A little public relations was just what David X. Manners Co. needed, and -- as luck would have it -- PR was Manners's stock-in-trade. For 17 years, the tiny Norwalk, Conn., firm had struggled to carve out a niche in the high-powered world of public relations. Then, two years ago, David Manners and his son, Tim, hit on the concept of "incentive PR" -- that is, charging clients according to the actual media coverage they receive.

Under the plan, a client would pay, for example, $1,100 for an appearance on the "Today Show" television program, or a short profile on Cable News Network. A guest spot on a local television show would cost $220. For a local radio spot, the fee would be $110.

The main goal, of course, was to attract new clients by overcoming the common fear that PR does not get results. Along the way, the Manners company might even garner a little PR for itself.

One of the clients attracted by the marketing ploy was the National Water Well Association, a 65-person, nonprofit research foundation in Worthington, Ohio The organization's executive director, Jay H. Lehr, says that he has worked with several public relations firms over the past 18 years, but Manners is the only one that has made him happy. Then again, Manners is the only one that landed him a spot on the"Today Show."

"I like the idea of paying for results," says Lehr. "With other PR companies, I felt like we were paying for a snowstorm. But the Mannerses aren't paid until they deliver, so we know they're not just siting around getting paid for doing nothing."

Among thc Mannerses' colleagues, however, the response has been less enthusiastic. Some feel that the practice diminishes public relations as a profession. "In public relations, you have your time, your experience, and your creativity to sell to a client," says Jean Way Schoonover president of Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy Public Relations Inc. (see INC, November 1983, page 58). "You should therefore be paid according to the time you put in on a project. No reputable lawyer would charge a client according to whether or not he can keep you out of jail . . . Our role is not only to get a mention of a client in the paper, but also to get the clients to look at their company and its contribution to society."

She also sees practical problems arising. "Suppose you promise a client a cover story in Time magazine, which may take several years. What do you do then? Bill for the three years spent on the project?"

As it turns out, the Mannerses have had some cash-flow problems, as well as problems with uncooperative clients. "With some companies," says Tim Manners, "the attitude seems to be, 'What have we got to lose? We'll just turn 'em loose and see what they can do.' But we can't do anything if the client doesn't give us information and return our phone calls."

In an effort to remedy this situation, the Mannerses have recently started charging a $1,000 monthly retainer, in addition to the other fees. They are quick to point out, however, that their retainer is well below the industry average of $2,000 to $5,000, and they are happy to make up the difference by charging for results.