What’s it like being a freelance PR when you’ve only got a few years’ experience under your belt? Our first freeelance account exec, Hiwot Wolde-Senbet, weighs in on the perils and perks.
Freelancing was the last thing I thought I would be doing at this early stage in my career. But, as a natural risk taker, this opportunity came with perks that I could have only dreamed of, so I grabbed it without hesitation.I figured, I had participated in enough weekly meetings; done a few new business brainstorming and planning sessions; pitched in plenty of stories; not to forget the never ending reporting; to give me a rounded view of the PR life. But let’s face it, I may have spent a few years as a junior in a few agencies, but there aren’t enough clippings in all the world to prepare me to fly on my own.
This is why being a part of The Comms Crowd works for me, as it’s made up of senior freelance PR and marcomms people, with loads of experience. So I get to work on what I really enjoy while they shoulder the responsibility, they even look after my training and devlopment too. And just because I’m the ‘junior’ doesn’t mean I get to miss the hunt, in fact, in less than three months of being a part of The Crowd, I found myself sitting in front of a possible client sharing my ‘out of the box’ thinking – way out of the typical junior’s comfort zone. As Sam says, “Well… you’re a freelancer now, no one to hide behind, so get on with it.” So you do just that and learn from your experience.
As a freelancer, I get to work from home so, I make my own hours. It sounds fantastic right? You would assume so when you are on the ‘nine to five‘ schedule and wish you could skip the rush hour. But freelancing comes with its own set of issues, not least isolation, turns out you really miss the mini chit chats and light hearted banter that gets your day going in an office.
And there are times when life as a junior freelancer can make you feel like pulling your hair out (the occasional side effect to Excel drama). And you really miss the days that you used to ask your colleagues to help you with those unsolvable IT problems (which you probably took an hour to deal with) and then they come and sort you out in a click, leaving you feeling inept but ready to roll. When you are a freelancer, your time is money and just that fact alone makes you become very aware and conscious of your time. So you can’t afford to spend an hour on some stupid Excel issue, yet you have no choice. Not having a colleague that sits next to you means are a bit at the mercy of email response and there are the inevitable, albeit occasional, misunderstandings that you get from working remotely. So everyone really has to work at overcoming the ‘cloud barriers’, but we’re getting there.
But then the niggles just melt away, when you look through your window and see that it is sunny and bright outside. It feels like it’s calling you to come and enjoy it, feel the sun touch your skin. Living in London, I already know sunny days don’t come by often, so I pick up my sunglasses and iPad and move to the café nearby with an outdoor space. I get my to-go cappuccino and lay on the grass to draft an artcicle. That’s when I realise that I am living the dream I never had, as a real life Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and The City. Except I don’t do my research in nightclubs.
When you live and work in the same place, life can truly get tangled up. Becoming a freelancer will really test and challenge your organisational skills. However, with clear objectives, support and training; the cloud-based agency model can help you release your inner Carrie and achieve a fair work life balance. Until then, be prepared to, learn fast and be out of your comfort zone.
As part of a wider CIPR initative, I spent yesterday in a London secondary school helping students with their interview skills.
I was blown away (almost disturbed) by how ‘on it’ some of my ‘candidates’ were: rocking up in business dress, with a firm handshake, beautifully presented CVs, charming covering letters, chatting away with confidence about their career aspirations and extra-curricular achievements, including, mentoring, team coaching and fundraising. And of course they followed up with a great email afterwards. BUT they were only 15!
When I was 15 I’m sure CVs hadn’t been created then and all I could mumble about was The Clash, The Cure and Siouxsie and The Banshees. My extra-curricular activities comprised entirely of locking myself away in my bedroom to listen to John Peel, write angsty poetry and draw dead-looking people. If sat on, I’d say I might write a column for Face Magazine when I grew up, but that was like, ages away, right? (or as it turned out never).
So while yesterday I was dazzled by the students that made Hermione Granger look rather shabby and ill-prepared for life’s eventualities, I did feel a common bond with those students who were a bit more ‘Ron Weasley’ in their approach and were a little less thunk through.
But actually the reality is being career-aware at such a young age is probably a necessity now. Latest stats show just under million young people are registered unemployed, that’s around 20% with 56 applicants chasing every graduate job.
In response to these long term depressing stats (at one point it was 89 grads chasing every opportunity) we’ve invented a whole new layer of employment culture (much like serums have been surreptitiously slipped into my skin care regime) with most young people recognising they needed to serve possibly several (often unpaid) internships now. Recent research from the PRCA showed that 81% of those questions had done one – three internships, before landing a ‘real job’.
One of my ‘real jobs’ is finding such internships, in media, PR and public affairs for The USC Annenberg. I’ve been doing it for three years now and even with 50+ placements under my belt, it’s extraordinarily difficult. This time round it took six months of talking to more than 100 companies just to secure 15 unpaid summer internships. It’s really tough out there for young people, so if you can help them, please do!
We had the best of it, no career pressures when we were young and serums now we are old.
When it comes to getiing into PR Sam Howard proposes you stop dwelling and start selling…
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.
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.
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.
Sam Howard proposes you stop dwellling on what you can’t do and make sure you tap into what you can…
The most perplexing thing about writing this blog, is not coming up with the ideas or the opinions, or creating the content and making it interesting and engaging – but noticing days after I’ve posted something, that it’s full of typos. A recent blog post saw me pen the phrase, ‘pig picture thinker’ for heaven’s sake!
I really struggle with the detail, to be honest I don’t even see the detail. Does this make me stupid? I’d like to reassure you it doesn’t it’s just my brain works very differently to your brain and your brain works very differently to the person you sit next to, or at least we should hope it does.
In the words of Groove Armada: “If everybody looked the same, We’d get tired looking at each other.” Usually in team of people you get a great mixture or analytics, inventors, empathisers and doers so why not just let each person do what they like doing best and stop bemoaning that the most organised person in the room is not so hot at brainstorming or your most creative copy writer can never get to a meeting on time. Let people be what they want to be and great things can happen.
The trick is to understand how your brain ticks and how to get the best out of it and then surround yourself with people that tick to different rhythms so between you you have the surround sound sorted.Nicky Imrie, co-founder of the PR Network explains a recent profiling session we did together…Are you playing to your strengths?
Sam Howard On how the right career will find you, regardless of how hard you try to cram you curves into that square box.
I’ve been to a couple of reunions recently. The first, a writers’ group that we formed about fifteen years ago when I was still collecting my boss’s dry cleaning. The second, a work reunion of some five years’ back when I was a programme director and about to hurtle through several glass ceilings.
What hit me at both events was the way we had all progressed or should that be digressed…E.g. Writer mate 15 years ago – working for the council, now runs his own charity helping other charities set up social enterprises. Another writer mate 15 years ago – a highly ambitious, bright young thing, already head of comms for a funky major brand. Now a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University. On the work front, a smart account manager I once hired who went on to head up a division at a rival agency, now follows the sun around the globe, to practice yoga on mountain tops. While my boss at that time, now writes tech copy from a caravan in his back garden and is very much in demand…
In my tiny survey of ten friends, 20% were pretty much where we had left them, having accumulated mortgages, pets, partners and babies along the way, 20% had straight-arrowed in terms of career path and were kindly paying for more than their fair share of the drinks, but a whopping 60% had done some weird tangential or perverse U-turn in terms of their career. What did we have in common? We were all pretty pleased with our lot.
So what can I conclude from my poll? That I am and always have been attracted to eccentrics? True. But also, in time you’ll end up where you are supposed to be, no matter how much you conform to someone else’s or even your own image of what you should be ‘doing with your life’.
Our brains are muscles and we can train them to do anything if we have to, if we want it badly enough. But at the same time we all have some natural talents and some natural aversions. So is it any surprise, that among my reunited friends the cool tech heads are now suited and booted swanning round The City; us big risk takers are all working for ourselves careening form one inspired moment to one unmitigated disaster; the expressives are now pursuing harmonious lives that makes ethical sense; and the structured organisers are going about their lives in some semblance of order, focused on the job in hand and taking no small satisfaction in that.
It seems eventually you do gravitate to roles that tap into your natural talents and spare you the pain of shining a high beam on your weak spots. Very few of us seem lucky enough to land in the right place, right away. But take heart in knowing, that unlike the quest for a soul mate, your ‘soul role’ actually is out there somewhere, and it will find you.
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.
Going for goals is great, but investing in experience is not to be sniffed at. Fast track, meandering, or blind leaps of faith, which career path is the one for you?
When I was a child in the 70’s, I had one ambition, to be on The Michael Parkinson Show. I saw myself, sitting in that chair regaling Michael with my stories, taking the occasional sip of water allowing for the audience laughter to die down, as Michael crinkled his twinkly eyes in appreciation of my charm and self depreciating wit.Why I would be on Michael Parkinson in the first place, I was less sure. All my little friends at that time wanted to be ballerinas, since I wasn’t even little, let alone attending dance classes, I wasn’t sure that was my ticket. A vet? I had a love of all things furry and school was easy. But would Michael want to talk to a vet? Didn’t James Herriot have the celebrity vet market all sewn up? An artist then? I was ever so arty by nature, my father despaired of me. But wouldn’t I only be interview-worthy after I was dead? Or at least on a nodding acquaintance with heroin? Seemed like a high price to pay. A model, then, I was long enough and who knew what I might look like once I got rid of the brace, the glasses, the knock knees? Even at my tender age, it seemed like a bit of an outside bet…
As it was, I tumbled through my education and my career. Sometimes landing on the balls of my feet like a magician’s assistant with a wide, star-struck smile, making the most of the opportunities that came my way. Other times I landed on my backside accompanied by my own howls of dismay as I blundered my way through roles that were clearly designed with someone/anyone else in mind. By the time I’d ‘arrived’in the world of comms, Michael had left the building.
But now bright young things have a Masters in PR by the time they are 24, they already know their preferred sector, and whether to go agency of in-house. Many have immovable career markers to hit every couple of years that usually include being an account director before they are 27 and they work with an unholy commitment to make sure that is so. Having worked with a number of such focused individuals I can testify that they share a drive which is genuine. They are still prepared to work hard from the bottom up, but in a very straight line. No tangential wondering for this next generation communicators.
Not that I can complain really, having an open, ‘how hard can it be?’ attitude to my career fared me well enough, I took the scenic route leaving home when i was 17, finding a live in job as a nanny, then answering an add in the classifieds to wrap presents all day, which lead to being a merchandiser, which lead to an exec training scheme which lead to retail management in a very posh shop, which lead to becoming a flower buyer, and then a hamper buyer. Then I took some time off and became a market stall holder and a volunteer. Then I ran out of money and went into project management which evolved into PR – my forever role.
In PR the pace is fast and the situation changes every day, which matches my attention span perfectly. It appears that I thrive on change. The subject matter ( B2B tech/financial services) is challenging and difficult, the people are whip smart and grounded, the projects demand strategic thinking and creative implementation. I fared well, ended up fronting a big PR division in London and New York, lots of clients, big team, lots of money, fancy job title. So yes I got’ there’ in the end. Meanwhile a friend and a straight shooter kind guys having hit all his career markers through to his mid 30’s, then chucked the whole lot in to go and be a janitor in an ashram.
I reckon we’d both have Michael wiping away the tears from his mirthful eyes.
PRs invented hype, they don’t need to read it in your CV.
When I was in LA, I fell into conversation with a stranger who by way of asking me the New York question, “So, what do you do?” instead asked, “So, are you an artist?”
Isn’t that great? His take was to assume I was somebody until I proved I wasn’t. How very LA. Here I think it’s safer to assume the opposite, especially in PR.
PRs by nature have to be among the most cynical, of course they don’t believe the hype – they wrote it. So maybe a more grounded approach to your PR CV might cut through the traffic.I read about an experiment ages ago, two identical CVs were circulated. The only difference being that one CV had a flaw, can’t remember what the flaw was now, maybe the person had been fired out of a job or something. Anyway the result was startling; the CV with the flaw was called up for way more interviews than its perfect counterpart. Reasons being:
FLAWS = TRUTH
PERFECTION = LIES
To me a strong CV, like any good narrative ‘shows’ not ‘tells’. I read a LinkedIn profile the other day that began, ‘I am an exceptionally talented leader…” I can’t tell you any more I hit the back button.
God-like statements of self-belief are great for The Apprentice but seem to resonate less well when the cameras aren’t running. I mean for all your fabulous attributes, clearly humility isn’t in your chemical mix. Besides you sound like a knob and who wants to work with one of those?
Author, broadcaster and businesswoman, Muriel Grey at the beginning of her career in fashion was advised, “You’ll have to embroider your CV.”
Her response was, “But that will take ages!”
Indeed, but at least it would have been more compelling than your standard puff piece that so many feel compelled to write.
Sam Howard asked a question of the UK Technology Journalists and PR Group on LinkedIn – what makes a great PR? One word answers only.
At the time I wrote this I’d had 41 answers from presumably a random selection of PRs. Having turned freelance only weeks ago I have some time on my hands so I tidied it up a bit and here’s a word cloud of how it looked…
If you add to ‘determined’ ‘resilient’ and ‘resourceful’ you’re looking at about a third of the vote. Seems we are just as well-suited to being long distance runners, a mountain climbers, swimming the channel or something else equally draining. ‘Strategic’ always a good one, gets a double name check, as does ‘personable’ and ‘creativity’, my own guilty pleasure.
Not sure about ‘magical’ myself, but I guess if you are the rest of it is easy.
But the one for me is ‘credible’. To be credible in front of your clients, your journalists, your team and your management generates trust, mutual respect and a sustainable reputation. After 16 years in this industry, my integrity, if not my ego is just about intact. Doesn’t mean I was ever the most popular girl in the room, and I was certainly an acquired taste among our clients, some of which we thought it best if I never met. But, as I used to whimper when I’d lock myself in the bathroom, “I’m not paid to be popular”.
Actually once you let go of the vague hope of ever being popular, it is quite liberating. Give it a go if you haven’t already.