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’.
In this post PR Pro Lianne Robinson – looks at how freelancers can outsource the business of running a business.
Yesterday my website finally went live! Well ok, it’s a holding page but it’s a start. I actually bought my domain name two years ago when I decided to take the plunge into the freelance world. But the reality is that work gathered pace quite quickly (thank you Sam ;-)) and I have been so busy since then helping clients manage their PR and marketing that I haven’t had time to do my own. And while I’ve managed to get a home page up, the rest of the content will simply have to wait until I catch a breath!
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.
Sam Howard dispenses some sage advice to would-be freelancers. Or, how to pitch a pitcher…
The Comms Crowd has been growing recently our little team has 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.
Our new content creator, and sax enthusiast, Sandra Vogel looks at the attributes you need to sustain a freelance life.
Freelancing doesn’t suit everybody, but it sure suits me. I’ve been freelance for 20 years, and I can’t imagine working any other way. But it’s not for everyone. You know those buzzwords – highly motivated, self-starter, flexible attitude. Well, they apply to freelancing bigtime.
Highly motivated. Um – yep. Motivated to sit at the computer when the sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view, and yet there’s a deadline to meet, a client call to take, and a couple of pitches to get in before you can even think of heading out that door. Well, that’s one way of looking at ‘highly motivated’. And there are times when it most certainly applies.
But there are other ways to look at motivation. I’m motivated to make as much as I can of the free time I have. That means that there are times when I can – and do – drop everything and get outside on a weekday to have some fun. The trick is keeping that motivation in line with working. Now that does take a certain personality type. It’s the type who can manage their time well, not over-filling it, not being too ambitious about what can be achieved in a given couple of hours, and making sure that time is allocated to fun as well as to work.
If that means being motivated to work on a Saturday morning in order to free up a Thursday afternoon, so be it.
Self-starter. People often see this as synonymous with the motivational thing, but in fact it is different. A self-starter just gets on with stuff. They’re the opposite of the procrastinator who always looks for reasons NOT to do things. The procrastinator says ‘Oh, I won’t write this blog today, because I’ve got a slot in the diary tomorrow’. The self-starter says ‘if I write this blog today then that diary slot tomorrow will stay free, and I can do something fun in that time.’
The self-starter has initiative and they make things happen. Importantly they don’t walk away when things get difficult. That’s a really important personality trait for anyone who wants to freelance. There’s no manager sitting nearby to provide feedback that you’re doing OK, or give pointers if you’re not doing OK. You just have to figure it out.
Being a self-starter shows itself in all kinds of things, not just hunkering down to tasks that are in the diary. It also applies to bigger picture stuff like hunting down new potential clients, following up possible work leads, even having a view of the universe and where you want to be in it – then working out how to get there.
But being a self starter also means doing things that might not feel very exciting, but that nobody else can do for you. There’s nobody around me to say ‘Sandra, I think it’s time you filed your tax return and updated your CV’. But when these things have to be done, they have to be done.
Flexible attitude. I’d say this is a vital attribute for any freelancer. I’m a pretty controlled kind of person. I like checklists, and I like to have things planned out. Most days I sit down to work knowing what’s going to happen during the day. I like to have my week planned out to a fairly fine degree too. Fridays are importantly different from the other days of the week. I don’t like having meetings on a Friday and I usually have no work at all scheduled after noon. The last work thing I do on a Friday is plan the following week.
How is that flexible? Well, while the aim is to take Friday afternoon off, it’s also ‘available’. So, Friday afternoon is a bucket that work can slip into if necessary. It might slip into the bucket because schedules have overrun, because a client has come up with something for me to do on a short deadline, or because Wednesday afternoon was beautiful and I went out for a bike ride, pushing everything in the diary ahead half a day.
One of the companions to having a flexible attitude is being relaxed and able to handle stress. A freelancer has to be good at that. There are often multiple demands on my time, and only I can decide the best way to resolve them. So, when two clients want something done right now and I have to negotiate a way through that, I need to be calm and considered. When my computer decides to give up working and I’ve not got a spare around, I just have to handle it. When something comes up that takes me away from work unexpectedly, I need to be able to handle both the work and the out of work situation equally well.
Like I said at the start freelancing isn’t for everyone. But if the cap does fit, it’s a great way to make a living. I’ve worked with some wonderful people (and my current Comms Crowd colleagues are among the best of all), done work I’ve really enjoyed, and spent more weekday afternoons in the cinema than I probably have a right to. What’s not to like?
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’.
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.
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!