’d wonder how desperately they need the business.”

The offer also drew criticism from other agency principals, including Sam Singer, who launched San Francisco-based Singer Associates a little over a year ago and described the offer as “the first documented case of public relations ambulance chasing” and “a pretty tasteless way to go about one’s profession.”

Says Richard French, president of North Carolina’s Richard French & Associates, “This smacks of desperation to me. Suffice to say I hope he has the opportunity to work with the type of clients who would respond favorably to this kind of offer. That might be his payback for denigrating his fellow PR colleagues who have worked hard to establish PR as a long-term, strategic and relationship-based communications discipline.”

Sandy Harbrecht, who heads Columbus, Ohio-based Paul Werth Associates, is similarly skeptical about the kind of clients the offer is likely to attract. “If this arrangement is enticing to any company of integrity with even a modest level of sophistication, then I would be shocked and disappointed,” she says.

“In my experience working with entrepreneurs and chief executives, the most astute and public relations-savvy among them understand that the best advice comes not in the first 30 days, but after the executive team and the public relations adviser have worked closely together over a period of time and through many challenges. 

“There’s a level of trust to great working relationships between clients and their advisors that just isn't fostered in a culture where firms are fired and others are expected to provide their work for free. I can’t even imagine a public relations advisor wanting to spend 30 days with someone who thinks so little of public relations that they are willing to take quality advise and pay nothing for it.”

Adds Andy Cooper, president of New York’s CooperKatz & Company, “Matching agency capabilities with client needs is a thoughtful process. And fees aside, starting up a new relationship requires a significant investment of client time. So I find it hard to believe that serious clients will be interested.”

Several others responded in similar vein, suggesting that by giving away public relations services 5W is appealing to clients who do not understand the strategic role of public relations, or the importance of investing in a client-agency relationship.

“This sort of ‘give-it-a-way-for-free’ mentality just further commoditizes our offerings and lowers C-level perceptions of our industry,” says Steve Cody, president of New York’s PepperCom. “What’s next? Free staples and file folders?”

Says Brian Maloney, partner in New York creative boutique Maloney & Fox, “Instead of going for a slick bargain, clients need to be very considerate about making choices for agency partners, and vice versa. This is a relationship business after all.”

Adds Christine Barney, who launched rbb Public Relations in Miami earlier this year, “Give 5W Public Relations credit for getting its brand out there with some creative news, but slap it on the wrist for using such a tacky promotional idea. Offering a quick fix with one-month free service is a gimmick that
breeds the kind of ill will and mismatched expectations that will only perpetuate negative relationships between clients and firms.”