After six years as a freelance PR – four of them as part of the Comms Crowd collective, PR Pro Debbie Smith muses on why it’s essential to know when to turn work down.
When you first go freelance, it takes a while to attract the volume of work you need to meet your financial targets, and for new (and hopefully exciting) opportunities to find you. You spend almost as much time networking as you do on client work: going to events, emailing friends of friends who might be helpful, meeting contacts for a coffee in the faint hope of a referral and stalking people who might be useful on social media.
After a while things settle down. You find some regular clients, even acquire some work on a retainer, and develop a healthy pipeline of new business. You’re enjoying your improved work-life balance and wondering how you ever managed a daily commute followed by 9-5 (and usually longer) in an office.
But then one of two things happens. Either a) you realise that work is gradually taking over your evenings and weekends or b) you don’t have enough work. Before too long, I guarantee that you’ll experience both. But the solution is the same in both cases – assess the situation, take a deep breath and if the situation isn’t working for you then simply and politely say “no”.
Turning down work is unlikely to be something you think about when you’re planning your freelance career. You’re too busy wondering how to find enough of it to pay for all the holidays you’ll now have time to take! But it’s a vital skill, and one where my track record has been a bit mixed. Here are some tips based on my experience.
1. Have a network of contacts with complementary skills
One occasion where I got it right was when someone who organised a local business club asked me to do some PR for her company. It was my first year in business and I needed more work. However, I’m a tech specialist and she worked in financial services, which requires very specific skills. I knew immediately it wasn’t for me, but fortunately I had a solution – a former (and trusted) colleague who’d also set up her own business and had many years’ experience in the sector. I put the two of them in touch, they hit it off and worked together for several years. The result was a success for all parties: excellent media coverage, both people remained good contacts of mine, I wasn’t stressed by trying to do work I didn’t have the skills or knowledge to do or ruin my reputation by doing a bad job, and the PR colleague passed on some other work to me.
2. Don’t be seduced by a challenge – and if it smells fishy, it probably is
In year two I wasn’t so smart. I wasn’t as busy as I would have liked and was flattered to be contacted by a tech company with an exciting new product. I should have said no when they said they wanted to get it into the national press – not my strong point – and looking back with 20:20 vision I should have asked more questions during the briefing, as something didn’t seem quite right. But they positioned it as a challenge, so I said yes. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to generate any national interest – and then I found out that they’d already try to do the same thing themselves, and called me in when they were unsuccessful. So the product wasn’t even new! The lesson I learnt was that if it’s outside your comfort zone, and especially if something doesn’t seem quite right, trust your instincts and quickly and firmly say NO THANKS.
3. Don’t overload yourself – remember that work-life balance
Recently a combination of retainer work, my own holidays and an urgent project meant I found myself working late into the evenings and going to bed with list of actions and priorities whizzing round in my head. Add to that the need to change all my personal emails away from my previous account (not recommended but unavoidable) and the pressure was on.
I managed to get everything done, but realised that I didn’t want to continue at the same rate indefinitely. As Sam pointed out when we discussed it, you need to remember why you started freelancing in the first place. In my case, that means time for family and friends, hiking, work with a community group, my new hobby of kiln-fired glass and our extremely bouncy rescue dog.
So we reorganised a few things, made sure everyone was playing to their strengths, and life is now returning to normal. The question I’m asking myself is why, when I’m so busy, did I offer to write a blog? When I suggested it Sam’s response was “that’s really funny” – but here I am. So practice saying no when life gets too frantic. Believe me, it gets easier every time!
I was recently interviewed for MK’s award winning PR blog. I taught Marcel at Westminster Uni where Ihe graduated with a distinction and he was also our junior for a year. In his #4PRQs series he asks a range of industry types the same four questions. The one I found most interesting was:
What is the biggest mistake of junior people you employ, and how can it be fixed?
And this is my expanded answer:The biggest mistake even the best junior makes, is trying to appear you are on it when you are not… saying you understand what you are doing when you don’t, not quite. I get the motivation – need to look like you are on it, don’t want to ask daft questions.
But we know coming into an agency life from an academic background is a huge shock: not least the speed in which things move:
- Agencies are always very fast, very busy and er slightly stressed and everyone apart from the new junior knows exactly what they are doing.
- The level of multi-tasking expected is unprecedented, it’s not unusual for a junior to sit across five or six accounts or even more.
- Being cc’d on every mail on every account sounds great right? you finally get to see what’s really going on. But believe me. it’s a high price to pay for wading through 200 mails a day, and where are you supposed to put them when you’ve read them? Are they all important??
So it’s no wonder juniors are over-whelmed from day one. But without complete understanding of what you are doing and why, even ‘simple’ tasks like updating media lists, or sourcing twitter feed content goes awry as the junior lacks the confidence to speak up and clarify any questions, resulting in frustration and lack of faith all around.Much better to fess up at the beginning and claim ignorance, especially in my sector where the subject matter is deep. I mean how is a junior supposed to be all over AI, blockchain, machine learning, crypto currencies – etc? We really don’t expect you to get it straight away anyway, so you just speak up and ask those ‘stupid questions’.
Simona Cotta Ramusion shares lessons learned from her first year as a freelance PR and digital marketing consultant:
So it’s already been a year since I took the plunge into freelancing and it’s certainly been a crazy, scary, and self-rewarding time for me. As the summer approached, I remember starting off tentatively, double-double-double checking every email I was about to send out and running every action past Sam. But after a few weeks I found my feet …and my voice. As I started working with different clients and different accounts, I rediscovered the real me, a more confident “me” who could take an active role in new prospects’ meetings, could produce good writing, and could come up with interesting suggestions for her clients without being scared of saying the wrong thing.
1. Its Ok to be scared: being scared helped me to look at different options and opportunities; it helped me focus on the job; and, because it doesn’t come natural to me, it forced me to go out there and look for some local networking events.2. Find a good accountant: you won’t believe how important this is when you start off. S/he will help you:
- Decide whether you want to set up a Limited company or be a sole trader – there are different tax implications here depending on what type of business you are in, who you are going to work with etc so ask friends if they can recommend anyone or look on LinkedIn;
- Set up the Company for you;
- Recommend contacts for opening a business bank account;
- Set you up with accounting software or spreadsheets for recording your accounts
- Advise you on business expenses;
- Do your financial year end accounts:
- Recommend a pension advisor.
3. Set up a healthy and comfortable office space: again, from experience (back aches, neck aches, colds) it is important that you have a good size desk, not too close to a radiator and not too close to draughts; if possible, do invest in a laptop stand and a second monitor, (I found it free through a local company that was refurbishing their offices… you’d be surprised what gets thrown away). And if things are going well after a year, reward yourself with a new laptop.
4. Learn from your mistakes: like in any job, things sometimes don’t go to plan and when this happens as a freelancer you feel the blow even more. When this happened to me, I was able to look at why this situation had occurred and what could have been done differently. This has helped me take a different, customised approach for each of my clients, as each operates differently.
5. Be prepared to work on weekends or when other family members are on holiday. The myth that freelancers can take days off when they want it is not true. Especially at the beginning, you must be prepared to work long hours, be idle in the middle of the day and work late evenings. But…it is definitely a rewarding day – and that for me is what matters.
PR Pro, Lianne Robinson, ponders how to have a proper holiday as a freelancer:
So that’s it, I’m all packed, the suitcase is by the door and my laptop is…safely locked away!! For the first time in two years I won’t be taking it away on holiday with me.
In the early days of freelancing it seems that every waking moment is spent glued to your computer. You’re trying to prove yourself to newly secured clients as well as on the constant look out for new opportunities to build your portfolio. I even had my laptop with me in the maternity ward while waiting for the arrival of my son (yes really!). But this time, things are very different.
One of the reasons that I wanted to work for myself and be my own boss was because of the unlimited holiday entitlement and freedom I would have. The dream that I could base myself anywhere in the world and not be tied to one location as long as I had good enough wi-fi connection was one that I wanted to make a reality. And while this has worked well so far, it has meant that I haven’t really afforded myself some proper time off.
But for the first time, I now feel I have established myself enough as a freelancer to justify taking some proper time out. I’m probably (hopefully!) not going to lose the clients I have spent time building up for the sake of a two week holiday. And while I like to believe that my beloved clients could not possibly do without me, if you’re clever about it, this is not the case.
Being part of The Comms Crowd collective means that every client is covered and serviced as they normally would be thanks to the ‘virtual team’ of support that we have between us. As a team of six, every one of us is kept looped in on accounts so that we can handover when we want some time off, safe in the knowledge that the client won’t miss out on opportunities and business will continue as normal.
That’s not to say that the last couple of weeks haven’t been extremely busy. While day to day account running can be handled by the team, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get as much work done as I can before heading off. I’m not very good and leaving work in an unfinished state so as far as possible I work hard to ensure that all loose ends are tidied up. The second part of this is monetary related. Freelancing and the flexibility that comes with it is great, but the trade-off on this is that there is no luxury of holiday pay so you want to earn as much as you can while you are working.
But having some proper time away from your usual routine – work, life, family – gives us a chance to take stock, regroup and gain some perspective. I plan to come back refreshed, full of new ideas and enthusiasm ready to hit the ground running (once the jetlag subsides). My clients will benefit from this too.
So while I like to think I’m irreplaceable, I’m not! My clients will continue business as normal and I will be back in two weeks, ready and raring to go with a fresh perspective and a suitcase full of souvenirs and new ideas. And the other benefit to working remotely, you don’t need to share your holiday sweets with your colleagues!
See you soon!
In this blog post PR PRo Debbie Smith discusses a less frequently cited reason for freelancing – one which changing demographics may make increasingly common.
Why become a freelancer? The reasons people usually give are flexibility, fitting around your children and getting a better work-life balance. I certainly wanted a better work-life balance – I’d had enough of spending my Friday evenings with First Great Western Trains – but another key factor was helping my sister support our elderly mum.
My sister lived near Mum and helped out when needed. However, we noticed that whenever my sister went on holiday, Mum would fall ill. I’d been fortunate to have an understanding agency boss when I had to make a midnight dash to a hospital 150 miles away and take several days off, but the writing was on the wall – I needed to do more.This helped to crystallise an idea that I’d been considering for some time, so a few months later I took my first steps as a freelancer. I soon discovered the joy of being able to schedule meetings to suit myself and my clients, without having to fit round a team of colleagues. One client was based between my home and where my mum lived. When I suggested meetings on Fridays so I could then go to Mum’s for the weekend, she was more than happy to help. In fact it worked better for her too. Her MD was usually in the office on Fridays so I could be sure to get a meeting with him. As you can imagine Mum loved this – and it helped to stop her worrying that she was a burden.
This also taught me something interesting about clients’ attitude to freelancers. They still expect the same quality of work, and deadlines don’t change, but they understand that you have a life too.
Fast forward a few months and I won some work with a big new client just as my sister was about to go on holiday, so I was on ‘Mum duty’. The project required a lot of international conference calls, but no problem – I worked at my sister’s using her Wi-Fi, then went round to mum’s for coffee and a chat. The people I was interviewing had no idea where I was, nor did they care. On other days I kept Mum company and wrote articles at her dining table. I don’t think she understood what I was working on but she enjoyed introducing me to her visitors!
As we reached the stage where one of us needed to be nearby all the time ‘just in case’, the benefits of freelancing really kicked in. My sister could have the breaks she needed while I worked from the south coast. This is where it helps to be part of a freelance agency like the Comms Crowd, as your colleagues are there to share the work.
Sadly Mum is no longer with us, but the career I built from her dining table has continued to grow and I’d never go back to a 9-5 routine and the daily commute.I’m surprised more people haven’t discussed this reason for freelancing. I very much doubt that I’m unique, but perhaps caring responsibilities aren’t something people tend to raise except with family and close friends. However, with an ageing population and the growing issues around social care I’m sure we’ll hear more about it in the future.
Digital marketing Pro, Simona Cotta Ramusino advises on how to manage interruptions when you work from home.
Before working as a freelancer, I spent over 10 years in various PR agencies where time keeping was an essential skill. You often had to juggle more than one client at once and more than one task a day and only had a certain amount of hours each day so a good time management was important in order to be productive and efficient on clients’ accounts. I have always prided myself on being a good timekeeper, being able to multi-task and on delivering work on time. But things changed a little bit when I took the plunge into freelancing and not through any fault of mine!
I want to share this with you – freelancers and freelancers-to-be – because you will experience this in some shape or form and particularly at the beginning of your new career.
Time management as a freelancer becomes more difficult because…people (and I mainly mean friends and family) don’t think you are working. They don’t really know what you do but they think you are at the computer for a couple of hours and then you do housework or food shopping or go to the gym (which I do but early morning or during my lunch break). Sounds familiar? This leads them to ask if you can go over for a coffee in the afternoon, or babysit or call you for a mid-morning chat.
So although I may have a strict work routine to be at my desk for 9.00, have a lunch break and be finished for 18.00 following normal office hours, other people don’t and that’s how my time management goes out of the window and ‘external sources’ disrupt my day. And because they are family or friends it is hard to say “I’m working, go away” without sounding rude. But you have to. The sooner you do that, the better. And stick to it. You will be hated for a bit but it will be your saving grace in the long run.
I have the added challenge that my husband also often works from home and Ihave to admit, we did have quite a few ‘discussions’ when I first started freelancing. Now, if either of us doesn’t want to be disturbed (even if it is “Just for a coffee”, “Just for a second…”, “Just…”), we close our office door. I know we both mean well when we interrupt each other but from my side I don’t want to spend an hour on the same sentence when I am writing something and get interrupted many times (“What do you want for lunch?” “When do you want lunch?” “What should we do for dinner?”…etc). One could say that if you were in an office you would get interrupted anyway but a colleague wouldn’t come near you if they saw you madly typing on your laptop and if they did, you can ask them to come back later and they wouldn’t think that was rude. And so should your family and friends.
So my advice is: treat your freelance working time as if you were in an office. Be diligent and respectful about it so that your family and friends will be too. Whether you work from 7.00 to 15.00, 10.00 to 18.00, or 12.00 to 19.00, that is business time. Like in any agency, at the end of the day your timesheets should show how hard you have worked that day.
Sam Howard celebrates six years of not having a proper job.
The evolution continues: from lone freelancer, to collaborator, to creating the collective to now (albeit cloud-based) looking like a proper little PR agency with around eight retained clients and working with a regular crew of four senior and two junior PRs.
We all had a team meet a few weeks back and a common thread was the lack of stress around the job. (And yet when you go freelance it feels positively perilous, I still remember the early weeks lying in the dark staring at the ceiling mentally muttering g ‘oh god I think I’ve ruined my career’).
But what the crew were referring to is the complete lack of that type of stress that distracts you from getting the job done: someone checking on your timekeeping, the commute, the juggling of personal appointments, the annual leave quotas, the pre-occupation with promotions, job titles and perks, the jockeying for position, the vying for the boss’s favour – there is none of that.
The only stress is that of doing a good job for the client.
But here’s the thing – when you work for yourself the sense of ownership and personal responsibility is absolute, so every project, without exception, has to go well, in fact better than well, it has to be the very best you can get it.
So that client stress goes deep.
And even though we share everything, it’s still all too easy for perfect storms to occur… Like when in the space of one week we had not one but two of our beloved start-ups announcing funding, which in our world is a huge deal and requires an immense amount of logistics and planning, working with all the financial PR agencies, the fund providers and pitching to media in multiple sectors. And as luck would have it, in the same week it was end of module live assessment time for the class I teach at Uni… Nothing to be done but to disappear under the strain for six weeks and know you aren’t coming up for air until every stone is turned. And possibly I was a bit over emotional at the end of it.
So yes, freelancing can be stressful, but the sense of ownership, and of personal pride in work well done without any of the friction that comes with a ‘proper’ job, continues to make the freelance life entirely net positive.
Sam Howard survives another year of crash-course interviews.
In addition to tending the Comms Crowd, I have an enjoyable side hustle working as associate lecturer leading the Professional Employability module for Westminster Uni. Recently we conducted externally-invigilated panel interviews with every student for a hypothetical intern or junior role depending on their experience in PR, advertising, marketing events etc. There were two panels each panel interviewed 30 students in a day – intense. So you get a very succinct view of qualities that work in interview: Here were the ones that worked best for me:
IMMERSED – Those that could clearly demonstrate a calling for the industry, enjoyed discussing campaigns and liked watching how stories played out in the media. These candidates were able to demonstrate a very proactive choice of careers, almost a vocation and we loved talking to these guys, they were one of us already.
ENGAGED – Those that liked engaging with us were open and seemed to enjoy the process, This really stands you in good stead when so many candidates seem reluctant to even be in the room and the interviewer feels more like a dentist trying desperately to extract information, than a would be employer, .
TUNED IN – Finally those that demonstrated a (quiet) resolve, an innate understanding they had this one moment to convince us that they had the attitude, the attributes, the experience and skills to easily fit in a team and capably do a good job. Those that were successful substantiated passion with knowledge, balanced confidence with credibility, openness with professionalism and demonstrated a positive rationale.They did not get distracted by their nerves, let the occasion overwhelm them, nor lose their way in an effort to become our NBFs, but just resolved to take that opportunity to show us the best of themselves with every answer. In short they had FOCUS.
But if these are not key qualities for you the great comfort of course is most all PR firms don’t rely on interview alone and applicants are given the opportunity to match the talk with the walk, demonstrating their skills and abilities in a variety of tests from proof-reading, pitching, aptitude tests, copy writing etc – and then it of course becomes a very level playing field. Hurrah!
Sharing this recent article from PR Moment to which I also contributed, Ref Brexit, can’t speak for the rest of the industry but my crew of freelancers have never been busier. In an uncertain market, you need to make sure your PR budget is is invested in PR talent, not a nice reception area.
From newest member of the team, digital marketing diva – Simona Cotta Ramusino
Reality has finally hit. I have updated my LinkedIn profile with my new job title so it must be true: I am a PR And Digital Marketing Freelancer.
After 20 years of working for top class agencies and in-house marketing departments of international brands I have decided to take the plunge into freelancing. Making the decision to go freelance was a scary moment and I am just beginning to get to grips with my new status. It is something that, in just a short period of time, I have already come to appreciate and enjoy and won’t change my mind any time soon. Why? Well you need to know how I got into freelancing.
It’s really thanks to Sam.
Sam and I worked together a few years ago, and one of her talents back then was the ability to read people’s strengths and personalities and make it work well within a team. When I asked Sam for advice on whether I should join her band of freelancers she knew my type well: I am not a risk taker, I am someone who always has to think things through, always needs to have a Plan B (or C or D). So Sam not only laid out the naked truth about the freelance world but she also made sure I didn’t have too much time to think over the cons the new path would entail and got me straight to work as part of the Comms Crowd gang.
The “plunge” came with an important life lesson. As I started reconnecting and talking to previous colleagues, they all agreed it was a great career move for me, some even wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. It surprised me. They knew more about me, about my skills and talent than I did. At the end it was their support and comments that gave me that final push and made me realise it was indeed a career change, it wasn’t something temporary, something I could do in my spare time or just as I was looking for something else. It was my new job title.
To answer my initial question on why I wouldn’t change being a freelancer this is because it lets me use all the communications skills I have learned through the years and apply them for a variety of clients that an agency wouldn’t even have on their books. I also feel it has elevated me professionally and it is giving me so much satisfaction, both professionally and personally. Because the relationships I establish with my clients seem to be more on a par, the recognition I receive for my work feels more personal and genuine.
So while some people may decide to go down the freelance route because they want a better work/life balance or be their own boss, for me these are just by-products. Freelancing means doing what you do best and enjoying it!