Debbie Smith looks back on nine years as a freelance, including five years as a member of the Comms Crowd.
It seems like only yesterday that I was weighing up what felt like a massive decision. Should I swap my senior role in a national PR agency, with too much travel and time away from home but a guaranteed salary at the end of every month, for the life of a freelance? As I swam lengths in the hotel pool in Turkey on our autumn break, I calculated the sums in my head. If I charged £x per hour, how much work did I need every month to pay the mortgage and bills?
With the encouragement of my partner and my friends I decided to go for it! Nine years on, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I work with interesting clients and encouraging colleagues (who knew that being freelance didn’t mean working alone?) and have discovered a wonderful and supportive small business community in Cheltenham that I never knew existed when I was commuting around the UK.
Here are three unexpected things I’ve learned which have been key to going from zero business to happy freelancer.
1. I really enjoy networking!!
Everyone talks about networking as though it’s incredibly daunting – and sometimes it can be. But when you work from home, it’s important for your mental well-being to get out and about regularly. You also need to keep improving your skills and knowledge, and what could be better than a networking meeting with a speaker on a topic that interests you? If you treat networking as an opportunity to meet like-minded people and learn something new, rather than a hard sell, it immediately becomes something to look forward to. Of course networking groups vary massively; it’s important to be selective and pick the ones that are right for you, but there are plenty to choose from.
I also discovered Local ‘Laptop Friday’ co-working sessions. These continue to provide a weekly opportunity to chat to other freelancers and small business people and bounce ideas around, all for the price of a good coffee.
2. Be bold and reach out to strangers – many of them will help you
When I first started freelancing, I took a deep breath and contacted everyone I thought might be able to help me. One former client put me in touch with two freelancers he used, as he thought they were part of a network I could join. The one I knew wished me luck; the one I’d never met referred me to someone who ran a communications consultancy. Before long I was meeting her for an informal chat, which swiftly led to a fascinating and lucrative project for an international bank.
My work with The Comms Crowd began in a similar way. After reading an interview with Sam, I cheekily emailed her suggesting a coffee. She politely replied to this stranger saying “not yet”, but a year later decided the time was right to meet. As I hobbled into London recovering from a broken toe, I wondered what on earth I was doing, but we immediately hit it off and the rest, as they say, is history!
3. To enjoy media relations, you just need the right clients
Media relations has never been my favourite aspect of PR. It’s partly based on being forced to do the dreaded ‘ring-round’ when I first started and didn’t know any better. And if you’ve worked for an international agency, you’ll know the stomach-churning moment when you’re told that a US executive from a client is coming to the UK in three days’ time and wants you to arrange for him/her to meet key journalists, including national press, even though s/he has no news whatsoever.
However, it’s a completely different situation when you’re pitching thought leadership for clients who are experts in their field and have something interesting to say. You also have the freedom to decide which organisations to work with. If it’s not your area of expertise, or they want the impossible, you can politely say No (and ideally suggest a better approach).
So as I move into year ten, I’m still enjoying media relations and still reaching out to strangers, including those I’ve met when networking – most recently the IP expert I sat next to at a cyber event in early March who turned out to be the ideal person to help a new client in April.
Of course I’m looking forward to when I can actually meet people for coffee again, even though no doubt it will be at a 2m distance!
PR pro Debbie Smith looks at the evidence as she considers whether the four day working week is a realistic goal. Could it give regional agencies an edge when it comes to recruitment?
We’re currently seeing conflicting reports about optimum working hours hit the headlines. On one side of the divide are companies who’ve successfully introduced a four day working week, and those who are trying (and in some cases failing) to implement unlimited holiday. On the other is the head of Chinese internet giant Alibaba advocating 12 hour days, six days a week for those who want to be successful. It’s apparently a well-known trend in China, where it’s known as 996 (i.e. working 9am-9pm, six days a week) and is common in the country’s rapidly growing tech industry.
Why is this relevant to PRs? Because our sector is at the forefront of the struggle to find the right balance between work and personal time – and that’s not the just the always-on culture where we check our work messages all the time, but actual working hours at our desk/laptop.
In November 2018 PR Week reported research showing that 27% of PRs are working overtime on a daily basis, more than double the proportion (12%) of the average British worker. Apparently the average UK PR practitioner will work two full days (15 hours) every month on top of their scheduled hours – 24 days’ unpaid work a year. And that includes freelancers – we’re joint second in the overtime stakes, alongside agency group account directors but not quite as bad as agency CEOs and owners. This is having a serious impact on staff well-being.
Fortunately, alternatives are now emerging in the agency world. I recently went to a talk by the head of a Gloucester PR agency who has introduced a four day working week without reducing pay. He says that as a result margins haven’t changed, while sick days have reduced (down 75% in the first six months) and staff are happier. He pointed out that Fridays were largely spent collating results and reports, and technology means this takes less time, so the day wasn’t very productive. As I remember the days when preparing a coverage book really did mean ‘cut and paste’ with scissors and glue instead of using apps like Coverage Book, and we had to look journalists up on paper lists such as PR Planner, I agree he makes a good point!
Dig a little deeper though and it’s not as clear cut. PR means deadlines, last minute journalist requests and the occasional client crisis. What if these happen on a Friday? The Gloucester agency uses WhatsApp groups for each client, which have enabled them to handle anything urgent, and the MD admits that he ‘feels the benefits less’ than his team. This of course means that, although you are free to do other things on a Friday, you can’t be far from your phone. And the MD is putting in extra hours – which no doubt the head of Alibaba would say was perfectly natural! The agency has also reduced actual holiday time by 20%, lunch hours to 45 minutes, and staff will work on the Friday in a week where there’s a bank holiday Monday. To use a cliché, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
However, while this initiative has its pros and cons, I think it’s a welcome change and shows an agency prepared to move away from the culture of presenteeism which has been a big part of PR for many years. I’ve seen it in both London and regional agencies. There were the husband and wife owners who phoned the office from their holiday late on a Friday afternoon to make sure we were all still there – and we were, but the lack of trust didn’t exactly create strong loyalty. So when they got the time difference wrong and phoned at 4.15 rather than 5.15, we took the call and then promptly all went home! And the big London agency where you were expected to be at your desk well into the evening, when the head of department would then open a bottle of wine as a kind of reward, and where an application from an Orthodox Jewish candidate was rejected in part because they would need to be at home for Shabbat dinner by sundown on Friday, which in winter would be mid-afternoon (this would now be illegal).
As a freelancer, I’ve chose to step away from traditional working hours and inflexible holidays to achieve a work-life balance that suits me. This doesn’t mean I automatically work shorter hours, but I can aim for a balance that meets my financial, professional and personal needs. As Lianne pointed out in a previous post, good relationships with like-minded clients helps. For them, the benefits of working with an experienced freelancer outweigh the occasional absences and the emails sent late at night (although my tip is to draft them and save them, then press ‘go’ first thing in the morning!) And working as part of the Comms Crowd freelance collective means I can take holidays to remote places knowing that our clients will be well looked after. For example, a recent fracture meant I couldn’t make an overseas trip for a client, but a colleague stepped in and delivered great results.
We can’t all be freelancers, but I hope that discussions of four days weeks and the importance of a good work-life balance to mental health will make traditional agencies think hard about their inflexible approach. Perhaps it’s most applicable to regional agencies – as the Gloucester agency head points out, his margins are higher than those of a London agency, which no doubt was a factor in making his initiative work. This could be a smart move for other regional agencies, who often struggle to recruit staff, and the catalyst that finally moves PR from its stubbornly London-centric base. After all, the days when you needed to be in London to meet journalists face to face are long gone.
Most of all, I hope this empowers PRs to challenge traditional working practices. We’re a creative industry, so we need time to step back and recharge our batteries if we’re to deliver the best results.
Stellar 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!
It’s widely acknowledged that going freelance enables you to spend more time with your family, but what about maternity leave how does that work? No safety net of paid maternity leave for us, so how do you manage? Fellow PR and proud mum of two, Lianne Robinson explains how she does it.
Before you swipe left, please be assured that this is not another blog about your right to claim statutory maternity pay when you have a baby like all the other ‘how to take maternity leave when you’re self-employed’ blogs! This, I hope, is helping to address the real fears of taking some time out when you’re a freelancer – will my clients find someone else? Will I have to start again?
When you start to tell people your baby news, their immediate reaction is to talk about how lucky you are to be getting maternity leave – people ask will you take a year off, or just nine months? But when you work for yourself the reality is that neither of those options are probably going to be possible.
When you decide to become a freelancer it takes a lot of hard work and determination to build up a client portfolio and secure a regular stream of work. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. So when you find out your family is growing it’s impossible to comprehend the thought that you might just walk away from all of that.
Beyond that there are the financial difficulties. Going a year or even just a few months with no income is a very scary concept, especially when you are self-employed. For me, the thought of not having any money coming in would actually cause me more anxiety than working.
I’m realistic enough to know that when the baby comes along I will want to have some quality family time without the distraction of work. So I do plan to take it much easier, but not for long. One of my more time-consuming projects comes to an end just before my due date and I made the decision early on not to look for more work to fill that void until a few months down the line once I have established more of a routine.
As for my more regular retained gigs, I’m very lucky to work with some lovely clients who totally understand the situation and could not be more accommodating. One of the many reasons why I wanted to go freelance in the first place was to work for nice people and times like this are testament to that. If all goes well I will be back on line after two weeks – and no, I probably won’t be back up to full speed immediately and it’s likely I may be sending emails in the middle of the night but my clients respect that. They encourage me to take as much time as I need and they’ll be there waiting when I get back.
My worries about them finding someone else to look after their PR were soon dissolved when I realise that the relationship and rapport we have built up over the years means that they respect me as a person, as well as a professional and that’s why we work well together.
I’m also very lucky to be part of the Comms Crowd, a collective of like-minded freelance individuals. We work on clients as part of a team so when I disappear on my ‘mat-leave’, I know that our clients will still continue to get great results and opportunities as I leave them in the very safe and capable hands of my colleagues. That support is invaluable and it’s incredibly reassuring to know that I can take time off and focus on my family safe in the knowledge that the team are there to pick things up. As such we’ve also been able to do a gradual handover over the last few months which has also really taken the pressure off.
When I tell other friends and other expectant mothers that I plan to be back online after just a couple weeks they look at me with that discerning look and I know they are judging me. But that’s okay. You see one of the main reasons that I wanted to work for myself was to make sure that I can take my kids to school, be there for nativity plays and sports days and be able to look after them when they’re sick. So the very small sacrifices I might have to make now, will pay dividends in the long run.
When those disapproving friends are heading back into the City with an hour long commute each way after just 12 months, hands tied by a corporate environment that frowns on people leaving on time or taking time off for dependents, I will be at home still managing to build up my business and spend time with the family. I’m in the driving seat and there is nothing better!
Sam Howard set up our virtual PR agency six years ago, and the business model is now gaining in popularity, so the demand for freelance comms proffesionals is out there. But just because you can freelance doesn’t mean you should. Here are her top tips for determining if you would be happy as a freelance PR:
Reasons to go Freelance: 1, 2, 3…
Because you want to – not because you don’t want to do something else
1) You actully want to freelance – sounds obvious but don’t do it just as the lesser of two evils or because you can’t find a ‘proper’ job, or because you think you will make way more money than you do now.
In my view, going freelance so you can hope to work every hour of every day to make loads of money is a guaranteed formula to make yourself utterly miserable.
PR Pro, Debbie Smith, on getting out there and expanding your work horizons.
It’s more than six years since I became an independent PR consultant, and I’ve enjoyed (almost) all of it. I’m still here and still working on interesting projects with great clients. We freelancers often swap advice but there’s one thing I haven’t seen much conversation around about and that’s the need to keep challenging yourself and venture outside your work ‘comfort zone’.
In this post PR Pro Lianne Robinson – looks at how freelancers can outsource the business of running a business.
Yesterday my website finally went live! Well ok, it’s a holding page but it’s a start. I actually bought my domain name two years ago when I decided to take the plunge into the freelance world. But the reality is that work gathered pace quite quickly (thank you Sam ;-)) and I have been so busy since then helping clients manage their PR and marketing that I haven’t had time to do my own. And while I’ve managed to get a home page up, the rest of the content will simply have to wait until I catch a breath!
For some the joy of freelance work is being able to get your head down, get on with it and then get out (thus being the first to the bar). But for others the isolation can be an issue, in this post our new fintech writer and researcher, David Black looks at measures you can take to replicate those ‘water cooler’ moments.
There are pros and cons of being a freelancer ranging from flexibility on the plus side to occasional periods of lack of work as a negative.
Sam Howard dispenses some sage advice to would-be freelancers. Or, how to pitch a pitcher…
The Comms Crowd has been growing recently our little team has just about hit double figures and what a fab little team we are. I knew from the get go when each person got in touch that they would be a great fit for us, our culture and our clients.
But over the years I have been contacted by quite a few individuals hoping to join the gang and not all of them made such a brilliant first impression.
Here’s my top five mistakes to avoid when pitching your freelance services:
1) Telling me (in some detail) how much you hate your 9 – 5. Firstly I don’t care, secondly we don’t do negativity in pitches EVER, thirdly it demonstrates no commitment to freelance.
2) Telling me how (in more detail) you can’t get any work and you’re dying of starvation. Firstly I still don’t care, secondly one can only assume you are crap at what you do.
3) Clearly not understanding what we do, who we are and who we work for. We are B2B tech ergo if you are not B2B tech it’s not a good fit, honestly. Sending me some vanilla pitch about my ‘organisation’ has me lost at organistation.
4) Not demonstrating you have the four core skills: client management, content production, media relations, social media management. The rest is neither here nor there. And by demonstrating I mean send me a link to something you’ve written, send me coverage, show me a channel that you run…
5) Taking too long to tell me anything at all – this is a pitch right?
Truly if you can’t pitch yourself, how in the hell you gonna pitch our clients? (Can I get an Amen?)
Meanwhile, succinct, compelling and personable pitches that demonstrate your commitment to the freelance faith, map well to the Comms Crowd and showcase your in demand skills will just have me dashing for that welcome mat.
Our new content creator, and sax enthusiast, Sandra Vogel looks at the attributes you need to sustain a freelance life.
Freelancing doesn’t suit everybody, but it sure suits me. I’ve been freelance for 20 years, and I can’t imagine working any other way. But it’s not for everyone. You know those buzzwords – highly motivated, self-starter, flexible attitude. Well, they apply to freelancing bigtime.
Highly motivated. Um – yep. Motivated to sit at the computer when the sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view, and yet there’s a deadline to meet, a client call to take, and a couple of pitches to get in before you can even think of heading out that door. Well, that’s one way of looking at ‘highly motivated’. And there are times when it most certainly applies.
But there are other ways to look at motivation. I’m motivated to make as much as I can of the free time I have. That means that there are times when I can – and do – drop everything and get outside on a weekday to have some fun. The trick is keeping that motivation in line with working. Now that does take a certain personality type. It’s the type who can manage their time well, not over-filling it, not being too ambitious about what can be achieved in a given couple of hours, and making sure that time is allocated to fun as well as to work.
If that means being motivated to work on a Saturday morning in order to free up a Thursday afternoon, so be it.
Self-starter. People often see this as synonymous with the motivational thing, but in fact it is different. A self-starter just gets on with stuff. They’re the opposite of the procrastinator who always looks for reasons NOT to do things. The procrastinator says ‘Oh, I won’t write this blog today, because I’ve got a slot in the diary tomorrow’. The self-starter says ‘if I write this blog today then that diary slot tomorrow will stay free, and I can do something fun in that time.’
The self-starter has initiative and they make things happen. Importantly they don’t walk away when things get difficult. That’s a really important personality trait for anyone who wants to freelance. There’s no manager sitting nearby to provide feedback that you’re doing OK, or give pointers if you’re not doing OK. You just have to figure it out.
Being a self-starter shows itself in all kinds of things, not just hunkering down to tasks that are in the diary. It also applies to bigger picture stuff like hunting down new potential clients, following up possible work leads, even having a view of the universe and where you want to be in it – then working out how to get there.
But being a self starter also means doing things that might not feel very exciting, but that nobody else can do for you. There’s nobody around me to say ‘Sandra, I think it’s time you filed your tax return and updated your CV’. But when these things have to be done, they have to be done.
Flexible attitude. I’d say this is a vital attribute for any freelancer. I’m a pretty controlled kind of person. I like checklists, and I like to have things planned out. Most days I sit down to work knowing what’s going to happen during the day. I like to have my week planned out to a fairly fine degree too. Fridays are importantly different from the other days of the week. I don’t like having meetings on a Friday and I usually have no work at all scheduled after noon. The last work thing I do on a Friday is plan the following week.
How is that flexible? Well, while the aim is to take Friday afternoon off, it’s also ‘available’. So, Friday afternoon is a bucket that work can slip into if necessary. It might slip into the bucket because schedules have overrun, because a client has come up with something for me to do on a short deadline, or because Wednesday afternoon was beautiful and I went out for a bike ride, pushing everything in the diary ahead half a day.
One of the companions to having a flexible attitude is being relaxed and able to handle stress. A freelancer has to be good at that. There are often multiple demands on my time, and only I can decide the best way to resolve them. So, when two clients want something done right now and I have to negotiate a way through that, I need to be calm and considered. When my computer decides to give up working and I’ve not got a spare around, I just have to handle it. When something comes up that takes me away from work unexpectedly, I need to be able to handle both the work and the out of work situation equally well.
Like I said at the start freelancing isn’t for everyone. But if the cap does fit, it’s a great way to make a living. I’ve worked with some wonderful people (and my current Comms Crowd colleagues are among the best of all), done work I’ve really enjoyed, and spent more weekday afternoons in the cinema than I probably have a right to. What’s not to like?