Are you stiing comfortably? Then I’ll tell you how I fell into PR
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a very bored admin manager who worked for a software development company. She found her job excessively dull, and so would spend much of the day quietly sitting at her computer, writing short stories. For some six months, she (barely) managed to perform her admin duties while working tirelessly on her craft, and soon enough her stories started to get the literary recognition she so desperately craved.
But then one day, the CEO – an entirely overly motivated individual, in her opinion, whom she’d successfully managed to avoid in the main – summoned her to his office. Her heart sunk when she saw upon his desk a sheaf of printouts, not of the latest tedious project timelines, but varying drafts of her stories and poems.
She braced herself to be fired: what cared she? She would live in an attic, make a career move out of being miserable and thin, wear fingerless gloves and die a fine and beautiful death of consumption.
“These are rather good,” he said evenly.
Momentarily thrown off balance but determined to remain on the offensive, she replied, “Well if you can’t give me enough to do, I have to get through the terminable day somehow.”
“My fault entirely,” he concurred with a half-smile.
She glared at him balefully. Was he just passing time waiting for the HR lackey to come in and do his dirty work for him?
Apparently not. “So I was wondering if I might prevail upon you to apply your talents to writing a few stories about the company, our solutions and how we help our customers grow and so forth…”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she interrupted, immediately seeing a flaw in his plan. “They’d be so boring: who would want to read those?”
“Ah, yes,” he replied with a mere smidge of a vindictive twinkle in his eye. “But it would be your job to make them interesting, tell a good story, engage the reader and what not. Then, maybe, you might talk to a journalist or two, see if you could interest them in writing their own stories about us…”
She looked at him aghast. Why, just the thought of it made her feel queasy. “PR! You want me to do PR??” How very dare he? ”I shan’t do it, I shan’t! You can’t make me!” she wailed.
“Well, no need to agree the brief right now. Why don’t you have the rest of the afternoon off to think about it?”
She grabbed her papers from his desk and stalked with great dignity from his office, not trusting herself to speak.
And so it was that after a sodden gin review of her overdraft facility, our heroine reluctantly conceded that just possibly there were worse things one could do for a living than telling corporate stories.
She’d just do it for a few months before she went and found herself a proper job or, at least had saved enough for a deposit on an attic and a pair of fingerless gloves…
And so, best beloveds, thanks to the thankless intervention of a remarkable CEO, I began my twenty year, hugely enjoyable and vastly rewarding career in PR.
Funny that now, ‘PR is all about telling stories.’ I thought it always was…
On how being kind can be good for your career. Really! Recently I was asked how I got started as a freelancer. “Oh it was Karma really,” I replied. And this greasy sort sidled up.“Who’s Karma?” He said. “Are they hiring?”
Come to think about it, maybe ‘they’ were:See, it all started when I was agency side… Once a year I would host a day for visiting US students. It started off as a favour for a client, but we loved engaging with the students, so sunny and bright and we became a regular stop on the US tour. And this lone kind act, helped counter-balance those days when I used to lock myself in the office bathroom and recite, “I’m not paid to be popular,” before marching back out there to rain on someone’s parade.
A few years passed, then one day in 2010 the US tour organisers asked me if I knew of a senior comms consultant that could head up a London internship programme for media post grads for The USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.And I thought, that could be me that could…And within a week of resigning I was jetting off to LA
So that became my first freelance contract, going to LA and working with the sunniest people on the planet. We are on our fourth contract now and it’s one of the most satisfying projects I have. But it doesn’t stop there…As a result of that work, I gained a great understanding of the whole PR landscape, not just my bit. I also experienced first-hand how incredibly difficult it was to secure internships in our sector. So I volunteered my services with the Taylor Bennett Organisation to share what I had learned with our home grown talent, helping the trainees prepare for their first roles in PR. I have been working with TBF for the last three years now, and I love it. I stay in touch with many of the trainees and it’s a huge buzz watching them develop and succeed in their careers…
And it didn’t stop there, either. Chuffed to announce The Comms Crowd has just taken on our very first freelance junior. A TBF alum! You can only imagine what a difference she has made to the team, and by all accounts she’s pretty happy to be working with us too, being able to execute agency-calibre work but with the freedom of the freelance lifestyle.
But wait! There’s more! Courtesy of a recommendation from another TBF alum we have a new client, which is great of course, but this client happens to be the UK’s foremost skilled volunteer and charity matchmaker and itself is a massive force for good. In the UK alone GWYGA has enabled professionals working in IT, Finance, Marketing and HR to donate £12 million worth of their time to some 3,000 charities around the world.
And now we are helping out with the PR around that, spreading the word, which has to be a very good thing right?Thank you Karma, a pleasure doing business with you.
Sam Howard lives to regret and for that at least she is grateful…
In its latest initiative to bridge the diversity gap, the CIPR is to go into secondary schools to explain what a career in PR entails. On the back of my work with The Taylor Bennett Foundation, and USC Annenberg, I’ll be looking to lend a hand. Odd how things turn out – given that my first ever careers’ talk was possibly a tad off message…
Admittedly the weekend before the gig, it did occur to me that possibly the standard company creds deck, designed to impress your most hard bitten city type, didn’t have quite the right content nor tone for a ten year old from an underprivileged, wildly diverse school in Neasden. But either I built a deck from scratch which would take a couple of days and I would never use it again, or I could just make it up as I went along, after all, what would they know? My talk was scheduled for Thursday.Although not entirely sure of my proffesion, my son’s primary school knew I rushed around a lot, shouted into my phone, and muttered darkly about jet lag. And so the headmistress made inquiries as to what it was that was so important, I had yet to attend a single cake sale. On discovering it was comms, she offered me a slot on careers’ week, saying it would, ‘make a nice change’. I love public speaking me, so penciled it in without a thought.
On Monday, Elliot was, buzzin’. A midwife had kept them enthralled with heart-warming tales of delivering babies, saving lives and what not. “How super!” I said, though this midwife person sounded like bit of a show off to me.On Tuesday, when I picked him up, he was equally full of it. The local policemen had visited with his dog, Blaze, who by all accounts was a magnificent beastie. “Hasn’t he got better things to do?” I miffed, as Elliot noted I was doing 35 in a 30 and that technically he should make a citizen’s arrest right there and then.
On Wednesday, a bloody bastard fireman rocked up.
“Perhaps I should bring in my awards,” I wondered out loud.
“He parked his fire engine in the playground,” said Elli cheerfully, “Let us climb all over it.”
“That’s cheating!” I howled in dismay.
My boy looked at me levelly. “Yep. You’re really up against it now Mum.”
Now, I know at this point, I could have built a deck that talked earnestly about reputation management and CSR. But people, my back was against the wall here and besides my kid was in the audience. That night I dug deep for inspiration and the shiny new deck, was unlike any other deck I have ever built before or after, and ready in the early hours of Thursday morning.
And so it was that I sashayed into that classroom dressed for a full on six-way City pitch. I cast a disdainful eye over my charges.
“So, I hear you’ve met a mid-wife, a policemen and a fireman already. Was it just great hearing about how all those clever, kind and brave people have dedicated their lives to helping others?” And they chorused that it was, it really really was.
“Well I can tell you now,” I said fixing them with a steely gaze.
“I don’t do anything like that at all.” An attentive hush seeped through the room.
“What I do, is a very, very TERRIBLE thing.” There was a collective intake of breath.
“You see,” I said archly as I span neatly on my highest heels and began to pace the room. “I work for the dark side.”
I had them.
“What I do is make MONEY – by helping other people make MONEY. Lots AND lots of it.” The headmistress actually seemed to be sliding down the wall, but the kids, they were on the edge of their seats…An adrenalin-fueled hour later, sharing a celebratory MacDonald’s with the boy, he passed his judgment.
“I liked the bit when you talked about trainers and celebrity endorsement and brand advocacy. Like, who knew there was no such thing as free will.” And he munched on his onion rings reflectively.Looking at me with a sly pride he pronounced, “You did good mum, you did good.”
Though strangely I was never invited back…
Take Sam Howard’s festive freelance quiz to find out. Tot up how many of these apply to you:
1. If you spend longer than six minutes getting ready of a morning, you consider yourself to be ‘faffing’.
2. When it comes to the three minute lunch break, soup bowls seem an unnecessary middle man, and are no longer required.
3. It never occurred to you before, but now, instead of religiously visiting the salon every six weeks, cos you’re so worth it – every so often, you just yank your hair into a big ponytail and lop off the top bit with the bacon scissors.
4. Your City client asks for an 8.30am briefing and you have jet lag for the rest of the day.
5. You get a pair of sheepskin house boots to keep your tootsies warm all winter long, spending over a hundred quid on what are effectively a pair of uggly slippers.
6. When asked what are doing at the weekend you look at people blankly, then reply, ‘working’ I mean what else would you do?
7. Next bank holiday, instead of gallivanting off on a City break, you’re going to re-grout the kitchen tiles as they are looking really grubby – funny you never noticed that when you had a proper job and was out of the house for 60 hours a week.
8. Your City high heels haven’t seen daylight for six months and when you do eventually try them out, you now walk with less grace than a lad in a frock on a stag do.
9. You catch up with a City friend. She regales you with tales of ridiculous internal politics, bodacious power plays and incompetent bosses – but all you can contribute is that the dog ate your Amazon parcel this morning.
10. Dress down Friday has become dress up Friday as that’s the day you go to the supermarket.
If you scored:
5 or less: It’s too late for me, but you must save yourself, book in for a weekend spa retreat, a full make over and hire a personal shopper, so no one need ever know what happened here.
6 and more: Consider yourself utterly unemployable and welcome to our world – we are your people now.
#Is it wrong? Sam Howard shares her frelance ethical ponderings:
1. Just in case he’s the only person you’re going to get to talk to all day, is it wrong to launch in with your most perplexing business issues, work fears, and brilliant new ideas while your 11 year munches on his morning porridge and does up his shoe laces?
2. To wear leg warmers and fingerless gloves indoors?
3. To pretend the web camera on your Skype call isn’t working when in truth it’s cos you look like shit and The Bloody Dog is jumping around in the background, trying to bury his Kong toy in the sofa?
4. To have full blown conversations with the rabbit, cat and dog in an effort to recreate those water cooler moments?
5. To have the fan heater and the central heating on at the same time?
6. To stuff dog treats in your brand new £40 sheepskin slippers, that were a Christmas present from your lovely mum, in an effort to keep The Bloody Dog amused for ten minutes, so you can reach your copy-writing deadline?
7. To eat your soup straight out of the pan and then give the carton and the pan to The Bloody Dog to keep him quiet for another five minutes?
8. To hang up on a conference call because you’ve just spotted The Bloody Dog has got the rabbit’s head in his mouth?
9. To top up your afternoon coffee with a large dose of Tia Maria? And then put its purchase against your tax expenses as ‘office beverages’?
10. To open the door to your child as he comes home from school, starving hungry, freezing cold and soaked through, with the greeting:
“Can you PLEASE take The Bloody Dog out! I have had him all day and he’s driving me frickin crazy. GO! NOW! GO!”
Sam Howard shares some freelance fall out…
Everyone who’s their own boss bemoans the roller coaster ride of being solo. Secretly I have always thought this could be avoided if one was just a little bit more organised and realistic. I believe I may have even posted helpful advice on the subject. But it feels like September has gone out of its way to prove I knew nothing. Nada. Zip…
Spend week in US to kick off big project, been looking forward to this since May. I’ve kept things ticking over in the summer but made sure the decks were completely clear for this big kick off. I’m sensible like that.
Return all geared up, spend a week organizing myself and putting systems and processes into place. File every last mail both ‘in’ and ‘sent’ so I can access everything easily once project is live.
Monday: News from the US. Project cancelled for internal reasons, no notice, no warning. Spend day feeling a bit numb… I have no work. I check contract, there is no provision for cancellation at this level. Christmas is cancelled.
Rest of week: Tempted to spend rest of week navel gazing. But navel gazing doesn’t pay the bills, so tell myself to buck up and see this as an opportunity to work with new people doing new things. Spend rest of week reaching out to industry contacts and worthy causes to see if I can earn my keep or at least be useful. Submit super competitive quotes, agree some freebies. Garner enough interest to keep myself busy for the next month or so.
Monday: News from the US. There’s been a rethink, Project resurrected! Tra la la Christmas is back on. But now diary looks a bit messy what with the other commitments I’ve taken on and what if those not so super competitive quotes come through now? Tempted to go for a long walk, it’s all been a bit emotional. But realise I’m now effectively a week behind schedule on the big US project, so better just get my head down and stay focused.
Tuesday: Beloved vntagelaptop crashes, no notice, no warning. I take it to local repair shop, “All the docs are backed up,” I say with a touch of swagger, I am after all a sensible freelancer. “I just need you to restore mail.” How hard can that be? My IT team at the agency could fix things like this in ten minutes. “I’ll wait.” I say, casually flicking open a copy of PR Week that I’ve had the foresight to bring with me.
The repair man slowly and carefully explains that Outlook does not live in the ether like Gmail or Hotmail it lives on the laptop, the very dead laptop.
I was aghast!
He went on to explain the raw data from the mail service provider will come through on to a new PC, not this one, obvs, but my profile is gone and with it, sent mails, appointments and contacts…
I gather up my traitorous laptop, my tattered dignity and slink out of the shop.
Wednesday: OK, still no need to panic I’m a sensible freelancer and I have gadget insurance bought especially for such an eventuality. Nice gadget insurance man says of course they can and will help me. They’ll post me a claim form, I must post it back, once they have that they will arrange collection of my laptop and try to repair it, if they conclude it cannot be repaired then they will go about sourcing a replacement to the value of a whopping £300.
Wow and in that time I could make myself a chocolate tea pot too, I’m sure that will be equally bloody helpful.
Thursday: Don’t have time to source an on line bargain, go to high street and pay lots and lots for a new laptop, whose price doubles by the time I’ve bought all the stuff I need to make it ‘go’. I can pick it up tomorrow.
Friday: Pick up sexy new laptop, and fire up Outlook – there in one very bulging ‘in box’ are all the emails I have ever received since going solo. But I have been severely humbled and for this unwieldy mercy I am truly grateful. Spend my birthday weekend working through ‘inbox ’reclaiming contacts and filing so I can have a clean start for Monday. Don’t sleep so good, as now two weeks behind on several projects. ( Er yes the stupid priced job did come in.)
Monday: Printer breaks. Is it my aura?
Tuesday: New mail – Would I like to head up a big, new and exciting project, already a month behind, very labour intensive with very tight deadlines oh and it’s really rather lucrative? Hell YES!
This morning: Smart phone implodes. I fear I may be heading same way.
Sam Howard on why actually it does matter what you wear even if no one is watching.
The day I turned freelance was marked by a ceremonial trip to the loft where I deposited my dry clean onlys, anything with cuffs or collars and my entire collection of 40 denier. As for the suits I gleefully deposited the lot at Oxfam with a note of apology.
On the way home I popped into M&S for several pairs of their finest tracky bottoms, (first time I have ever considered velour as a valid option) and tatty Ts. ‘That’s me.’ I thought, ‘I’m a proper freelancer now, all chill and unassuming with an elasticated waist’.
Over time this basic uniform was added to with several layers of indeterminate styling but always including leg warmers, hiking socks and sheepskin slippers as my tootsies were in a perpetual state of perma-frost. Looking back, it was about this time that Elliot said I need not pick him up from school any more.
There was also a weird side effect of looking a tad casual by day in that I possibly over compensated of an evening: rocking up to watch the match on the neighbour’s HD in full vintage;, an early evening showing of Rio sporting a doorframe-bashing bouffant; and mincing to Asda in killer heels, full make up & ‘no photos please’ sunnies. Again Elli seemed to be dawdling somewhat when it came to accompanying his mama with the trolley.I’m not sure where it might have ended, (what is the female equivalent of a wife-beater vest?) if it hadn’t have been for the very lovely Cherry Chappell, who recently gave an inspiring chat on the joys of freelance at the CIPR.
“The thing is,” she began solemnly, “One is never to wear slippers,” and I felt her eyes bore into mine, as if she knew! “It’s very, very important.” she said slowly for the slowest of us to catch up.
The reason why it was so important, she explained, was because I was very important now too. Indeed I was the CEO and the President of My Own Company. And as the CEO and President of My Own Company I should dress accordingly, affording myself the respect I deserved for being so very brave and clever. “And that starts,” she said making her hands into a steeple, “By how you chose to dress.”And the thing is I can see she has a point. One of the trickiest things I have noticed in these early months, is to stay consistent in your self-belief. You no longer have the job title, the rank and recognition that you had in the ‘real world’, nor do you have the support and sense of perspective your cronies gave you, cackling around the water cooler swapping ‘you think you’re having a bad day’ horror stories. You can only look to yourself for courage and encouragement. But if ‘yourself’ looks unemployable, then it’s not really going to give you that boost you need. Because in freelance as much as there isn’t anyone to rain on your parade, there’s no one to tell you you’re a little superstar either. That’s your job now. You need to look in the mirror and feel quietly confident – not like calling NHS Direct.
So thanks to Cherry’s fashion fix, these days I put a decent level of care into my appearance, even the flip flops are colour coordinated. Best of all, Elliot said if I keep this up he’ll let me come and watch his school play. Though part of me still hopes it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A month into being a freelance PR and each day I lurch from dismay to delight – here’s a taster:
High – first day, dancing around in my kitchen to Katie Perry ‘Firework’ deciding that was me, that was – a freelance firework.
Low – second day, no fireworks just housework which I never do but now don’t think I can afford for anyone else to do.
Low – first week, emailing myself to see if email was working (it was).
High – first blog, getting comments and being retweeted.
High – first client meeting, in a cake shop. Decided henceforth all client meetings shall be held in cake shops.
Low – first follow up, realising notes taken in said cake shop had to be actioned by me, and they take AGES!
High – office view, it looks out on to a snowdrop-littered garden with a giant rabbit hopping around in it. His name is Maximus.
High – office colleague, my desk has a cushion with a small cat on it. Her name is Lily. She looks at me with purry pride.
Low – office banter, turns out giant rabbits and small cats are not that great at office banter.
Low – office comfort, I just can’t get warm and the chair is wildly uncomfortable, I finish the day looking like a frozen Quasimodo.
High – office economies, my new printer was real cheap.
Low – false economies, my cheapo printer doesn’t photocopy I have to walk half a mile and pay 10p pay for one, so takes about 30 mins out of my day.
Low – office technology – still can’t get my Outlook to talk nicely to my HTC phone.
High – food, munching lunch while following the Archers (it’s all going on).
Low – food, my sandwiches are just not as nice as Prêt, nor is my coffee, I haven’t had a muffin in a month. I don’t know how to make sushi and don’t even mention Burritos.
High –food, lost two pounds in weight, go figure.
High – making decisions, making my own decisions and implementing them in the same 10 minutes is truly liberating.
Low – making mistakes, two hours later, realizing that half the time they are the wrong decisions is somewhat disconcerting.
What can I tell ya, it’s a learning curve…
Has sam gone LA LA?
A long flight, a big immigration queues and too many healthy looking people. Everybody’s smiles are perfect, everybody’s thighs are toned. I’m tired. I’m disorientated.and I’m not going to like it here. I decided that when I was about 14.
But just as my weary, cynical, sooty, London soul was about to curl up and demand room service, that Californian sunshine played some rancid trick on me and my inner Tigger came bounding out. Just like that! And before I knew it I was hopping on and off the buses (a remarkable event in itself) visiting 50’s shops, farmers’ markets, the Kodak Theatre, the Walk of Fame, and the place with all the signed paw prints of the famous and the dead. Since the beginning of time it seems Hollywood A Listers have had very small feet, as do LA gang members I noticed, not that I pointed it out. I even visit the gym everyday and courtesy of jet lag can be found there at 6.30 every morning, working out and smiling. I can’t explain it myself.
Then after catching up on an episode of Millionaire MatchMaker ( I LOVE that woman) and dressed in American Vintage, I sashay over to campus with my big cup of something all psyched and ready for my post grads. Everyone is engaging, bright, kind and respectful. It’s culturally shocking but don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, it’s quite infectious. Today I even sit in on a class to hear all about US privacy laws and how they apply to news reporting. It appears that people no longer put their hands up anymore in class, even registering this at the time I could not help but go all Hermione-like, with my arm shooting up with a bad case of girly-swat tourettes, so determined was I to participate.The group coped with me as best they could. Seems they were expecting some bored, aloof, disdainful English chick, (so was I) so this bouncy bird with the bad teeth has taken them by surprise.
The only time my enthusiasm faltered was when I noticed how sexy everybody’s technology was. The power supply for my machine was bulkier than the entire classroom’s kit put together. So who knew that I’d get out to LA and shrug off all my body/lifestyle/age/fashion neuroses, and just come back with gadget issues!
At least I still have issues and for that we’re all truly grateful.
One week of being a PR freelancer and Londoner Sam Howard is off to LA. What can possibly go wrong?
So, I’m in the final throes of preparation for my trip tomorrow. As brag factors go, jetting off to LA, a week after turning freelance, has to be right up there. I’m off to a super swanky US university to mentor post grads. And it’s not that I’m not grateful for this opportunity, I am.
Really I am.
It’s just that:
Among other things, I’ve volunteered to give a three hour workshop; and although I’ve worked in the comms industry for 17+ years I’m not sure I can talk about it for longer than 20 minutes…
AND I’ve prepared all the materials from scratch, AND in an enormous hurry, it’s a shiny new deck and probably every slide harbours a typo which will only declare itself when projected onto a 20 foot screen in a room full of clever people…
AND, LA is 500 square miles, I have a disgraceful sense of direction, I am a rubbish driver and walking apparently is not an option. I know I’m going to get lost on my first day, arrive late, look a total twat etc etc…AND, I don’t know anyone, any restaurants, any shops, any neighbourhoods, any reasons d’être to be in LA. I could just go to the beach, but it’s Venice beach and it’s February and I’m not sure my pale and imperfect bod will even be allowed on it…
AND everyone keeps telling me that I will love LA, everyone. That the people are like the weather – warm, beautiful, friendly and relaxed. But the thing is, I am more a product of our own inclement climes, frigid, haggard, hostile and neurotic. What if I make students cry?..
Besides I love New York, love it, love the people, the food, the shops, the art, the weather, the architecture. I know my way around New York . I know my way around the people. Everyone says that LA is nothing like New York…AND last night, I phoned a friend and whimpered that I’m about to go down more like Ricky Gervais than Piers Morgan. Obviously I wasn’t actually looking for a practical solution, just to hear the sound of my own voice bleating. But he only goes and ‘helps’! Hooks me up with his fabulous friend, an LA local, assures me we’ll get on like a house on fire. Turns out she’s a supremely successful fashion stylist, dresses the A List for the red carpet…
AND so now, on top of everything else, I don’t know what to wear. I’ve always been so disdainful of labels. Will that catch on do you think? In LA??
So think: a badly dressed – Ricky Gervais – arriving late – at the Golden Globes – no one to talk to – and fluffing his lines – on already ill-judged script.Only difference is, I do want this gig again.