I’m no diarist. I’ve never kept a journal or a scrapbook, nor even a day planner. Let others have their social calendar. But every month, with meticulous detail, I compile a jam-packed summary of everything I’ve done over the past 30 days, not for personal reflection but to present to clients of my press relations practice when submitting an invoice.
Billing is the bane of my working life—and my home life, considering weekends and holidays are often spent playing catch-up reconstructing all the projects, work product and results our small team has delivered for those who pay our retainers.
No matter how much is delegated or what software tools are available to capture activity, as proprietor, I need to ensure our statements are coherent and defensible when some higher-up asks the inevitable, “What have you done for us lately?”
There’s an old three-step rule in professional services: tell your clients what you plan to do, then tell them what you’re doing and cap it off by telling them what you’ve done. It reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon depicting three commuters on cell phones announcing their respective coordinates: “I’m getting on the train,” one person says. Another declares “I’m on the train.” The third: “I’m getting off the train.” That sums up the repetitive rinse-wash-spin cycle of my billable life, and probably that of most account managers as well.
These days, hitting those marks can drain your battery, never mind what your actual job entails. Clients want to see all your work revealed like a dissected frog open for inspection: Who did you contact? When? What was the response? Did you call and email? Can we get a briefing document ahead of that interview? A correction to that headline? Can your spreadsheet that? What is your strategy for our strategy?
And everything must be measurable. Have we secured more media placements, in higher-quality outlets, with greater circulations (viewership) in more markets than we did the same time last year? One client sadistically devised unheard-of new categories for us to track: opportunities presented that didn’t pan out, and the percentage of an article his firm was featured. Even when it doesn’t move the needle, such metrics make for good PowerPoints. No wonder our recaps cover pages of bullets, arrows, links and other do-daddish proof of deliverables.
In recent months, as the pandemic has squeezed the economy and so many livelihoods, I’ve found a new appreciation for our forensic invoicing. Enjoy it? Never. But as long as I can show that our slate is full and reflects a job well done, it means we’re still in the game and making a contribution. If I’m billing, I must be working and have some trace of a professional pulse, even as the days bleed into one another and my beard grows to savage lengths. And I don’t need to be so sheepish when checking up on unpaid bills from three months ago!
We’ve had our share of hits. I’m constantly reminded that PR is a cost center, not a revenue generator and that accounting departments will always regard us as vendors. We love you, our clients tell us, we just can’t pay you what we did before the coronavirus. Many of our fees will never return to pre-COVID levels, vaccine or not. I cringe when a client emails to ask, “Can we chat?” knowing it’s an opening to some sort of reduction in compensation.
At this point, I’ll likely never get to emulate my first PR boss, an elegant old-schooler in double-breasted banker suits who prized his three-hour lunches at the 21 Club. Each month an assistant typed his statements on heavy-stock cream paper with the words “For professional services rendered,” followed by a dotted line leading to various large sums. Nothing else soiled the page save his grand signature. His bills were like currency that could be cashed at a teller’s window. It seemed an appealing way to make a living: dispense advice, scratch out an agenda for an occasional meeting and watch the checks roll in.
Lately, it’s taken every last day of 30 or 31 to complete our invoices for the month before. It’s not just the distractions of working from home, where the dog is always staring at me or the dishwasher needs emptying. It’s that there’s actually more work, even at less pay, because our clients have taken advantage of the crisis to raise their profiles with pandemic-related content to promote. Suddenly, PR is an essential service (something my staff already knew). And I’ve achieved fresh existential clarity: I bill, therefore I am.
Allan Ripp runs Ripp Media/Public Relations, Inc. in New York.