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’.
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.
PR Pro, Lianne Robinson, ponders how to have a proper holiday as a freelancer:
So that’s it, I’m all packed, the suitcase is by the door and my laptop is…safely locked away!! For the first time in two years I won’t be taking it away on holiday with me.
In the early days of freelancing it seems that every waking moment is spent glued to your computer. You’re trying to prove yourself to newly secured clients as well as on the constant look out for new opportunities to build your portfolio. I even had my laptop with me in the maternity ward while waiting for the arrival of my son (yes really!). But this time, things are very different.
One of the reasons that I wanted to work for myself and be my own boss was because of the unlimited holiday entitlement and freedom I would have. The dream that I could base myself anywhere in the world and not be tied to one location as long as I had good enough wi-fi connection was one that I wanted to make a reality. And while this has worked well so far, it has meant that I haven’t really afforded myself some proper time off.
But for the first time, I now feel I have established myself enough as a freelancer to justify taking some proper time out. I’m probably (hopefully!) not going to lose the clients I have spent time building up for the sake of a two week holiday. And while I like to believe that my beloved clients could not possibly do without me, if you’re clever about it, this is not the case.
Being part of The Comms Crowd collective means that every client is covered and serviced as they normally would be thanks to the ‘virtual team’ of support that we have between us. As a team of six, every one of us is kept looped in on accounts so that we can handover when we want some time off, safe in the knowledge that the client won’t miss out on opportunities and business will continue as normal.
That’s not to say that the last couple of weeks haven’t been extremely busy. While day to day account running can be handled by the team, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get as much work done as I can before heading off. I’m not very good and leaving work in an unfinished state so as far as possible I work hard to ensure that all loose ends are tidied up. The second part of this is monetary related. Freelancing and the flexibility that comes with it is great, but the trade-off on this is that there is no luxury of holiday pay so you want to earn as much as you can while you are working.
But having some proper time away from your usual routine – work, life, family – gives us a chance to take stock, regroup and gain some perspective. I plan to come back refreshed, full of new ideas and enthusiasm ready to hit the ground running (once the jetlag subsides). My clients will benefit from this too.
So while I like to think I’m irreplaceable, I’m not! My clients will continue business as normal and I will be back in two weeks, ready and raring to go with a fresh perspective and a suitcase full of souvenirs and new ideas. And the other benefit to working remotely, you don’t need to share your holiday sweets with your colleagues!
See you soon!
Sharing this recent article from PR Moment to which I also contributed, Ref Brexit, can’t speak for the rest of the industry but my crew of freelancers have never been busier. In an uncertain market, you need to make sure your PR budget is is invested in PR talent, not a nice reception area.
From newest member of the team, digital marketing diva – Simona Cotta Ramusino
Reality has finally hit. I have updated my LinkedIn profile with my new job title so it must be true: I am a PR And Digital Marketing Freelancer.
After 20 years of working for top class agencies and in-house marketing departments of international brands I have decided to take the plunge into freelancing. Making the decision to go freelance was a scary moment and I am just beginning to get to grips with my new status. It is something that, in just a short period of time, I have already come to appreciate and enjoy and won’t change my mind any time soon. Why? Well you need to know how I got into freelancing.
It’s really thanks to Sam.
Sam and I worked together a few years ago, and one of her talents back then was the ability to read people’s strengths and personalities and make it work well within a team. When I asked Sam for advice on whether I should join her band of freelancers she knew my type well: I am not a risk taker, I am someone who always has to think things through, always needs to have a Plan B (or C or D). So Sam not only laid out the naked truth about the freelance world but she also made sure I didn’t have too much time to think over the cons the new path would entail and got me straight to work as part of the Comms Crowd gang.
The “plunge” came with an important life lesson. As I started reconnecting and talking to previous colleagues, they all agreed it was a great career move for me, some even wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. It surprised me. They knew more about me, about my skills and talent than I did. At the end it was their support and comments that gave me that final push and made me realise it was indeed a career change, it wasn’t something temporary, something I could do in my spare time or just as I was looking for something else. It was my new job title.
To answer my initial question on why I wouldn’t change being a freelancer this is because it lets me use all the communications skills I have learned through the years and apply them for a variety of clients that an agency wouldn’t even have on their books. I also feel it has elevated me professionally and it is giving me so much satisfaction, both professionally and personally. Because the relationships I establish with my clients seem to be more on a par, the recognition I receive for my work feels more personal and genuine.
So while some people may decide to go down the freelance route because they want a better work/life balance or be their own boss, for me these are just by-products. Freelancing means doing what you do best and enjoying 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…
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…
Major validations, minor tribulations and lessons learned – two years into Sam Howard’s career as an independent PR.
Smug moment: Ongoing clients have expanded their remits, project clients return for more projects, growth rates are healthy.
Dark muttering: So how come I haven’t won employee of the month? Been given a round of applause, a certificate, a mug or anything?
Note to self: Stop hankering for external validation. Ain’t ever gonna happen.
Smug moment: So stress levels are down, inner contentment levels are up my aura has never been so glowy – everyone says so.
Dark muttering: When you have a bad day they can be astoundingly bad, and the temptation to cry is immense – after all no one is watching. Usually it’s just a matter of keeping the faith,but it’s easier said than done.
Note to self: Just read the contract you stupid, stupid girl.
Smug moment: I’m getting to do more stuff with more people, getting back to a more integrated approach.
Dark muttering: Peer collaboration is all very well, but where’s a lovely, enthusiastic junior when you need one? Media monitoring – at my age.
Note to self: Get over yourself, it’s the same day rate.
Smug moment: Blog’s doing good.
Dark muttering: I’m a bit behind on sorting out my own brand. What brand you say? Quite. I abandon it as soon as client work comes in. Worse still, I keep changing my mind. I have so much more empathy now with past employers that could never ‘get their act together’, turns out neither can I.
Note to self: Use your project management skills, dummy.
Smug moment: I’ve enjoyed getting back to my roots, direction, content and outreach. I still get a huge high when I see client content getting picked up.
Dark muttering: Why did I think setting up on my own would get me away from the spreadsheets?
Note to self: There’s software out there to do this stuff, decide where your time is best spent, and spend it there.
Smug moment: So as a reward for going freelance, I got a rescue puppy. He’s a black lab, crossed with something, maybe a kangaroo. But our daily walks give me head space and I’ve dropped a dress size!
Dark muttering: I somewhat underestimated how wildly distracting would be the dogaroo’s ebullient puppy-hood and protracted adolescence – there were days… I’m telling ya…
Note to self: Don’t be tempted to spread yourself too thin. Even by a puppy.
Smug moment: I’ve rejected any pretense at standard working hours, standard dress, standard working practices – and it all works well for me.
Dark muttering: Ask any of my former bosses, I was always borderline employable. Are there rescue shelters for feral freelancers, offering warm and loving forever contracts, doing the filing in the basement for some kindly brand?
Note to self: Better stick with the programme kid and as Fat Boy Slim might say:
‘We’ve come a long, long way together
Through the hard times and the good
We have to celebrate you, baby
We have to praise you like we should.’
‘Cos no one else is gonna do it for you.
Sam Howard looks at how to survive and thrive on the freelance diet…
Most freelancers say they took this path to have a better quality of life. Most ex-freelancers say they gave it up because the feast and famine aspect was completely counter intuitive to achieving the work life balance they craved.
Ergo to sustain independence you need a strategy for coping with the Cabbage Soup Diet one week and the All You Can Eat Buffet the next. Here’s mine:
Feast: I love the pace, the focus, and the fear of The Feast! But this year, instead of doing my impression of an overworked Scrat and chasing down every last acorn, as the work ramped up I pulled in fellow freelancer experts to do the bits that they do best, leaving me to what I do best. Net result – very happy clients (several experts for the price of one) and several happy experts instead of one, which karmicly is a good thing right? In the short term slightly less acorns for me, but by delivering really good work (i.e. better than I could manage on my own) hopefully we planted a few metaphorical oak trees for the long term.
Famine: So I could stay in bed, stare at the ceiling and wonder if I haven’t completely ruined my career… or, instead I could actually look forward to the downtime and line up a load of projects designed to get out of the office, rest the brain and exercise the brawn. You might of heard the whoop of joy as I slammed down the lid of my laptop on 15th May, 10.45am. Over the coming weeks I finally redecorated the bedroom after nine years of dreaming in bloody magnolia. Net result – I swapped eight hours a day for a twelve but achieved an almost zen like mental status and when the ‘real’ work kicked back in, both client side and the house-keeping I returned to it quite refreshed and with rather shapely upper arms.
Regular meals: I struggle when, to my mind, there is not enough ‘real’ work to lace the day with the Fear – so I don’t do it at all. Instead I sand down the kitchen worktops. After several days of this, yes the worktops are very shiny but the real work has insidiously mounted up. The Fear has a genuine reason to be there and I’m in a self-induced state of work bulimia.
Grazing seems beyond me.
But at least if ever I do feel tempted to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and ponder the vagaries of freelance – I can also admire the paintwork.
After 17 years of having a ‘proper’ PR job, Sam Howard takes a moment to reflect on her first year as a freelancer.
So I took the leap of freelance faith one year ago now. I started with just one contract (that’s all you need) and an old laptop (such a bad idea). A year later and I’m busy and increasingly teaming up with industry mates to deliver on a wider brief.
And I’m know I shouldn’t boast but also the proud owner of:
- A shiny new laptop (bought in great distress):
- A comfortable office chair (couldn’t actually stand after that first month perched on rustic dining room chair);
- An all-singing all-dancing printer (I tried a basic one, but running to the shop to pay 10p for photocopy soon lost its appeal);
- A fan heater (essential);
- A dog (absolutely not essential and quite possibly a really bad idea but I’m sticking with it.)
I’ve celebrated making it to Year One with a new office rug and several cocktail parties for those who have looked after me most. (“Mind the rug!”). Forgive this nostalgic moment while I reflect on the year gone by…
What was the best revelation?
That I would enjoy it quite so much, even the dodgy days are somewhat thrilling. I love the diversity of work and the random twists opportunities offer. Despite my commercial brain, I don’t seem to be overly obsessed with making a fortune (handy). Just doing good work and getting paid well enough for it, works fine for me.
What was a complete let down?
My misperception that if I didn’t have any paid work I’d be just working on my tan. If you don’t have paid work, you feel somewhat obliged to look for it, and even if it’s already on the horizon, then you still labour over laptop every day staying on top of admin marketing accounts etc. A year in, and Loose Women still remains a mystery to me. Damn that work ethic. And it turns out I hate doing my own PR. I ordered some business cards off the internet and I do enjoy writing this occasional blog, as long as I don’t have to pitch myself as a ‘thought leader’, but beyond that, turns out I’m not very interested – which I think, given my training, is a bit rubbish.Is there
Anything you miss about your old life?
Well I’m not lonely which I was a bit worried about, but I walk the dog every morning so usually bump into someone to chat to, and then I shout at self-same dog quite a lot all day which keeps the volume up. As predicted, it’s the IT department that I miss. The combination of having a giant house rabbit that’s addicted to power cables and my own complete inability to do anything other than cry when the black blinky screen shows, means, I’ve truly and repeatedly suffered.
If it’s so great do you wish you’d done it sooner?
Erm maybe, not sure. If I’d gone solo earlier in my career I’m not convinced I would really have known what I was doing, ten years in a busy agency means you are learning every day and I’m really glad I have that experience. Without it I think I would have been just too freaked to enjoy this solo life. As it is, my instincts are nicely honed and the advice I give has usually been proven.
So what’s next?
Well no plans for global domination or any more pets (there’s more of them than us now). But perhaps I should go on a dating site just to spice things up a little. Place an ad that might read:
“Mostly chirpy freelancer, smelling slightly of wet dog, would occasionally like to meet IT Geek with too much time on his hands and an endless supply of cables for emergency assistance and fun times (deadline dependent).”
Huge thanks to my early adopter clients who were kind enough to hire me, pay me and refer me. And to my gorgeous friends who have looked after me this just-a-bit-scary, year. My round this next time.