AS IF: the blog

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Adaptable. Scalable. Innovative. Flexible… AS IF

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Adaptable. Scalable. Innovative. Flexible. AS IF. The four most over-used words in tech PR. Perhaps here, we might be a little bit more authentic.

This blog was started by Sam Howard in February 2011, and accidentally chronicles her transition from fledgling freelancer to virtual agency MD. Horribly honest, but therefore insightful, The Crowd posts on how to keep your B2B comms credible while also providing guidance for starting your career in PR and becoming an effective freelancer.


The second year – pining for external validation

03/02/2013

Major validations, minor tribulations and lessons learned – two years into Sam Howard’s career as an independent PR.

no more awards for you my girl think on

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.

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Made by clever people for clever people

19/01/2013

In fintech Sam Howard asks can comms people add value or are they the weakest link?

I’m a comms person in b2b tech, primarily fintech. Fintech – that’s software geeks creating awesome stuff for banking geeks.And all fintech comms people have to do is wrap their pretty little heads around how the the global markets work, how a financial institution works and how it makes its money; then evaluate the opportunities and obstacles created by the latest market conditions and regulations that might help or hinder it making that money and just piece together how their client’s technology taps into those opportunities/overcomes those obstacles, so that a bank might want to buy it.

Anyone got a PHD in anything at all they are not using right now?

Dear software geeks, we understand your fear of getting us comms people involved, we share your fear. We have reoccurring nightmares where Anne Robinson is sufficiently underwhelmed by our efforts. But Einstein once said if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you can’t explain it. Let’s assume all the people in the room are clever, it is the common denominator, so there is no need to posture on that. Don’t be tempted to use content as an opportunity to show off how much you know – they know you know.The key then is to add some value to the debate, to explain the complex lucidly, to ensure that overarching points are not lost in the minutiae of the detail and that those points stack up to a logical argument leading to an insightful conclusion.

It’s not as ‘easy’ as it looks, I can tell ya, getting the people with the PHDs to look up not down, out not in. And if in so doing we tend to simplify things, rather than wonder if we haven’t dumbed down your whole reason d’etre, just trust, you know how to build software, we know how to build reputations.

In the kingdom of the big and the clever, it’s the six year old kid you need to impress.

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Enough already with the PR career planning!

21/11/2012

When it comes to getiing into PR Sam Howard proposes you stop dwelling and start selling…

“when i grow up I’m gonna be the lone ranger.”

One of the best parts of my working life is mentoring young graduates keen to break into media and PR. But so many of those I meet, have put themselves under enormous pressure by attempting to define exactly what it is they are going to do for the rest of their lives.

Not just, ‘Oh I think I’d like to be in PR cos I quite like writing and engaging people’; but, ‘I want to be in PR, I want to work in an international agency for two years, on blue chip brands, and then go in house, for a FTSE 100. I want to work in corporate and probably focus on CSR although I think crisis comms may offer good opportunities for rapid progression…’

I’ve said this before, but how can you possibly know? I don’t even know what I want for Christmas, though if someone gave me such a career plan I might try and swap of for something more useful – like a biro.

It’s not just the rigidity of the approach which is alarming, I mean look at all those X Factor contestants, ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, sing.’ I mean it doesn’t pan out so well for many of them does it?

It means that talented, young people, who are naturally full of get up and go, find themselves stuck at home, living with their parents (which, along with the student debt, probably contributes to the pressure to get it ‘right’) plotting and scheming how to break into their particular niche rather than just taking a job, rocking up with a big smile, rolling up their sleeves and becoming indispensable by the end of week one.

When I look at my own comms career and all the very successful people I get to work with, I don’t see that many of us ever had a career strategy other than ‘this is fun,can I do more?’ or ‘that was crap I’m not doing that again’. Interestingly I was talking to an industry bod the other day, who definitely has always had a game plan and as she proudly talked me through all her clever moves, I asked of each role, ‘So did that make you happy?’ She seemed to think my question an irrelevance and skipped over it. Admittedly she had a Mulberry bag whereas mine came from a street market, so maybe that made her happy. I do hope so.

Possibly the way you find yourself a great comms career is as much down to trial and error as it is to having a plan. Maybe you can just stumble upon the things you love doing and you do them well because they make you happy, you learn from the people you admire, and apply yourself to the mad opportunities that come your way. And instead of focusing on your career success, you focus on the success of your clients and the company that hired you. It’s my belief that loyalty can be spotted above sycophancy, that steadfastness is appreciated more than shrewd cunning, and that just being a great person to be around often gets you further than being the cleverest person in the room. I know this, cos sometimes I was the cleverest person in the room and it didn’t necessarily do me any favours.

The young people with whom I have the privilege to work, are smart, conscientious and ready to give it their best shot. And that’s all our industry needs, let’s just give ‘em permission to take a job, any job, and then step back as we watch them fly – all over the place.

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Is it freelance for life or just ’til Christmas?

12/10/2012

Take Sam Howard’s festive freelance quiz to find out. Tot up how many of these apply to you:

1. If you spend longer than six minutes getting ready of a morning, you consider yourself to be ‘faffing’.

2. When it comes to the three minute lunch break, soup bowls seem an unnecessary middle man, and are no longer required.

3. It never occurred to you before, but now, instead of religiously visiting the salon every six weeks, cos you’re so worth it – every so often, you just yank your hair into a big ponytail and lop off the top bit with the bacon scissors.

4. Your City client asks for an 8.30am briefing and you have jet lag for the rest of the day.

5. You get a pair of sheepskin house boots to keep your tootsies warm all winter long, spending over a hundred quid on what are effectively a pair of uggly slippers.

6. When asked what are doing at the weekend you look at people blankly, then reply, ‘working’ I mean what else would you do?

7. Next bank holiday, instead of gallivanting off on a City break, you’re going to re-grout the kitchen tiles as they are looking really grubby – funny you never noticed that when you had a proper job and was out of the house for 60 hours a week.

8. Your City high heels haven’t seen daylight for six months and when you do eventually try them out, you now walk with less grace than a lad in a frock on a stag do.

9. You catch up with a City friend. She regales you with tales of ridiculous internal politics, bodacious power plays and incompetent bosses – but all you can contribute is that the dog ate your Amazon parcel this morning.

10. Dress down Friday has become dress up Friday as that’s the day you go to the supermarket.

If you scored:
5 or less: It’s too late for me, but you must save yourself, book in for a weekend spa retreat, a full make over and hire a personal shopper, so no one need ever know what happened here.
6 and more: Consider yourself utterly unemployable and welcome to our world – we are your people now.

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Ten tips for better media interviews

01/10/2012

Sam Howard advises on how tech companies can give better interviews.

Media training – that’s a terrible phrase isn’t it? Makes you think of all those awful politicians that enunciate every syllable emphatically, use all their fingers to underline each phrase and talk at you as if you were Jeremy Paxman. So let’s not go there. But there is still much you can do to make sure your conversations with journalists go well. Key, is to remember the journalist has very little time to create a very good story, and it’s your job to help them with that.

Some sensible tips for sensible interviews:

so it’s adaptable scalable innovate and flexible is it? Yeah you lost me at ‘it’s’

1) The Press as a whole are more concerned with business arguments than technology methodologies so the WHY needs to be answered way before the HOW and this is where many tech companies need to lift up their heads. The WHO is pretty interesting too, so whatever you do, don’t tone down your colourful characters.

2) The old truism,’ no-one is that interested in you’ is – erm – true. They are interested in issues though, so if you can help solve them, then that’s the angle to go in on.

3) Journalists are very busy people, so PLEASE get to the point. Work out how your issue-based messages can be delivered top down, so  if you’ve struck a chord you can drill down with more insight or leave it as a one liner if it gets no traction.

4) It sounds obvious, but actively listen to the question and genuinely try to answer it.You need to answer questions as best you can and weave in your messaging where appropriate and leave it out where it isn’t. It’s critical to be seen as someone who understands the market and how it ticks. This is more important than getting all your messages across in each and every interview, euch! You may manage it the first time, but I doubt if anyone will want to talk to you a second time. However if you can establish yourself as a credible and trusted source, then the journalist is more likely to make time to talk to you when you do have relevant news.

5) The journalist is looking to create a compelling story from a mixture of background information, intelligent argument and quotes, so if you want to be quoted you need to have a view and be incisive; otherwise you find most of your effort gets swallowed up in unattributed body copy or as background information. Answers can be your own thoughts based on experience or theory, statistically or anecdotally-based or ideally a mixture of the lot.

6) Spokespeople should be reading a weekly digest of relevant hot stories, remember head up!

7) It should go without saying but follow the publication and the journalists you are hoping to meet, so you can assess what messaging will resonate best for that particular journalist.

8) Be courteous, Allow time for the journalist to finish their note taking and prepare their next question, do not dictate or just talk into the silence. Offer sustenance, and DO NOT look at your phones.

9) Remember this is a two way conversation, ask what the journalist is seeing and hearing in the market and future story ideas he is working on.

10) Every interview is different but you should be able to answer the following fundamental questions:
. In these cash strapped times, where are your customers spending their IT budget in your sector?
. What are the drivers behind this (i.e. sticks and carrots)?
. So where do you fit in?
. Other companies do what you do why are you better?
. What tech Holy Grail are you customers chasing right now?
. What’s preventing organisations from achieving it?
. What are the key trends in your technology sector right now?
. What’s your sector going to look like in five years’ time?

You can download these tips in a handy pdf if you like to keep on your desk and front of mind.

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When men inspire words, and words inspire men

10/09/2012

Sam Howard pays homage to the Olympians and the Wordsmiths.

Thanks for the warm up. Now meet the Superhumans.
If writing strap lines was an Olympic sport,
that’s your gold medal winner right there

So clearly, clearly it’s not ‘disabled’ it’s ‘differently-abled’. A term that’s been around for years, but now looks set to be embraced wholesale after the last two awe-filled, outrageously beautiful, amazingly uplifting weeks, which have left us feeling spiritually renewed and oh so proud.

So what to do now with the defunct phrase ‘disabled’? It works ok if you throw ‘temporarily’ in front of it. Like, you fall off your skis and break a load of bones – you are temporarily disabled. Cos you’re probably just going to sit it out and sulk about a bit while you can’t do anything, until such time as you can.

Another way it could be applied is to those of us that are just useless at sport. At 6ft I”,  all shoulders, arms legs and feet – you’d think I’d be good at something, anything. But as my sporty father could testify, from the earliest age I’ve been quite rubbish at everything. Whip smart in my classes I’d get my comeuppance in PE,  three times weekly. Instead of letting my sporty dad coach/cajole me into doing anything involving developing physical skills, I preferred to stay indoors writing angsty poems and drawing very thin, dead-looking people. I have remained steadfastly crap at sports, as now my sporty son can testify.

I take some comfort in the belief that I’m not the only one, and I’d very much like to think that maybe it was a sportily-challenged person like myself, sitting in Channel 4’s superb in-house agency 4Creative, that came up with the concept and the words, Thanks for the warm up. Now meet the Superhumans. For those are mighty fine words, that provided the spark that lit the touch paper for the Paralympic flame to burn so very brightly.

A Paralympian, a differently-abled person, a Games Maker, a sports-incompetent, a creative – there’s room enough for all of us to contribute, to make a difference and to make it better.

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On PR work experience and where to get it

02/09/2012

When it comms to forging a career in comms, Sam Howard suggests mixing it up a little can be as valid as going all out for a pure malt career.

the bloody mary was mine…

With employees now trusted more than CEOs, the end user increasingly seen as the key influencer and media channels publishing every type of content to every type of platform, being good, even very good at just PR isn’t necessarily going to get you very far.When you look at the people behind the current brand success stories, there is increasingly more evidence to substantiate my long held belief that being a Jack of many trades, is the surest way to become Master of your own career.

Talk to industry recruiters and the dream hires are those that that have deep dive domain expertise (hopefully that will never go out of fashion) but combined with wide ranging skills across a full range of comms channels. This means for those starting out, any work experience that gives exposure to any one of the multitude of disciplines you need to affect behavioral change – is one worth having. It matters not whether marketing or PR, social or traditional, event or content – you will gain invaluable experience and become more valuable as a result.

Not convinced? Think the straight arrow approach is still the best way to go? Following the logic that if you intern at Webber you could become its CEO by the time you’re 27 and ¾? Well I guess you could, but think of it this way – if your dream job is to be head of PR for at Giorgio Armani do you actually want to intern there? Really?

Surely you’d not prefer to wobble off on your tender Bambi career legs to a few other pastures first and having journalists throw the phone down on you for being base incompetent when Giorgio isn’t watching? ie somewhere, anywhere else?

My advice is to learn your skills and make your mistakes elsewhere. For example say you want to be in fashion PR: Work on a shop floor, work in customer service, set up a fashion savvy blog , throw a charity catwalk show, do PR for a local store, then go agency side work on some high street and online brands, go in house see what couture looks like from the inside and then knock on his villa door when you know the industry inside and out and back to front, know the people in it, how to create the advocates, silence the competitors and convert the detractors, how to get them talking, and most importantly – shopping.

Then knock on Mr Armani’s door then, and say, “Well I doubt if you can afford me, but if you wan to take your PR to the next level, here I am.”

No learning experience is wasted, get out there, get learning.

 

 

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Freelance! Glorious Freelance!

06/08/2012

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.

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What price freedom? Part III: When to offer a discount

08/07/2012

Third of three posts from Sam Howard on the commercials of freelancing: How not to give away your work as a PR freelancer: 

The last two posts, looked at how to calculate your base rate ( how much do you need to charge to survive) and your ceiling rate, (what the market will bear).

Hopefully the first calculation is lower than the second one, if not please stop reading this now and use this time to send out your resume. You’re are not going to be able to make it work as a freelancer.This post briefly covers what factors to consider when contemplating discounting your work.

Reasonable reasons to discount                                                

  • Do you know the client? Sounds obvious but if you know them already, then proving you’re the right person for the job, aka pitching and then over-servicing, shouldn’t take too long as your immaculate reputation will proceed you. So the time you save in not going OTT in the early months can be passed on in a discounted rate for the same period. (not indefinitely)
  • Do you know and like the client? By that I mean do you know that they are really easy to work with? That your judgement is valued, that the client will take risks, that emails can be six words long (and four of those spelled incorrectly), that decisions are made in real-time and it’s OK to vent rather than labouring over such a delicately worded email you might as well have crocheted it. (This is my idea of a perfect client, I concede you may have a different set of selection criteria.) If you have a perfect client, then treasure them, working with them is a pleasure and you’re rate should reflect that.
  • Is it something that will help you grow? OK so moving into an adjacent sector, expanding your skill set, working with a client that you can learn much from, these are all reasons to invest in your portfolio and discount.( again just for a while say six months while you ‘come up to speed’).

Just double check the sum total of all these discounts isn’t lower than your basement rate and for every client you take on that skims or even dips below that rate you need to take one with a higher yield, remember this always has to be win/win.

Rubbish reasons to discount:

  • You’re really broke: So you’re staring at your laptop, willing for that one email to arrive, that will put a smile on your face and some cash into your account. But when it comes, (and it will) think carefully about pricing. It’s so tempting to come in really low, ‘cos you’re desperate. But what does it say about the value of your work? As scary as it is, put in the right price, that reflects the skill and effort involved to do a great job. Yes, you may end up negotiating down, but no one ever gets to negotiate up.
  • They’re really broke: Whether they’re those sparkly eyed start-ups or family friends, those customers that really, really want to work with you, but have no money… FYI they’re not customers, they’re window shoppers. So move them along and find someone to work with that can treat you with the respect you’ve earned. And with the money generated from real work for real customers you can afford to buy the sparkly eyed start-up or the family friend a pint – or three if they really do need your support.
  • Discounted trial projects: Not convinced myself. You need to be hanging out with people that know how to be professional in business, after all you have to represent them. If they come across as timid amateurs to you then that’s how thy are going to come across to press.

Doing it for free

I hate working on the cheap, feeling like someone has got something over on me, de-valued my contribution – but I love working for free. One of the best bits about working for yourself, is being able to contribute your skills and expertise to a cause you believe in and make a small difference in the world. Maybe it’s providing your professional services to a cause, or painting fences or washing out kennels. But if you’ve managed your finances and time sensibly, then you can afford to give it away and come home with your pockets full of physic income and your conscience having had a spa day.Image courtesy of wallpaper.com

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What price freedom? Part II Finding your ‘ceiling’ rate

06/05/2012

Second of three posts from Sam Howard on the commercials of freelancing: Following on from my last post, which looked at how to calculate your bottom line day rate as a freelancer, this one looks at the ceiling day rate.

My child’s first bake sale, he was about seven and asked to make scones.

“How much are you selling them for?” I asked dispensing with the niceties.He hadn’t given it much thought, but guessed 10p each.

“Why?” I asked. He didn’t know.I told him to think harder. “OK cost of ingredients,” he said.

So how does that help the charity you are making them for? “OK cost plus 10p,” he said and so we discovered the concept of profit.

“So what about packaging and wastage?” So we got up to 30p. And he hoped that might be the end of it.

“But then,” I said triumphantly, “have you thought of what the market will bear?” He looked pretty annoyed at this point. “No”, he said, he had not.

Part 2 What the market will bear

 

So I explained what people paid for a scone in a nice tea shop at one end of the scale and how much you paid for a pack of scones in a low-end supermarket. We decided that if ours were fresh baked and prettily presented with a winning toothy smile, we might be able push that up to 50p a scone. It was a pretty successful bake sale by all accounts…

So what will the market bear for your services, given that you are not baking muffins, all proceeds are not going to charity, and that you’re probably not as cute as the average seven year old salesperson?

Local rate

First stop, so what are local freelancers charging? Here’s a jan 2010 survery that I found that might be helpful, and this on a freelance website, but I’m not sure how fresh it is. Do they compare to you and your skills? Make sure these are valid, long term freelancers/independents. It’s a competitive market out there, but if people are offering to work for ‘silly money’ like you see on the bid sites, are you really going to compete with them, what are you competing for? To see who can go bust first?

Agency equivalent

You need to understand what local agencies are charging. if you’re former agency this is a no brainer. If you’re not, then you need to do some research to try and understand where you map on to the agency hierarchy, don’t go on your old salary (probably higher) but more on your experience and responsibilities, here’s a very very rough guide:

  • 1 -3 years PR experience – account exec: Support role – admin, research, supervised outreach, supervised content creation, no direct reports ( not sure this is a good time to go freelance myself unless you have very low out goings), reports to account manager.
  • 3 – 6 years PR experience – account manager: Implementation role, heads up tactics, main outreach person, day to day client go to person, directly manages juniors, reports to account director. Possibly knows the account better than anyone else.
  • 6 – 8 years PR experience – account director, lead role, heads up strategy, leads client relationships, oversees budgeting, heavily involved in pitching, manages account managers, reports to group account director/director. Tasked with making money.
  • 8+ years PR experience – group account director, senior account director etc – same as above but entrusted with more clients, more accounts, bigger budgets, bigger teams, and some development initiatives, reports to director.
  • 10+ years of experience – director, running division, sits on key strategic accounts, leads new business drives, develops new services/territories, leads team, responsible for financial health of division, runs P&L, reports to CEO. Tasked with making profit.

Once you can map your role to an agency hierarchy, find out the local day rates for this role. Then to my mind you don’t just round your rate down, but you slash it. You don’t have the group expertise or the combined reach of an agency, also you don’t have the overheads. I tend to charge under half as this makes me viable for agency work too.

The bitter pill
Now you compare your market research to your notional day rate If your notional day rate tops the market rates, you have a problem. Really why is any one going to hire you in this climate if they can tap into the same services and expertise elsewhere for less? And if you take on a loss leader project, there is only one of you, while you’re not making enough money, there is no one else to make any money at all. Every day you work at the ‘wrong rate’ only puts even more pressure on the other days to over price. You need to think long and hard about how you are going to make this work. Possibly this is not the right time in your career to go freelance, mayber you need more skills/experience, so you can charge a stronger day rate or you need to wait until there is a time in your life when you don’t need to earn quite so much (eg the mortgage isn’t making your eyes water, the kids day care bills aren’t making you wish you’d got a dog instead.).

The sweet spot
The sweet spot for a freelancer is having a low cost base and a high/in demand skills base. If your notional day rate is at the low end of the market rate scale, you’re looking at win/win, you can round up your notional rate, still be extremely competitive and know you are going to be earning enough to be able to sustain the freelance life over the longer term. Who knows perhaps you can develop a side line in home-baked goods too…

Next blog looks at the variables that allow you to tweak the day rate.

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