Asah Adolphe joined us for the month of July 2020 as an intern, and many of the team were involved in giving her some experience of different aspects of our work. Sandra Vogel, head of tech content and working journalist, volunteered to guide Asah through conducting and writing up an interview. This involves several different skills, including researching your subject, working out interview questions that will get you the results you think you need, and crafting an article out of what you learn. Below you can read the result – Asah’s interview with our founder Sam Howard.
It has been eight years since Sam Howard started The Comms Crowd, and it has never been more of a success than it is today. She discloses all in this interview from her favourite procrastination habits to her greatest career achievements and even admits how it was never her initial career plan to work in PR.
Earlier on in Sam’s professional journey she did not consider that PR would be her future career path and even resented the suggestion when her boss recommended it to her. Nevertheless, we can now understand that the software CEO had the right idea as his encouragement led her into the right direction, as she is now the head of a thriving comms agency.
As the creator of a ‘new breed of communications agency’, Sam’s main responsibilities are to ensure that the company is healthy, financially balanced and that that their clients are happy as she emphasises, ‘good enough is never ever good enough.’ Her determined mindset filtrated through every response she made to the questions I asked and accentuated why not only the company but her professional career has been such a triumph.
When asked about the key to developing an efficient team she explained that it is vital that each member is articulate, maintains a technical understanding and exhibits an interest in their role as this all contributes to the smooth sailing of the business. After all, an enthusiastic team builds the foundation for a successful, prosperous organisation.
In any professional field every individual is guaranteed to face hurdles and experience failure, Sam even acknowledged that to fail ‘is how you learn to become better at what you do’ and I could not agree more. When I queried the award-winning writer on the topic of failure, she confessed that she had failed on numerous occasions, which is understandable when you have twenty plus years’ experience in B2B tech PR. She recalled one ‘unpleasant’ experience which happened to be when she was relatively new to the industry and was approached with a new role in the city that she was not prepared for at that point in her career. She expressed it was an honour to be chosen for the job, so she completely ignored the skill level it actually required and ended up ‘leaping in’ and being devastatingly inadequate. Although, she added that headhunting is common in the industry, so it is all too tempting to take a role that you are not yet qualified to do.
It is fair to say that failure can open the door to many successes, Sam’s professional experiences reinforce this as she has accomplished a lot within her time in the industry. However, her greatest achievement she claimed was her having the incentive to start the Comms Crowd. In 2012 traditional work environments made it mandatory for employees to work in offices for long hours, and even getting a 4-day week or working one day a week from home was still frowned upon. Sam decided to go against this model entirely and set up a fully virtual agency with no office at all (and none of the overheads so no extortionate agency rates). Now in the midst of a pandemic, the model is finally recognised as the way to go, but Sam has been making it a success as she has ‘pulled-off’ managing a dynamic, efficient, and professional team that operates from various locations across the country.
The determination and passion that built this tech comms agency stemmed from Sam’s desire to collaborate and work with people she respected. She recognised from early on that it was unfair of the PR industry to have impractical expectations of its mainly female work force, therefore her aim was to embrace these expectations and create a flexible supportive environment, as she stresses that ‘your personal life and your children and your family and your dogs are as important as work and anyone who acts as if they’re not is kidding themselves.’ Clearly, staying true to these values is what stimulates and inspires her drive.
Sam was certainly not reluctant in shedding some light on the challenges she has come across in her career. She revealed, that when working in PR ‘it is vital to learn how to adapt as every client is unique and getting it spot-on with a client can always be tricky’. However, this does not seem to deter Sam and her team from reaching their goal and ultimately impressing their clients. In her view the most rewarding element in her role is witnessing her team blossom and seeing how her team manages to have such a positive impact on their clients.
The Chief Storytelling Officer went on to describe her typical day, and I have to admit it is very productive considering she works from home but it happens to be a routine that she has evolved over the eight years of running The Crowd. Intriguingly she gets to pick her own working hours which begins at 1pm in the afternoon until 7:30pm in the evening and she clarified that between those hours ‘she is in deep concentration.’ However, she promptly starts her day at 8:30am when most people are commuting to work so she can get an early start on her domestic tasks, then she goes outdoors to take her dogs for a walk and after that she would normally get in some exercise, such as Pilates swimming or cycling; as a result of COVID-19 her exercise routine has undergone some changes, unfortunately as we have all experienced this pandemic has affected our lives in many ways. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Sam as her routine remains proactive.
Maintaining a productive and successful work-life along with a satisfying balanced personal life can be stressful, especially when being the executive of a company, but Sam has the perfect yet quirky coping mechanism that helps her which she shares as ‘very calming.’ *Drum roll* it is…creating spreadsheets! Yes! colourful, bright, multicoloured spreadsheets is what relaxes her from a demanding day at work. After all, everyone needs a stress reliever.
I realised prior to conducting this interview that Sam is very ardent and committed in encouraging the next generation of talent. I asked her for any advice she could offer any young person considering a career in the field of PR or the media industry in general. She responded that individuals that wished to undertake a career path into Media and PR must have a ‘strong work ethic’ along with determination and an understanding that the industry is fast paced, she also stated that the person must take into consideration their skills and mindset; as the industry ‘ is competitive and changes like the landscape’. This interview with Sam Howard has been enlightening and informative with a hue of humour. Sam has shared inner and concise mental abilities it takes to be successful in the Media and PR world. She has shown us what it takes to be a part of the industry and the positive yet resilient, tenacious attitude one must have to succeed.
So you’re a B2B Tech firm and your marketing team has agreed that a blog is the way forward (and indeed it is). This is the blog you need to read next. Sandra Vogel, who heads up tech content for The Crowd and ghost blogs for a range of firms, passes on her advice.
So what does a great blog look like? The answer depends on what you want to get out of a blog, so for the sake of argument let’s say you run a business that sells goods or services. There’s a lot of competition for whatever it is you do, and you need to remind people you exist. You use a range of different methods to do this – a blog on your web site is part of the mix.
To meet the requirements of your business, your blog needs to keep people coming back. It’s a tool for you to deliver useful information to existing and potential customers or clients. It’s a way of showing off your organisational personality. And it’s a way of helping people understand more about your products, new launches, upgrades, exciting ideas and plans you have for the business.
That’s a lot for a blog to do. Here are some guidelines for better blogging:
- Keep it short. In general try for no more than 600 to 700 words. People will get bored if they have to read more than that, and you might easily stray off the topic at hand.
- Keep it simple. Don’t try to cram all your wisdom into a single blog. Have a point to make, make it, expand a little, maybe give some examples. Develop your point of course, but be careful not to make things too complex.
- Do you need a call to action? I see some blogs that include a call to action every single time. As a reader I know how the blog will end – it’ll be ‘now go and look at our great product’. If that happens every time readers know a blog is a glorified advertisement. They’ll get bored, go away, and maybe never come back. Calls to action are important. But you probably don’t need one in every blog.
- Connect well with the rest of the site. Do you publish white papers, news releases, new product updates? Of course you do. Tie blogs in so that there is continuity, and so you can link to other resources where possible. Don’t leave the blog out on a limb.
- It’s a good idea to have a forward plan so that you don’t get to ‘blog day’ and sit staring at a blank screen wondering what to write. If you work with an agency – and that’s a really sensible idea – then they’ll help with this.
- Be regular. It’s a good idea to have a schedule. Perhaps you want to put a new post online every two weeks. If that’s what you want to do, stick to it. When you make your plan (above), make your schedule too. Both plan and schedule can change in the light of events, but if they’re not in place a blog is the kind of thing that an organisation can let slip if it is busy. A blog that’s not up to date is arguably worse than no blog at all.
- Look from the outside in. Visitors might not use your product or service, might not know your business at all, might just be passing by. Think about it from their point of view. This can be hard to do in-house. It’s another area where an agency can be really helpful.
There’s another guideline that’s overarching on all of the above. It’s about the writing quality. The tone, writing style, grammatical accuracy and readability of your blog speaks volumes – it’s probably more important than the content. Really. You might have the most fantastic point to make, but if the message is garbled, nobody is going to get to the bottom of the screen.
If a blog is going to work for you, you need to put energy, effort and expertise into it. Writing a blog is hard work, and it is a skill people learn and hone through years of experience. Ensuring that the blog plan and schedule are well managed and that topics are spot-on can also be tricky in a busy business. There is no shame in lacking the skills or the time that’s needed in-house. Bringing them in from outside can take your business blog to the next level.
Sandra Vogel editor-in-residence issues her survival guide for live tweeting.
- 500 million tweets are sent every day
- 5,787 tweets are sent every second
- 326 million people use Twitter every month
There are some more mind-blowing stats here.
Now, of course we’re not all exposed to every tweet. But sometimes it is necessary to tweet on behalf of a client, and these are useful stats to bear in mind. Here are two more:
- The half-life of a tweet is apparently 24 minutes. If people haven’t read your tweet within half an hour, then the averages suggest they are not likely to get to it, because a tweet gets half of all its interactions within half an hour of being posted.
- Tweets with an image get 55% more engagement. So the image can matter even more than the words.
Nowhere is tweeting for a client quite so important and quite as stressful as when you are live tweeting an event. There will be a lot riding on what you do because live tweeted events can deliver great profile and original and interesting content. Events can be fast and furious, and it’s not easy to stay on top of everything. You only have one opportunity to get things right – or wrong.
Ten things you can do before you go live so you don’t die trying:
- Get the detailed insider version of the event programme, including whether there are to be any special announcements or launches that the public won’t be privy to till they happen because they won’t be on the public programme. You can pre-prepare a tweet or two with appropriate images so you are not caught on the hop.
- Know exactly who is speaking or otherwise on stage at every moment. Prepare a file that includes their name – spelt correctly – their job title in full, their Twitter handle and any other Twitter handles associated with them – the obvious one is their employer, but there may be others as well. Include any nuggets of info that might be useful for a tweet. Make this file something you can easily access at the event so you can flick in and out of it when you need to.
- Get the lowdown on any special announcements taking place both within and outside of scheduled sessions. If awards are being given get the list of winners, nominees and runners up – whatever is going to be announced live. Get photos of the people in case it’s not possible to take or otherwise obtain live shots at the time. Pre write your tweets and they will be ready to check through and fire off as announcements are made.
- Get as many graphics as you can. Are there slides from presentations that will be useful in a tweet? Get them. You don’t need to have tweet prepared and ready to go for every image, but the images may prove useful to have when you are live tweeting especially if it is tricky getting live photos.
- Prepare at least one tweet for every session you are covering. You might not use it on the day, but then again it might just be what you need to get you out of a problem moment.
- Sort out your hashtags. There will likely be several hashtags that will be in use over the course of the event. Agree the list with your client and anyone who you expect to be tweeting the event live from the client side. If some hashtags must be used in particular sessions, make a note of that beforehand in the same document you’re using to store the speaker details. Keep it structured so it’s easy to find what you need when you need it at speed.
- Set some standards for language and tone. The client may already have some agreed forms of words or phrases – make sure you are fully aware of them and if you think you might lose touch with them in the heat of the moment during the event, put them in your handy reference document. Agree too on the use of punctuation (exclamation marks are the domain of 13 year olds, not professionals), any acceptable or non-acceptable abbreviations, and any words that are never to be used and so on.
- Have an open discussion with the client about logistics – Have an open discussion with the client about logistics – who is tweeting, what are they tweeting, how are you going to divide and conquer? When are you going to get your breaks? Sometimes a client is looking for back-to-back live session coverage. Is that practical? Plan your schedule carefully. You can’t be in two places at once – so where will you be? If two or more sessions running at the same time need to be live tweeted how is that going to happen? Get full sign off on the schedule.
- Do you need access to a backup person or even two – maybe back at the office – who you know will be on hand to do whatever you need from double checking facts to doing on the spot research or taking over from you if there is an emergency?
- Finally, think about what might go wrong and set things in place to head problems off before they happen. Preparation will help you deal with on the day problems either because you’ve already thought of them so they’re not problems at all, or because the process of all that preparation has given you added confidence that you can handle anything.
Can a journalist comfortably hang out with PRs ?
Our in house writer and working tech journalist Sandra Vogel explains how it works for her…
There are some who say journalists and PRs are chalk and cheese. They want different things, they see the world in different ways, and it is impossible to work in both camps.
But that’s not true. It is possible to be a freelance journalists who also works with PRs.There can be significant benefits to working in both camps.
OK so she does get out of bed for somewhat less then £10k, but Comms Crowd content writer Sandra Vogel, sets out her terms for keeping us all singing from the same song sheet…
Over the years I’ve been commisioned by some of the biggest names in Tech, national newspapers, and some of the best known technology web sites. I’ve also worked with lots of small companies, mostly but not all with a technology angle, with voluntary organisations, and with communications agencies.I’ve found good and bad clients across the spectrum. It’s not the size or sector that matters – it’s the approach and attitude of the client to using freelancers.The good clients value, support and nurture their freelancers, and in particular they get three very important things right.
Respecting my time. If I say I don’t work Friday afternoons and weekends, although i may make the odd exception, don’t expect me to be free to work as a matter of course. Similarly, if I am set to work for you, say, Mondays and Wednesdays, then if you need to change the day please give me lead time. In return I’ll only change our fixed days if it’s impossible not to, and I’ll give you as much lead time as I possibly can.
Keeping me in the loop. If I’m contracted to work on a specific project, then knowing what’s going on with that project is helpful. Rather than just being asked, ‘please do A, B and C this week’, it can be useful to know how A B and C fit into the bigger picture and what others are working on. I appreciate that if I’m not in the office full time stuff will happen without me. Of course it will. But it’s useful to be briefed on the bigger picture, not just because it makes me feel like one of the team (it does, it really does), but because I can take wider points into account in my work. Even extra-busy clients that fall into my ‘love to work with’ group manage this.
Paying on time, and at the agreed rate. It should be unnecessary to make this point, but sadly it’s not. Renegotiating rates downwards during a contract or paying late are simply not on. Freelancers are working for a living. They are not volunteers. Trust me, you’ll soon get called out, word will get around. In exchange for paying on time I will deliver on time. And if there’s a chance I’ll be unable to do that, I’ll let you know well in advance.
Now, there’s circularity in this. You treat me well, I’ll treat you well. We’ll have a grown up, professional relationship that we will both enjoy. Heck, I might even work for you on a Friday afternoon. Now and then.
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?