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Freelancing and university – it’s a balancing act

11/03/2019

Stella junior PR, Katya Hamilton-Smith writes on how she has managed her third year at uni and working with us at the same time.

When I was given the opportunity to be a junior at The Comms Crowd last year my answer was of course, “Yes please!” At the same time I started a 10-week internship in the Corporate Communications department at Visa and soon returned back to university for my third and final year. I have always enjoyed having a packed schedule but balancing a freelance PR role with the pressures of the final year of university was certainly a challenge. It has been a great challenge though and I have learnt so much.

The final year of university is a busy one, full of assignments, graduate-scheme applications and the dreaded dissertation. In addition, I have been monitoring client social media channels, drafting pitches and briefings and getting to know a rapidly evolving industry and honestly just trying to keep up! While my time as a junior has been amazing, it hasn’t been without its challenges. People might assume that freelancing would work really well alongside a university schedule, and for the most part that’s true, but one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is prioritising tasks when there is no set working timetable. How long do you spend working on a pitch when you also have a dissertation literature review due? How long do you spend writing an essay when a client’s twitter needs content? Prioritising these tasks has been one of the biggest difficulties and when you’re not prepared to let either one be less than your best it is definitely a struggle.

Another thing that I have had to learn is the ability to change focus quickly between work and university assignments. Writing a 10,000 word dissertation and writing a less-than-240-character tweet are very different things, and being able to switch between these different written styles was something that I had to pick up quickly. I guess the more you practise something, the easier it gets and this was certainly the case for me in learning how to manage the different writing styles needed for both a career and a degree in PR.

The best way that I have found to manage my busy schedule is a great deal of planning. As an avid list-maker anyway this was fairly natural but I still found it difficult. Self-organisation is key and the ability to prioritise the right tasks at the right time is essential. I won’t pretend that I have always got this right – far from it! I have sometimes found myself panicking over university deadlines late at night or planning pitches in my pyjamas but as the year has progressed I have certainly learnt how to master this prioritisation much better. I don’t think that there’s any set way to do this and something different will work for everyone, but the easiest way that I’ve found to manage my different activities is to divide my days up into different sections, tackling Comms Crowd work and university assignments in different blocks. With this distinction it is much easier to manage my time and I work as if I were going into a physical office. Obviously this doesn’t always work but generally planning and scheduling time for each commitment was the only way that I was able to keep on top of everything and not let either activity down.

Since June I have certainly learnt the importance of effective time management, an incredibly useful skill as I prepare to leave university and fully enter a professional environment. I have also had the chance to learn about some of the most interesting fintech companies while learning the ropes of the PR industry from a super supportive team.

Balancing the most important year of education and keeping my grades up while freelancing alongside certainly presented many challenges, but the amount that I have learnt and accomplished over the past nine months has far outweighed any difficulties that I have faced. As Sam would say, Onwards!


PR – from the classroom into the office

09/09/2017

Holly Mercer, our new Comms Crowd junior looks at how PR translates from the lecture halls to a busy tech PR agency.

As a PR student I feel as though you are taught an incredible amount of theory while doing very little practical PR tasks throughout the duration of the course. Ultimately the University leaves it to the student to gain the necessary experience and insights into the working world of PR. I am actually incredibly grateful for this, as this independent approach has really allowed me to be proactive in gaining necessary experience and insight into the PR industry and ultimately allowed me to be where I am today!

Admittedly before April this year I had very little idea what sector of the PR industry I wanted to go into when I graduate, which to be fair isn’t surprising. Although I have been exposed to guest lectures at Uni, until you experience them for yourself how on earth are you meant to know if that sector is right for you?! So my only strategy was to get as many different work placements as possible in 3 months. I carried out placements in tech and consumer PR agencies and also a communications agency specialising in sport and music.

After finishing my first placement in the tech PR agency, I knew from the beginning it was exactly what I wanted to do. Not having a clue what you want to do can be a very daunting feeling, so to finally realise what it is – it is the BEST feeling! So from there that opened a door for me with Sam and the Comms Crowd. Sam was actually my guest lecturer at Uni for a couple of months. So to be interviewed on skype by the same person who TAUGHT you how to do skype interviews, was quite frankly a very daunting scenario!

So getting to the meat of the question, what have I learnt since becoming a member of the Comms Crowd? In all honesty this question has been a struggle for me to answer, because truthfully the answer is most definitely A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT.

Being completely honest, this experience has been a challenge. But I do love a challenge, so this has been a great test for me. As well as working for the Comms Crowd, I have two-part time waitressing jobs and uni work so the key skills that I have learnt so far are time management and multi tasking. Both of these skills are a necessity for anybody working in PR where you have to be able to mange your time between client deadlines and meetings, while still making time for managing twitter feeds and other social media channels.I think the one tip that I would give to anyone in my position, or any student carrying out work placements or junior roles is to ask questions! I know this is such a cliché thing to say because everyone says it, but it is so true and so important. Even still I start emails saying “sorry if this is a stupid question” but truthfully I have come to understand that no question is a stupid question. And it is most definitely better to ask a potentially obvious question and then get something right, as opposed to not ask and then get something wrong!

ONWARDS!


The biggest mistake junior PRs can make

12/07/2017

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’.


Welcoming the new wave of PR Punks

08/10/2014

So the PR industry is hiring again, hurrah, but who exactly is going to manage this new wave of talent and teach them our ways, and do we even want to?

vintage sam

London Calling

Just looking at the last few copywriting jobs we’ve had come in: a complete re-write of a careers’ website and a brochure to attract the best young talent – it’s clear things are on the up for our clients and finally for interns, with graduate recruitment in the UK at its highest since 2007.

For the past four years, I’ve run a London PR internship programme for a US university. In the past, it has often taken around six months to secure suitable internships for 15 or so MA students. But 2014 saw a marked increase in demand and they were snapped up in around three months, in fact I unearthed more great opportunities than I had interns. Hurrah!

But it occurred to me, who exactly is going to manage these bright young things and what will happen if we don’t?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The present generation of account directors (ADs) grew up in the equivalent of war-time rationing, working with reduced client budgets, non-existent internal budgets and being forced to adopt a recession-based management style: cautious, risk averse and desperate to keep the account at all costs. Sounds like fun don’t it? Is it any wonder that agency ADs are moving in-house, looking for a saner, more stable environment, one that’s more conducive to seeing let alone raising a family? And with today’s trend for bulking up the corporate comms team set to continue in-house is only too glad to hire them.So not the ADs then.

Career Opportunities
We all know ‘a good account manager is hard to find,’ as Fergal Sharkey once meant to say, but these days they are rare beasties indeed. In fact anyone with two to five years’ experience is hard to find in any industry. Thanks to the recession we have skipped a hiring generation. Not only that, but for many years, training, development and general people investment have all been corners that were first to be cut. So those few who were recruited and managed to survive and thrive, were tough self-starters. Not necessarily the types to want to micro-manage or molly-coddle junior talent, they are much more likely to have their eyes on the prize of filling in an AD role.

So not the AMs then.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope
MEANWHILE: The PR business contributes £9.62bn to the UK economy, with agency revenues doubling in the last ten years – but what about the profits? It’s generally recognised that a healthy agency wants to be looking at a 15 – 20% margin, but the last figure I saw said in 2013, agencies was averaging around 10.6%. The cause was due to our fear of putting up our rates, and over-servicing reaching an industry average of 20%. In an effort to hang on to the account at all costs, over-worked and over-wrought ADs and thinly spread AMs have been giving away one hour in every five, just to keep everyone (apart from the CFO) ‘happy’.So do we want to pass this working model to the newbies, now the dark days are receding?

Revolution Rock
So could this be a recipe for Change?
· A thin upper and middle management layer with little time for micro management, structure and process.
· A business model that’s been coerced into giving it away.

· An influx of Generation Y emerging like butterflies into a boom time eco-climate, where risk is rewarded and disruption applauded. Recognised as the natural collaborators, masters of abstract and conceptual thinking. theis new genre of talent are highly ambitious, socially confident, relational, and the girls at least, highly organised – could this tech-savvy, upbeat, civic-minded, confident generation be the ones to reinvent us, rejuvenate us?

All The Young Punks
With a coincidental lack of hands on management, and so ample opportunity to enjoy the natural freedom they need to experiment and take a few risks, will this new wave of PR Punks be the ones to make us proud, a bt loud and profitable once more?

A modified version of this article and without all The Clash references, first appeared in PR Moment on 9th September 2014.


PR freelancing for juniors

24/05/2014

What’s it like being a freelance PR when you’ve only got a few years’ experience under your belt? Our first freeelance account exec, Hiwot Wolde-Senbet, weighs in on the perils and perks.

Freelancing was the last thing I thought I would be doing at this early stage in my career. But, as a natural risk taker, this opportunity came with perks that I could have only dreamed of, so I grabbed it without hesitation.I figured, I had participated in enough weekly meetings; done a few new business brainstorming and planning sessions; pitched in plenty of stories; not to forget the never ending reporting; to give me a rounded view of the PR life. But let’s face it, I may have spent a few years as a junior in a few agencies, but there aren’t enough clippings in all the world to prepare me to fly on my own.

This is why being a part of The Comms Crowd works for me, as it’s made up of senior freelance PR and marcomms people, with loads of experience. So I get to work on what I really enjoy while they shoulder the responsibility, they even look after my training and devlopment too. And just because I’m the ‘junior’ doesn’t mean I get to miss the hunt, in fact, in less than three months of being a part of The Crowd, I found myself sitting in front of a possible client sharing my ‘out of the box’ thinking – way out of the typical junior’s comfort zone. As Sam says, “Well… you’re a freelancer now, no one to hide behind, so get on with it.” So you do just that and learn from your experience.

As a freelancer, I get to work from home so, I make my own hours. It sounds fantastic right? You would assume so when you are on the ‘nine to five‘ schedule and wish you could skip the rush hour. But freelancing comes with its own set of issues, not least isolation, turns out you really miss the mini chit chats and light hearted banter that gets your day going in an office.

And there are times when life as a junior freelancer can make you feel like pulling your hair out (the occasional side effect to Excel drama). And you really miss the days that you used to ask your colleagues to help you with those unsolvable IT problems (which you probably took an hour to deal with) and then they come and sort you out in a click, leaving you feeling inept but ready to roll. When you are a freelancer, your time is money and just that fact alone makes you become very aware and conscious of your time. So you can’t afford to spend an hour on some stupid Excel issue, yet you have no choice. Not having a colleague that sits next to you means are a bit at the mercy of email response and there are the inevitable, albeit occasional, misunderstandings that you get from working remotely. So everyone really has to work at overcoming the ‘cloud barriers’, but we’re getting there.

But then the niggles just melt away, when you look through your window and see that it is sunny and bright outside. It feels like it’s calling you to come and enjoy it, feel the sun touch your skin. Living in London, I already know sunny days don’t come by often, so I pick up my sunglasses and iPad and move to the café nearby with an outdoor space. I get my to-go cappuccino and lay on the grass to draft an artcicle. That’s when I realise that I am living the dream I never had, as a real life Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and The City. Except I don’t do my research in nightclubs.

When you live and work in the same place, life can truly get tangled up. Becoming a freelancer will really test and challenge your organisational skills. However, with clear objectives, support and training; the cloud-based agency model can help you release your inner Carrie and achieve a fair work life balance. Until then, be prepared to, learn fast and be out of your comfort zone.