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!
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!
As Holly Mercer’s three year PR degree draws to an end and the student loan looms large, she asks: Was it really worth it?
Ultimately only time will tell (although I would
like to think YES) as I am yet to graduate and secure a job in the industry.
However, I can still look back on my time studying PR at UAL and pick out the positves and negatives.
Sam Howard dispenses some sage advoce to would-be freelancers. Or, how to pitch a pitcher…
The Comms Crowd has been growing recently our little team had 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.
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!
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’.
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!