How can you prove your clients are the zen masters they say they are? PR Pro Debbie Smith goes in search of those elusive proof points.
We know journalists get hundreds of pitches every day. Their mailboxes and twitter feeds are full of companies competing for airtime, all offering informed, relevant comment. But why should a journalist listen to what they have to say?
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’.
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!
In this blog post PR PRo Debbie Smith discusses a less frequently cited reason for freelancing – one which changing demographics may make increasingly common.
Why become a freelancer? The reasons people usually give are flexibility, fitting around your children and getting a better work-life balance. I certainly wanted a better work-life balance – I’d had enough of spending my Friday evenings with First Great Western Trains – but another key factor was helping my sister support our elderly mum.
My sister lived near Mum and helped out when needed. However, we noticed that whenever my sister went on holiday, Mum would fall ill. I’d been fortunate to have an understanding agency boss when I had to make a midnight dash to a hospital 150 miles away and take several days off, but the writing was on the wall – I needed to do more.This helped to crystallise an idea that I’d been considering for some time, so a few months later I took my first steps as a freelancer. I soon discovered the joy of being able to schedule meetings to suit myself and my clients, without having to fit round a team of colleagues. One client was based between my home and where my mum lived. When I suggested meetings on Fridays so I could then go to Mum’s for the weekend, she was more than happy to help. In fact it worked better for her too. Her MD was usually in the office on Fridays so I could be sure to get a meeting with him. As you can imagine Mum loved this – and it helped to stop her worrying that she was a burden.
This also taught me something interesting about clients’ attitude to freelancers. They still expect the same quality of work, and deadlines don’t change, but they understand that you have a life too.
Fast forward a few months and I won some work with a big new client just as my sister was about to go on holiday, so I was on ‘Mum duty’. The project required a lot of international conference calls, but no problem – I worked at my sister’s using her Wi-Fi, then went round to mum’s for coffee and a chat. The people I was interviewing had no idea where I was, nor did they care. On other days I kept Mum company and wrote articles at her dining table. I don’t think she understood what I was working on but she enjoyed introducing me to her visitors!
As we reached the stage where one of us needed to be nearby all the time ‘just in case’, the benefits of freelancing really kicked in. My sister could have the breaks she needed while I worked from the south coast. This is where it helps to be part of a freelance agency like the Comms Crowd, as your colleagues are there to share the work.
Sadly Mum is no longer with us, but the career I built from her dining table has continued to grow and I’d never go back to a 9-5 routine and the daily commute.I’m surprised more people haven’t discussed this reason for freelancing. I very much doubt that I’m unique, but perhaps caring responsibilities aren’t something people tend to raise except with family and close friends. However, with an ageing population and the growing issues around social care I’m sure we’ll hear more about it in the future.
PR Pro, Debbie Smith looks at how to ‘ride’ a current news story to raise your client’s profile…
When you choose to work in B2B technology PR, most of your career is spent pitching to trade press and freelance journalists who specialise in the same area. Unless you’re working for a megabrand such as Microsoft or IBM, you’re not going to have many opportunities to pitch to the national press.
OK, let’s rephrase that – nothing’s stopping you pitching to them, but you’re unlikely to get much response unless your client’s invented a computer processor that isn’t based on silicon or found a solution to climate change. However, there’s a useful tool to add to your PR kit bag: link your story to something that’s already making the headlines, and your client suddenly becomes relevant to mainstream media.Critical to success are speed and relevance. The link has to be genuine, and you need to act fast. If you’ve spotted the link, you can be sure that another PR will have done so too. But if you get it right, you open up a whole new conversation for your client. Here’s how we made it work for Comms Crowd client, Elliptic.
Elliptic specialises in security and analytics for the blockchain. The firm was the founding member of the UK Digital Currency Association (UKDCA), and in this role provided input to a Government consultation on digital currencies. Earlier this year we thought the results of that consultation might be announced as part of the Budget a couple of days’ hence. This was an ideal opportunity to link Elliptic to a topic which would be given extensive coverage in the print media and online as journalists analysed every last detail of the Chancellor’s speech – assuming of course that digital currencies were included.
So we wrote a short alert to let key media know about the potential announcement and outline why Elliptic could provide expert comment. The following day we listened carefully to the Chancellor’s Budget speech – but no mention of digital currency. However, an online search led to the supporting papers for the Budget and there it was – the Government’s recommendations on how it proposed to make the UK a world leader in digital currency. We quickly followed up with our key media, providing a link to the announcement and offering comment.
The results exceeded all our expectations – interviews with the FT and the Guardian and several requests for written comment, resulting in 15 items of coverage including City AM, the Independent and the Wall Street Journal. Our client was delighted and so were we.
Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. It’s important to be aware of what’s making the headlines, think creatively and look for new and unusual ways in which you can link your client to a story. It may be straightforward, such as when a former colleague was working on a campaign against workplace bullying for a leading trade union and bullying in the Celebrity Big Brother house hit the headlines. A few media calls later and the client was on Sky News explaining what an individual should do if he or she was being bullied. But even if it’s a more tangential link, remember that journalists have pages to fill every day and may be looking for a different angle to keep the story alive. Why shouldn’t you be the one to provide it?
When I said goodbye to early mornings at Cheltenham station and trains to PR offices around the UK, one of my main worries (apart from finding work of course!) was whether I’d miss the daily contact with colleagues. According to psychometric tests, one of my characteristics is ‘extraversion’, which means I get my energy by interacting with other people. I’ve always found this to be true, so how could I combine it with a freelance life?
To make things more difficult, I’d been commuting since I moved to Cheltenham, which had left me little time to make friends in the area. At one stage I joined a running club, but two weeks later I began a project which meant lots of time in London, so my only friends in the area were those I’d met via my partner.
The answer came from an unexpected and low-tech source – a noticeboard by my local shops, where I spotted a poster for a business talk organised by a group called ‘Cheltenham Connect’. I thought I’d give it a try and duly went along. The speaker was interesting, the people welcoming and I decided to go again the following month. It might help me make new contacts and would at least get me out of the house. The group also organised an informal co-working session in a local café every week, called Laptop Friday, and this helped me put some structure into my early weeks of freelance life.
Fast forward a few months and Wendy, the human dynamo who’d set up the organisation, invited me out for coffee. That’s nice, I thought – and then she sweet-talked into doing their PR! I didn’t really enjoy local PR but – oh well, why not help out for a few months? The first activity I had to promote was a business conference/exhibition, and before I knew it I was exhibiting and helping with event planning too. But it wasn’t all business related; there was a Christmas craft fair, a music festival with bands from the area….and local PR stopped being a chore because I could see the positive impact these events had on the community. They really mattered to the people involved, and they started to matter to me too.
But this was about more than feeling good by doing some pro bono work: I found I’d tapped into a ready-made support community. We swapped information on local activities, bounced around ideas, tipped each other off on new business opportunities and shared lifts to events. You could ask for a second opinion, or discuss something that was bothering you about running a business – chances were that someone would be able to help. If I had a week with no meetings, I’d arrange to meet one of my new contacts for coffee to swap ideas and recharge my extrovert batteries.
The year rolled round and my business grew, but I stayed involved with the group. I’ve become co-organiser of the business event, which has grown every year and now has 200+ attendees. Through it I’ve met a wide variety of people, from our MP and councillors to entrepreneurs running all types of businesses. I’ve also used it to try new things, such as chairing a discussion panel last year (it went really well, so it’s back again this year!).
As I specialise in technology PR, I didn’t expect any of this generate any business, but surprisingly it did. People sent me leads they’d seen on social media, recommended me to designers needing copywriters and passed on work they were too busy to handle. I even swapped writing a press release for attending a course on social media.
Five years on and as well as a positive glow from doing something for the community, I have a local support network I never dreamed of when I first became a freelance. Many of the people I’ve met have also become good friends. Three of us have had operations over the summer and we’ve had practical support and lots of encouragement during our recovery. My partner is continually surprised by how many people I know – and now he’s offered to help out one of the team with dog walking!
So my message to freelancers everywhere is use that extra time and contribute to your community as part of getting that elusive work-life balance right. You’ve nothing to lose except your inhibitions…