Debbie Smith looks back on nine years as a freelance, including five years as a member of the Comms Crowd.
It seems like only yesterday that I was weighing up what felt like a massive decision. Should I swap my senior role in a national PR agency, with too much travel and time away from home but a guaranteed salary at the end of every month, for the life of a freelance? As I swam lengths in the hotel pool in Turkey on our autumn break, I calculated the sums in my head. If I charged £x per hour, how much work did I need every month to pay the mortgage and bills?
With the encouragement of my partner and my friends I decided to go for it! Nine years on, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I work with interesting clients and encouraging colleagues (who knew that being freelance didn’t mean working alone?) and have discovered a wonderful and supportive small business community in Cheltenham that I never knew existed when I was commuting around the UK.
Here are three unexpected things I’ve learned which have been key to going from zero business to happy freelancer.
1. I really enjoy networking!!
Everyone talks about networking as though it’s incredibly daunting – and sometimes it can be. But when you work from home, it’s important for your mental well-being to get out and about regularly. You also need to keep improving your skills and knowledge, and what could be better than a networking meeting with a speaker on a topic that interests you? If you treat networking as an opportunity to meet like-minded people and learn something new, rather than a hard sell, it immediately becomes something to look forward to. Of course networking groups vary massively; it’s important to be selective and pick the ones that are right for you, but there are plenty to choose from.
I also discovered Local ‘Laptop Friday’ co-working sessions. These continue to provide a weekly opportunity to chat to other freelancers and small business people and bounce ideas around, all for the price of a good coffee.
2. Be bold and reach out to strangers – many of them will help you
When I first started freelancing, I took a deep breath and contacted everyone I thought might be able to help me. One former client put me in touch with two freelancers he used, as he thought they were part of a network I could join. The one I knew wished me luck; the one I’d never met referred me to someone who ran a communications consultancy. Before long I was meeting her for an informal chat, which swiftly led to a fascinating and lucrative project for an international bank.
My work with The Comms Crowd began in a similar way. After reading an interview with Sam, I cheekily emailed her suggesting a coffee. She politely replied to this stranger saying “not yet”, but a year later decided the time was right to meet. As I hobbled into London recovering from a broken toe, I wondered what on earth I was doing, but we immediately hit it off and the rest, as they say, is history!
3. To enjoy media relations, you just need the right clients
Media relations has never been my favourite aspect of PR. It’s partly based on being forced to do the dreaded ‘ring-round’ when I first started and didn’t know any better. And if you’ve worked for an international agency, you’ll know the stomach-churning moment when you’re told that a US executive from a client is coming to the UK in three days’ time and wants you to arrange for him/her to meet key journalists, including national press, even though s/he has no news whatsoever.
However, it’s a completely different situation when you’re pitching thought leadership for clients who are experts in their field and have something interesting to say. You also have the freedom to decide which organisations to work with. If it’s not your area of expertise, or they want the impossible, you can politely say No (and ideally suggest a better approach).
So as I move into year ten, I’m still enjoying media relations and still reaching out to strangers, including those I’ve met when networking – most recently the IP expert I sat next to at a cyber event in early March who turned out to be the ideal person to help a new client in April.
Of course I’m looking forward to when I can actually meet people for coffee again, even though no doubt it will be at a 2m distance!
PR pro Debbie Smith looks at the evidence as she considers whether the four day working week is a realistic goal. Could it give regional agencies an edge when it comes to recruitment?
We’re currently seeing conflicting reports about optimum working hours hit the headlines. On one side of the divide are companies who’ve successfully introduced a four day working week, and those who are trying (and in some cases failing) to implement unlimited holiday. On the other is the head of Chinese internet giant Alibaba advocating 12 hour days, six days a week for those who want to be successful. It’s apparently a well-known trend in China, where it’s known as 996 (i.e. working 9am-9pm, six days a week) and is common in the country’s rapidly growing tech industry.
Why is this relevant to PRs? Because our sector is at the forefront of the struggle to find the right balance between work and personal time – and that’s not the just the always-on culture where we check our work messages all the time, but actual working hours at our desk/laptop.
In November 2018 PR Week reported research showing that 27% of PRs are working overtime on a daily basis, more than double the proportion (12%) of the average British worker. Apparently the average UK PR practitioner will work two full days (15 hours) every month on top of their scheduled hours – 24 days’ unpaid work a year. And that includes freelancers – we’re joint second in the overtime stakes, alongside agency group account directors but not quite as bad as agency CEOs and owners. This is having a serious impact on staff well-being.
Fortunately, alternatives are now emerging in the agency world. I recently went to a talk by the head of a Gloucester PR agency who has introduced a four day working week without reducing pay. He says that as a result margins haven’t changed, while sick days have reduced (down 75% in the first six months) and staff are happier. He pointed out that Fridays were largely spent collating results and reports, and technology means this takes less time, so the day wasn’t very productive. As I remember the days when preparing a coverage book really did mean ‘cut and paste’ with scissors and glue instead of using apps like Coverage Book, and we had to look journalists up on paper lists such as PR Planner, I agree he makes a good point!
Dig a little deeper though and it’s not as clear cut. PR means deadlines, last minute journalist requests and the occasional client crisis. What if these happen on a Friday? The Gloucester agency uses WhatsApp groups for each client, which have enabled them to handle anything urgent, and the MD admits that he ‘feels the benefits less’ than his team. This of course means that, although you are free to do other things on a Friday, you can’t be far from your phone. And the MD is putting in extra hours – which no doubt the head of Alibaba would say was perfectly natural! The agency has also reduced actual holiday time by 20%, lunch hours to 45 minutes, and staff will work on the Friday in a week where there’s a bank holiday Monday. To use a cliché, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
However, while this initiative has its pros and cons, I think it’s a welcome change and shows an agency prepared to move away from the culture of presenteeism which has been a big part of PR for many years. I’ve seen it in both London and regional agencies. There were the husband and wife owners who phoned the office from their holiday late on a Friday afternoon to make sure we were all still there – and we were, but the lack of trust didn’t exactly create strong loyalty. So when they got the time difference wrong and phoned at 4.15 rather than 5.15, we took the call and then promptly all went home! And the big London agency where you were expected to be at your desk well into the evening, when the head of department would then open a bottle of wine as a kind of reward, and where an application from an Orthodox Jewish candidate was rejected in part because they would need to be at home for Shabbat dinner by sundown on Friday, which in winter would be mid-afternoon (this would now be illegal).
As a freelancer, I’ve chose to step away from traditional working hours and inflexible holidays to achieve a work-life balance that suits me. This doesn’t mean I automatically work shorter hours, but I can aim for a balance that meets my financial, professional and personal needs. As Lianne pointed out in a previous post, good relationships with like-minded clients helps. For them, the benefits of working with an experienced freelancer outweigh the occasional absences and the emails sent late at night (although my tip is to draft them and save them, then press ‘go’ first thing in the morning!) And working as part of the Comms Crowd freelance collective means I can take holidays to remote places knowing that our clients will be well looked after. For example, a recent fracture meant I couldn’t make an overseas trip for a client, but a colleague stepped in and delivered great results.
We can’t all be freelancers, but I hope that discussions of four days weeks and the importance of a good work-life balance to mental health will make traditional agencies think hard about their inflexible approach. Perhaps it’s most applicable to regional agencies – as the Gloucester agency head points out, his margins are higher than those of a London agency, which no doubt was a factor in making his initiative work. This could be a smart move for other regional agencies, who often struggle to recruit staff, and the catalyst that finally moves PR from its stubbornly London-centric base. After all, the days when you needed to be in London to meet journalists face to face are long gone.
Most of all, I hope this empowers PRs to challenge traditional working practices. We’re a creative industry, so we need time to step back and recharge our batteries if we’re to deliver the best results.
How can you prove your clients are the zen masters they say they are? PR Pro Debbie Smith goes in search of those elusive proof points.
We know journalists get hundreds of pitches every day. Their mailboxes and twitter feeds are full of companies competing for airtime, all offering informed, relevant comment. But why should a journalist listen to what they have to say?
Your client may be a world expert in their field, whether that’s digital widgets, cloud computing or new legislation.
But if you can’t make them instantly credible in the eyes of the journalist, they’ll go straight to the deleted folder.
I’ve been thinking about this since one client wanted to remove a statistic from our pitch because a) he thought it wasn’t that strong and b) he wasn’t sure it was accurate. We pointed out that, while we understood his concerns, we needed something concrete to show that they were well established, had delivered a lot of great work and hence were worth listening to. We thought the number was convincing, but if it couldn’t be used, it was vital to have an alternative.
One way of gaining credibility is to name high profile customers. This isn’t easy, unless you can persuade your client to include ‘permission to be named in marketing materials’ in their standard contract (yes this can happen). However, there are creative alternatives. For example, when one customer mentioned that they worked with one-third of the London Boroughs, we didn’t need names – the statistic was enough. Similarly, the phrase ‘working with law enforcement agencies’, as was the case with one Comms Crowd client, speaks for itself.
Demonstrating credibility can be even more difficult in the finance sector, where every ‘expert’ has professional qualifications and offers similar services, and you will have to dig a little deeper. Links to topical issues can help, as can the ability to understand both sides of an issue. I’ve obtained a lot of coverage for one client on the topic of angel investment because not only does he advise clients on obtaining investment, two of those clients have appeared on Dragons’ Den and he also invests as a business angel himself. So he is extremely credible.
Another option is to work with experts whose credibility is a given, such as academics. Hitching your wagon to a star, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, can be an effective way of enhancing your own credibility, particularly if your opinions complement those of the expert.
If you’re still struggling for hard facts, the solution may be your client themselves. One of our favourite clients is someone who really ‘gets it’ where journalists are concerned. No matter how busy he is, he’ll quickly give us a short, snappy, often controversial comment to pitch which shows he knows his topic inside out, then makes himself available at short notice if the journalist wants to speak to him. As a result, he punches well above his weight in terms of influence and coverage.
It’s not easy finding proof points and can eb even harder to persuade your client to let you make them public. However, it will be time well spent in establishing them as a credible source.
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’.
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!
In this blog post PR PRo Debbie Smith discusses a less frequently cited reason for freelancing – one which changing demographics may make increasingly common.
Why become a freelancer? The reasons people usually give are flexibility, fitting around your children and getting a better work-life balance. I certainly wanted a better work-life balance – I’d had enough of spending my Friday evenings with First Great Western Trains – but another key factor was helping my sister support our elderly mum.
My sister lived near Mum and helped out when needed. However, we noticed that whenever my sister went on holiday, Mum would fall ill. I’d been fortunate to have an understanding agency boss when I had to make a midnight dash to a hospital 150 miles away and take several days off, but the writing was on the wall – I needed to do more.This helped to crystallise an idea that I’d been considering for some time, so a few months later I took my first steps as a freelancer. I soon discovered the joy of being able to schedule meetings to suit myself and my clients, without having to fit round a team of colleagues. One client was based between my home and where my mum lived. When I suggested meetings on Fridays so I could then go to Mum’s for the weekend, she was more than happy to help. In fact it worked better for her too. Her MD was usually in the office on Fridays so I could be sure to get a meeting with him. As you can imagine Mum loved this – and it helped to stop her worrying that she was a burden.
This also taught me something interesting about clients’ attitude to freelancers. They still expect the same quality of work, and deadlines don’t change, but they understand that you have a life too.
Fast forward a few months and I won some work with a big new client just as my sister was about to go on holiday, so I was on ‘Mum duty’. The project required a lot of international conference calls, but no problem – I worked at my sister’s using her Wi-Fi, then went round to mum’s for coffee and a chat. The people I was interviewing had no idea where I was, nor did they care. On other days I kept Mum company and wrote articles at her dining table. I don’t think she understood what I was working on but she enjoyed introducing me to her visitors!
As we reached the stage where one of us needed to be nearby all the time ‘just in case’, the benefits of freelancing really kicked in. My sister could have the breaks she needed while I worked from the south coast. This is where it helps to be part of a freelance agency like the Comms Crowd, as your colleagues are there to share the work.
Sadly Mum is no longer with us, but the career I built from her dining table has continued to grow and I’d never go back to a 9-5 routine and the daily commute.I’m surprised more people haven’t discussed this reason for freelancing. I very much doubt that I’m unique, but perhaps caring responsibilities aren’t something people tend to raise except with family and close friends. However, with an ageing population and the growing issues around social care I’m sure we’ll hear more about it in the future.
PR Pro, Debbie Smith looks at how to ‘ride’ a current news story to raise your client’s profile…
When you choose to work in B2B technology PR, most of your career is spent pitching to trade press and freelance journalists who specialise in the same area. Unless you’re working for a megabrand such as Microsoft or IBM, you’re not going to have many opportunities to pitch to the national press.
OK, let’s rephrase that – nothing’s stopping you pitching to them, but you’re unlikely to get much response unless your client’s invented a computer processor that isn’t based on silicon or found a solution to climate change. However, there’s a useful tool to add to your PR kit bag: link your story to something that’s already making the headlines, and your client suddenly becomes relevant to mainstream media.Critical to success are speed and relevance. The link has to be genuine, and you need to act fast. If you’ve spotted the link, you can be sure that another PR will have done so too. But if you get it right, you open up a whole new conversation for your client. Here’s how we made it work for Comms Crowd client, Elliptic.
Elliptic specialises in security and analytics for the blockchain. The firm was the founding member of the UK Digital Currency Association (UKDCA), and in this role provided input to a Government consultation on digital currencies. Earlier this year we thought the results of that consultation might be announced as part of the Budget a couple of days’ hence. This was an ideal opportunity to link Elliptic to a topic which would be given extensive coverage in the print media and online as journalists analysed every last detail of the Chancellor’s speech – assuming of course that digital currencies were included.
So we wrote a short alert to let key media know about the potential announcement and outline why Elliptic could provide expert comment. The following day we listened carefully to the Chancellor’s Budget speech – but no mention of digital currency. However, an online search led to the supporting papers for the Budget and there it was – the Government’s recommendations on how it proposed to make the UK a world leader in digital currency. We quickly followed up with our key media, providing a link to the announcement and offering comment.
The results exceeded all our expectations – interviews with the FT and the Guardian and several requests for written comment, resulting in 15 items of coverage including City AM, the Independent and the Wall Street Journal. Our client was delighted and so were we.
Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. It’s important to be aware of what’s making the headlines, think creatively and look for new and unusual ways in which you can link your client to a story. It may be straightforward, such as when a former colleague was working on a campaign against workplace bullying for a leading trade union and bullying in the Celebrity Big Brother house hit the headlines. A few media calls later and the client was on Sky News explaining what an individual should do if he or she was being bullied. But even if it’s a more tangential link, remember that journalists have pages to fill every day and may be looking for a different angle to keep the story alive. Why shouldn’t you be the one to provide it?
When I said goodbye to early mornings at Cheltenham station and trains to PR offices around the UK, one of my main worries (apart from finding work of course!) was whether I’d miss the daily contact with colleagues. According to psychometric tests, one of my characteristics is ‘extraversion’, which means I get my energy by interacting with other people. I’ve always found this to be true, so how could I combine it with a freelance life?
To make things more difficult, I’d been commuting since I moved to Cheltenham, which had left me little time to make friends in the area. At one stage I joined a running club, but two weeks later I began a project which meant lots of time in London, so my only friends in the area were those I’d met via my partner.
The answer came from an unexpected and low-tech source – a noticeboard by my local shops, where I spotted a poster for a business talk organised by a group called ‘Cheltenham Connect’. I thought I’d give it a try and duly went along. The speaker was interesting, the people welcoming and I decided to go again the following month. It might help me make new contacts and would at least get me out of the house. The group also organised an informal co-working session in a local café every week, called Laptop Friday, and this helped me put some structure into my early weeks of freelance life.
Fast forward a few months and Wendy, the human dynamo who’d set up the organisation, invited me out for coffee. That’s nice, I thought – and then she sweet-talked into doing their PR! I didn’t really enjoy local PR but – oh well, why not help out for a few months? The first activity I had to promote was a business conference/exhibition, and before I knew it I was exhibiting and helping with event planning too. But it wasn’t all business related; there was a Christmas craft fair, a music festival with bands from the area….and local PR stopped being a chore because I could see the positive impact these events had on the community. They really mattered to the people involved, and they started to matter to me too.
But this was about more than feeling good by doing some pro bono work: I found I’d tapped into a ready-made support community. We swapped information on local activities, bounced around ideas, tipped each other off on new business opportunities and shared lifts to events. You could ask for a second opinion, or discuss something that was bothering you about running a business – chances were that someone would be able to help. If I had a week with no meetings, I’d arrange to meet one of my new contacts for coffee to swap ideas and recharge my extrovert batteries.
The year rolled round and my business grew, but I stayed involved with the group. I’ve become co-organiser of the business event, which has grown every year and now has 200+ attendees. Through it I’ve met a wide variety of people, from our MP and councillors to entrepreneurs running all types of businesses. I’ve also used it to try new things, such as chairing a discussion panel last year (it went really well, so it’s back again this year!).
As I specialise in technology PR, I didn’t expect any of this generate any business, but surprisingly it did. People sent me leads they’d seen on social media, recommended me to designers needing copywriters and passed on work they were too busy to handle. I even swapped writing a press release for attending a course on social media.
Five years on and as well as a positive glow from doing something for the community, I have a local support network I never dreamed of when I first became a freelance. Many of the people I’ve met have also become good friends. Three of us have had operations over the summer and we’ve had practical support and lots of encouragement during our recovery. My partner is continually surprised by how many people I know – and now he’s offered to help out one of the team with dog walking!
So my message to freelancers everywhere is use that extra time and contribute to your community as part of getting that elusive work-life balance right. You’ve nothing to lose except your inhibitions…