Paying in advance for public relations work can reduce overall public relations expenses and put a PR firm squarely in your corner. A PR retainer is a contract agreement in which you agree to pay in advance for public relations services for a specific amount of time. Although a retainer can be a short-term agreement, it more often covers a period of six months to one year. What you get for your money depends on the agreement, making it critical that before signing you know how the retainer breaks down.

Billable Hours

PR firms use the value of time to set rates for billable hours. The most common scenario is that you pay a flat fee in return for a specific amount of time no matter who performs the work. You might also be charged a flat fee but pay according to a variable billable rate that is different for senior PR associates than it is for lower-level associates and interns. The reasoning is that a senior associate’s time is worth more than that of an intern. Depending on the firm and the agreement you sign, the rate you pay is often less than if you worked with the firm on a per-service basis.

Contract Agreements

How retainers break down depends on the agreement you make with the PR firm. A general campaign retainer may include the time the PR firm spends on a variety of projects such as constructing newsletters, writing press releases or creating social media “buzz.” A more-specific retainer may be project-related and include only the time the firm spends on tasks relating directly to specific projects. A project-specific retainer may, for example, include preparations for monthly trade shows and ensuring a representative from the PR firm is in attendance for a certain number of hours each day of each show.


Monthly invoicing shows the balance of the retainer fee at the beginning of the month, goes on to include an itemized account of the work the PR firm performed and total billable hours. If the monthly charge is determined according to a variable billing rate, the invoice may also include the position or name of the associate performing the work. The total number of hours worked is then multiplied by a flat or variable fee, any discounts or previously agreed-upon price reductions are credited and the total is deducted from the beginning retainer balance. Exclusions may be included in the monthly invoice or sent in a separate statement.


Retainer agreements aren’t usually all-inclusive, making it likely that you will also receive a monthly bill. The agreement most often covers only billable hours for services performed and doesn’t include miscellaneous expenses. Expect to get billed for things such as paper and envelopes, photocopies, postage costs and long-distance phone calls. If the firm spends more time on your account than the agreement covers, you will be asked to approve and then also be billed for any pre-approved excess hours.