Sam Howard set up our virtual PR agency six years ago, and the business model is now gaining in popularity, so the demand for freelance comms proffesionals is out there. But just because you can freelance doesn’t mean you should. Here are her top tips for determining if you would be happy as a freelance PR:
Reasons to go Freelance: 1, 2, 3…
Because you want to – not because you don’t want to do something else
1) You actully want to freelance – sounds obvious but don’t do it just as the lesser of two evils or because you can’t find a ‘proper’ job, or because you think you will make way more money than you do now.
In my view, going freelance so you can hope to work every hour of every day to make loads of money is a guaranteed formula to make yourself utterly miserable.
OK so she does get out of bed for somewhat less then £10k, but Comms Crowd content writer Sandra Vogel, sets out her terms for keeping us all singing form the same song sheet…
Over the years I’ve freelanced for some of the biggest names in tech, for national newspapers, and for some of the best known technology web sites. I’ve also worked with lots of small companies, mostly but not all with a technology angle, with voluntary organisations, and with communications agencies.I’ve found good and bad clients across the spectrum. It’s not the size or sector that matters – it’s the approach and attitude of the client to using freelancers.
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.
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’.
Simona Cotta Ramusion shares lessons learned from her first year as a freelance PR and digital marketing consultant:
So it’s already been a year since I took the plunge into freelancing and it’s certainly been a crazy, scary, and self-rewarding time for me. As the summer approached, I remember starting off tentatively, double-double-double checking every email I was about to send out and running every action past Sam. But after a few weeks I found my feet …and my voice. As I started working with different clients and different accounts, I rediscovered the real me, a more confident “me” who could take an active role in new prospects’ meetings, could produce good writing, and could come up with interesting suggestions for her clients without being scared of saying the wrong thing.
1. Its Ok to be scared: being scared helped me to look at different options and opportunities; it helped me focus on the job; and, because it doesn’t come natural to me, it forced me to go out there and look for some local networking events.2. Find a good accountant: you won’t believe how important this is when you start off. S/he will help you:
- Decide whether you want to set up a Limited company or be a sole trader – there are different tax implications here depending on what type of business you are in, who you are going to work with etc so ask friends if they can recommend anyone or look on LinkedIn;
- Set up the Company for you;
- Recommend contacts for opening a business bank account;
- Set you up with accounting software or spreadsheets for recording your accounts
- Advise you on business expenses;
- Do your financial year end accounts:
- Recommend a pension advisor.
3. Set up a healthy and comfortable office space: again, from experience (back aches, neck aches, colds) it is important that you have a good size desk, not too close to a radiator and not too close to draughts; if possible, do invest in a laptop stand and a second monitor, (I found it free through a local company that was refurbishing their offices… you’d be surprised what gets thrown away). And if things are going well after a year, reward yourself with a new laptop.
4. Learn from your mistakes: like in any job, things sometimes don’t go to plan and when this happens as a freelancer you feel the blow even more. When this happened to me, I was able to look at why this situation had occurred and what could have been done differently. This has helped me take a different, customised approach for each of my clients, as each operates differently.
5. Be prepared to work on weekends or when other family members are on holiday. The myth that freelancers can take days off when they want it is not true. Especially at the beginning, you must be prepared to work long hours, be idle in the middle of the day and work late evenings. But…it is definitely a rewarding day – and that for me is what matters.
From our latest recruit, Marcel Klebba, social media activist and occasional junior.On gaining an essential PR skill – you’re never to young to start with the multi-tasking…
It’s 5PM. I am drinking my Earl Grey with (skimmed) milk, while writing this post. Playing in the background I have Radio 4’s Today Programme podcast from this morning that I didn’t manage to listen to till the end. As the Polish team is playing some decent football in Euro 2016, I am also following the score on my phone, while at the same time I am on my second screen monitoring multiple tweets and twitter feeds on TweetDeck.
This is taking multitasking to a whole new level, even for me!I multitask all the time. I have to. My life is quite busy so learning how to multi-task is a must for me. I am a PR student, part of the virtual Comms Crowd, while also making beautiful coffees on weekends at my local coffee shop. Whenever I have a bit of spare time from uni I try to get as much work experience as I can which is often hard. Once back home, after a full day of work or lessons or meetings, I still find myself having to to write an essay for the course or do prepare some posts for our clients’ twitter feeds. As I am a good son, who is living away from home, I can’t forget about face-timing my Mum, as well.
Multi-tasking is the skill that nowadays really pays off and that can give you a massive advantage, especially in PR where you need to be able to manage your schedule, meet clients’ deadlines, attend meetings while at the same time carrying on with your routine comms work .
Apart from its numerous advantages, multitasking has some drawbacks. Obviously, when doing too many things at once you run the risk of not doing any of them right Therefore, something tells me that I now need to pause the radio in the background in order to focus on my writing. Knowing when and what to prioritise is essential as well: keeping track of the football score, even though it’s super important for me,is not as time-sensitive and paramount as the work that I need to deliver for the clients. Juggling everything isn’t impossible and is extremely rewarding. Being praised for good work by Sam, is a superb feeling and keeps me motivated.
Talking of Sam and the Comms Crowd, I would not be able to do social media without the agency being, as we like to call it, cloud-based. It gives me the opportunity to work anywhere and anytime… within deadlines, not to upset Sam!
Comms Crowd’s approach is really innovative. Communication between all the members is being done via email and we share all our work on drop box we are all in our own offices, in some cases – living rooms. Comms Crowd gives us all flexibility and the chance to nurture not only startups, but also our kids, our hobbies, or, in my case, get the top mark for my Online PR module at uni. That’s The beauty of freelancing, as Sam has said, the beauty of multi-tasking I say!
Sam Howard interviewed 40 PR undergrads in a day, heres her top tips for standing out form the crowd.
This is what got me, it’s not until you interview 40 potential interns back to back do you realise how important it is to make a mark and stand out, for the right reasons.
Below my top ten tips for delivering a compelling interview:
1) Dress up not down. You’re a student, I know what students look like, show me what you look like as a young professional, help me imagine you in my world. Lads put on a suit, girls tie back the hair, easy on the make-up, everybody make sure the shoes compliment the look and are clean, Oh and take your coat off!
2) Bring in a portfolio and refer to it.Clips, references, college work, certificates etc.
3) Don’t be worried about nerves. We expect you to be nervous and can see through them, just focus on coherent answers that stack up.
4) Be able to answer the question ‘what do we get if we hire you?’ In three words that are true to the core of you. Even if you’re not asked it, have a handle on your personal brand, what it is, what you stand for.
5) If you are studying PR be able to talk about the industry, our issues, our successes, where we are heading, your PR super hero etc.
6) Don’t offer up a single adjective unless you have a story that backs it up. Don’t feel obliged to provide us with skills or qualities that you are unlikely to have at this early stage of your career. If we’re looking for a new CEO we would have advertised for one.
7) Be comfortable with your more humble achievements. The most convincing candidates where those that talked about everyday PR duties, how tricky it was to get coverage when there was no news, to create 10 tweets a day for a fish and chip shop, to get journalists to talk to you – at least that way we know you know what you are letting yourself in for.
8) Don’t be too eager to please, ‘I don’t care where I work who I work for what I do’ isn’t actually that compelling. Moderate your desire to learn with a view of where you’d like to end up.
9) The ability to demonstrate you can own and learn from mistakes is a key character strength not weakness.Be able to be reflective, think about things that have not gone well that were actually down to you not someone else. Why was that, and what did you learn from it?
10) Have a story lined up that lets us see the passion in you the one that lights you up! It doesn’t have to be work related, just something where we can see your natural energy and pride. Good luck, and enjoy the experience!
Want to work in PR? Better start working then…
Latest UK government research, showed that the number of students with Saturday jobs/part-time work is somewhere around half of what it was just ten years ago. In 1997, 42% of 16-17 year old students were working, in 2014 it’s down to 18%.
This is why: “When asked about the main reason for not combining work and study, the results of the survey indicated that personal preferences and the desire to focus on study was the dominant reason (55%), while the previous concerns relating to local labour market issues and the lack of flexibility from educational providers appear less influential (16% and 9% respectively). Thus, although there was a general prevalence of potential work opportunities available to young people, the overwhelming desire to do well in their studies was the main reason for not combining earning and learning.”This was also my experience as the ‘resident’ visiting lecturer at Westminster University for its BA in PR and Advertising, where very few of the first year students were combining part time work with their studies.To my mind if this is down to personal preference, then this is a mistake. If you want to work in the industry, you need to get an internship or two; if you want to get an internship or two you need to prove you already have a work ethic, and know what it means to work pretty hard doing rather dull stuff for not very much money at all. Those students that can already demonstrate this, by doing whatever it is: stacking shelves, cleaning cars, wondering out loud if you’d like fries with that – have already proved they can get up to an alarm, park the ego, roll up the sleeves and get the job done – which at this stage in a young person’s career is way more important than being able to wax lyrical on the theory of… well anything at all really.
I believe, those that are choosing the linear approach, to study first and intern after are missing a trick, while those that still believe they can walk straight out of uni into a permanent PR role will be able to reflect on that notion at their protracted leisure.
On the other hand, those students that are pushing themselves already, taking on Saturday jobs or part time work and applying for internships, even in their first year of study are giving themselves every advantage. Not only are they becoming more employable by the day, but their PR studies are going to make a whole lot more sense, once they have seen theory applied in practice.
So for me, working with the first year Westminster students was a fantastic opportunity to provide them with the basic skills they need to understand what a PR internship entails. By working on key requirements, from monitoring media, to building press lists; undertaking research to basic writing skills, we focused on how best to prepare and execute an internship role with professionalism and maturity.
Can’t tell you how proud I was to hear back from some of the students already, who not only have got out there and secured PR internships but have been asked to stay on for the summer in a paid capacity.
PR is a great career choice for those that are prepared to work for it – and a Saturday job could be just the place to start.
To phone or email? That is the dilemma. Our junior Hiwot Wolde-Senbet shares her learning experiences on pitching journalists.
When you work in public relations your relationship with the media is crucial to your performance. You can be as creative as you like but if you don’t generate coverage for your clients, it is pointless.
Having spent the best part of a year agency hopping, I have had to do my fair share of pitching, using phone and email. Therefore I have learnt that every agency has its own attitude towards phone pitching. Some ask for phone pitching experience and put a massive emphasis on one’s ability to pick up the phone and sell in. On the other hand, others, particularly those with journalism experience understand the pressure journalists face and wouldn’t dream of bombarding them with calls. And then there is me. I dread the silence you get from email pitches!
At the beginning of my career, as an intern, I spent hours after hours calling journalists, who I didn’t know from four pages of media lists, downloaded from Gorkana. Believe me, I am surprised how this experience hasn’t left me scarred for life, particularly when the phone is picked up by a weary and aggressive journalist. The whole process often made my heart race.
However, once in a while, there was ‘the match’, that resulted in a decent coverage making the whole experience bearable.
Specialising in fintech PR, we talk to the same people all the time and that gives us the advantage of knowing the stories they are interested in, so selling in doesn’t feel like cold calling – but exchange of services. However, even within this niche sector most journalists claim they don’t want to be bothered on the phone.
Taking that on board, I learned to be careful who I am calling, I had more success in placing an article if I knew the journalist and had researched and learnedall about the journalist than just hoping for the best.
So who and when do you call?
Taking my own experience and other PR pros that contributed to Sam’s debate on CIPR’s LinkedIn group discussion, I have compiled some steps that can help you establish that ‘phone relationship’ with your journalist.
- Understand journalists are always on a deadline and get to know their deadline. Better yet, plan in advance and look at their editorial calendar for the year ahead.
- What is your story? Does it match their criteria? Nothing annoys journalists more than PRs that pitch the wrong stories. Preparing a few points in advance helps with staying on track!
- Be polite! Ask if they have time to talk to you and keep it brief, just enough for you to be able to gage their interest. If they show interest, you can follow up if not, be respectful and don’t bother them again.
- Never ever waffle! I learned this the hard way! Know your story, and exactly what you want to say and why you are calling them and not other journalist.
- Have an email pitch ready to send as soon as you come off the phone. Email will always fill in the details you missed out.
Having said that, it is important to know everyone is different and should be treated accordingly so keep notes and follow through.