It’s been six months since Sam Howard turned freelance. If you are contemplating ‘the big leap’ here are her early days tips, while the pain of learning them is still fresh:
1) Take a break before you begin: Contrary to what I was advised, I recommend you do not quit your day job on a Thursday and start your first contract on the Friday. I think I would have been more able to absorb the culture shock if I had allowed a month in between. Ideally a couple of weeks of doing NOTHING, after 22 plus years of ‘real’ work, I guess I could have cut myself some slack there. And then the next few weeks can be spent sorting out behind the scenes stuff and not just the paperwork but the basics like a comfy chair, stationary etc.
2) Apply some discipline to the financials: To quote Jessie J ‘it’s not about the money’. I knew that from the get go, but it’s quite tricky to unhook your real worth from your ‘take home’. Let it go, you are not your agency day rate or your old job title. You are so much more and being a freelancer gives you the space to explore it. But to avoid the feast or famine syndrome that everyone warns you about, set up a separate bank account, tip some cash in to it to ease yourself in, say three months of a notional wage. You’ll have enough to adjust to, without worrying about money from day one. Keep all your business outgoings and income in this one account, from this you can transfer an appropriate amount for tax into a savings account and also pull a regular wage so you can continue to budget as you did when you were employed.
3) Don’t underestimate how long tasks are going to take:One of the biggest shockers I found was that there was no one to whom I could delegate. I was so delighted that the decision making process was now instantaneous, but all the time savings made on that side were swallowed up by the implementation process now that it was just me to execute. I had to relearn skills I had abandoned years ago, like formatting, attention to detail, spelling…
4) Get out and talk to people: My first project was initially difficult and intense, that compounded with no team support or general water cooler chitchat meant I did feel overwhelmed at first. I quickly made a point of meeting an industry mate at least a couple of times a week to help keep my own trials and tribulations in context.
5) Dress the part: After a few months of looking like Bridget Jones in the throes of a messy divorce, I smartened up. For me the standard that works best is to dress as if you have a mild crush on the postman. Oh and you’ll have to schedule some regular exercise too, if you’re gonna have a chance with that postman.
6) Don’t be mean with yourself: I wish now I hadn’t bought a basic printer, trotting off to newsagents to pay for photocopies or coloured printouts, pains me man, it pains me. Also my dining room table is not the right height for a desk and sooner or later I am going to have to come to terms with this.
7) Find your natural rhythm: After so many years working Monday to Friday 9- 5 it’s natural to feel obliged to keep it up, but being a freelancer you can set your own rhythm. Mine follows the sun, if it’s sunny I do less, if it’s not I do more. Family commitments not withstanding, I’m happy to work in the evenings or weekends, if it means that when the sun comes out I can potter in the garden, keeping a squinty eye on the emails. Let go of the guilt. As long as you get the work done and it delivers above, beyond and ahead of your client expectations, then really you can please yourself when and how you do it.
8) Stay in the loop: Now you’re not part of the company chatter, you need to put extra effort into keeping up with what the industry is talking about and what’s trending. Make time in your daily schedule to read, comment and connect. Also go to conferences, training seminar’s etc, not just to network but to actually learn and assimilate.
9) Try to hold out for interesting projects:This has to be a huge plus of going freelance, work for people you like, take remits you enjoy. This is pay back for all those years of doing tasks to which you were painfully unsuited and having to work with people that normally you’d cross the street to avoid. You’ll end up doing such a great job you can easily widen the remit and referrals will surely follow.
10) Finally enjoy being nice to people! When you go freelance there are no power battles to win, no points to prove, no office politics to survive, you can just hang up your battered old ego and be nice. It feels great, really! And who knew people could be so responsive when you show some genuine consideration for their day and their challenges? Certainly not I.
Sam Howard on one of her pet subjects:I nternships are a contentious issue. Pay them? We are getting better at this but if the intern’s work isn’t billable, then where does the funding come from? Don’t pay them and risk being branded as a slave trader? Auction them? Surely not, but they do go for £3k a pop at a Tory Fundraiser. That can’t be right can it, jobs for the boys and all that?
Over the years I’ve hired my fair share of interns. I like to do it, feels good to give someone a break, they seem to enjoy it, and it gives me so much genuine pleasure to watch my protégés go on to bigger and better things. Now, I work with the Taylor Bennett Foundation coaching its interns and also with USC Annenberg, where I head up the post grad London internship programme. This batch of placements began about a month ago and I’m happy to report that without exception the students are delighted with their learning experience and thriving under the guardianship and care of their sponsoring companies.So in this post I’m steering clear of the politics and just passing on my advice for getting on that first rung of the PR ladder, I hope it’s helpful.
1) CV building: It seems in the US there is a strong culture for CV building which I’m not sure we’ve quite caught up with here. Most of my US group’s CVs already boasted not one but several unpaid relevant internships as well as 100s of hours of community service. This demonstrated not only a basic understanding of what PR is in practice but a really strong work ethic. Doing something looks a lot better than doing nothing and doing something for somebody else for free is even better.
2) CV cleaning: This goes for any CV, not just when you are starting out, so do avoid the marketing schpeak there is no need to ‘big up’ achievements. Explain what your actual role was, rather than align your glory to the company as a whole, we don’t really expect juniors to have created global brands, but it’s a real bonus if we know you know how to put a tracker report together. Be bold, brave and honest in your CV. Us PRs do not believe the hype.
3) CV polishing: We want our interns to be able to read, write, spell, have great attention to detail and a good eye for presentation. Use your two page CV to show you are a master of all those trades. Make it work hard for you, put in hyperlinks to your work, your references, your social media profiles.
4) Sort out your social media presence: to me this is more important than the CV. The CV you crafted in isolation, the social media profile is a living breathing organism. Get yourself on LinkedIn build your connections and join your groups and get some recommendations up there as soon as you are able. As for Twitter, follow your favourite bloggers, journalists, brands and companies you would like to work for. Use Twitter to pass on latest trends and tips from the professionals retweet and reply. Same goes for Facebook, but make sure your privacy settings are where you want them.
5) Sector specific: Most of my US group not only knew that they wanted to make a career out of PR but also what sector they wanted and already had some industry grounding to underscore that. On the whole this seemed to work very well. If you are starting out, look to build your experience in pieces, want to work in fashion PR? Get a Saturday job in a high street store, organize a charity cat walk show in your college, represent a local independent store for free, don’t be despondent that you can’t get an internship at Gucci from day one, lead up to it. Therefore the flip side is if you have little or no relevant experience just yet, then you should keep your remit wide open, see each opportunity as one to learn.
6) Agency v in-house: Most of my group wanted to work agency side as they believed the faster pace would give them a more intense exposure. Again I would agree with this, although I would say the mid size and smaller agencies are often much more receptive to giving an intern a good home. Going in house seems to take longer to clear, and also you need to be sure that there is enough actual PR work for you to do, so be clear on the job description if it’s a start up or a few man crew. Be objective, a great brand name might have global recognition, but a smaller agency might give you more responsibility. Do your research, find your specialists, PRWeek can be a good place to start.
7) Timescales: Even with high calibre students and a decent address book it took some time to secure good opportunities. About half the opportunities were secured through some, albeit tenuous, link with the company. I found one internship through a friend’s wife’s bridesmaid’s then boyfriend, who didn’t even work there anymore! But actually it isn’t a case of jobs for the boys here, use social media as your slave to form connections. LinkedIn became my new best friend. While Twitter and Facebook both elicited responses in minutes when email and phone did not. Be prepared to approach at least 10 maybe 20 agencies depending on sector (and certainly not the ten biggest) before you can get to interview stage. I would also look to secure your internship a good six to eight weeks before you actually want to start. An ideal internship should be between one to three months. Anything less and I’m not sure you can learn that much, anything more should at least be paid.
8) Who to send the CV to? Whoever it is you ’know’ is the best answer, they at least will tell you who it should really go to or better still forward it for you, make sure your accompanying mail is intelligent relevant and polite. Don’t be afraid to phone up to find out who to send it to and if it’s a smaller agency do be prepared to really pitch yourself on the phone, you never know who is on the other end.
9) Payment: I’m not getting into this one but it seems the norm is to reimburse travel and lunch expenses. Some agencies do pay a minimum wage but they seem to be in a minority.
10) Interviews: Do take ‘em seriously, if you don’t want this job there are plenty of others that do. Now, I know I sound like your mum here but bear with me, dress the part, clean your shoes, wash your hair and arrive on time. It’s absolutely fine to be nervous but try and be positive too. Bring proof of your skills, written work, clips, references. Demonstrate company, sector and issue knowledge, show you are passionate about our world, prepared to do the admin but hungry for more responsibility. Answer questions honestly and ask strong questions. Enthuse and smile, the person interviewing you may well be the one who will be mentoring you so let them know up front it’s going to be a rewarding experience.