Independent PR practitioners don’t have bosses and teams to fall back on

When you’re an independent PR practitioner it can be difficult to get the balance right and have all the answers.

If you work in a team, you can bounce ideas off each other, you can ask the experts in their areas of work for advice and generally speaking, you’ll have a boss who you can consult about challenges. Just because independent PR practitioners work on their own, with a smaller pool of clients, doesn’t mean the role is any less challenging. In fact, it can be more challenging when you’re managing every area of work and running the business.

I’ve been an independent PR practitioner for around four years, before that Aura was an agency which employed staff. I made the decision to go independent because of the control I’d have over the quality of work, the seniority I could pitch at and let’s face it, cutting out recruitment, HR and NIC/PAYE which can often be a worry, a challenge and an ongoing affair for those who choose to employ staff. Things I do like about being independent are the flexibility around my lifestyle, I can pick and choose what I’d like to work on and I don’t need to consult anyone about anything – well, apart from my accountant!

In my view, that whether you’re an independent practitioner or a freelance practitioner or someone who works in an agency or in-house, professional development is essential. Professional development doesn’t have to be specifically about the ‘usual’ PR skills and knowledge, it could be about business practice. Every year I do my CIPR continuous professional development (CPD) and I focus on specific areas of competence. As a Chartered Practitioner and Fellow of the CIPR it’s mandatory – but I consider it a key part of my practice. I urge you to consider doing CPD in more structured and formal way and include business practice within your plan.

Back to independent PR challenges! Despite having the flexibility and free reign mentioned above, being an independent PR practitioner does come with its own set of challenges. I asked the Facebook community of solo PR practitioners “what is the most challenging part of working on your own” with a view to addressing the challenges, with the help of the community and hopefully other organisations.

#1 Managing new business as well as running the business

Managing day-to-day workload, plus the business side of things, for example accounts and admin, plus looking for new business opportunities is one of the single biggest challenges independent PR practitioners face. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but there are things we can do to help manage processes and our time.

  • New business funnel

If we look to other areas of work, such as start-ups, you’ll see them using workflows such as the Kanban Board, which is a lean project management technique. You identify the tasks needing done and in which time frame, you move it on when it’s been tested and then when it’s complete.

Example Kanban

Example Kanban Board via Pinterest

  • Deciding whether a prospect is ‘worth it’

Within this process of our new business funnel, let’s add an element when we analyse whether or not the piece of new business is worth it or not. It may be a good fit, it may pay well, but do they agree with your approach, do they commit to payment terms etc? This element is crucial and can save you wasting time and effort on something which won’t either break or take up so much time trying to persuade the client, that it’s actually not been worthwhile for you at all.

  • Putting the right terms in place

The third element to this is ensuring you have the right terms in place and knowing how to enforce those terms. As I CIPR member I use its standard CIPR client/agency contract and amend as necessary. It clearly states all terms and conditions and actually is in place to protect both you and the client.

Enforcing the terms is the next bit. For late payments and for extremely late payments, you need to enforce the terms and stick to your guns.

#2 Specialist support e.g. IT

Working by yourself, you pick up skills like fixing your own broadband, knowing how to reboot your PC etc but sometimes specialist support is needed.

This is where your contact book will kick in. Let’s develop a checklist of all the external support you’re likely to need and it’s up to you to add contacts beside that, so you’ve always got someone to go to to fix your problems.

Speaking from experience, if I wasn’t as well connected with tech people, I’d have had major issues last year. My website got hacked and had been overwritten by bad code. It’s a scary thing and taught me lessons, but it also made me glad I had processes in place in case such things ever happened. Luckily I was able to contact my website host person, who happens to run his own two-man business, and was quick to take the site down and reinstate a back-up which had been done two weeks prior. Yes, I lost some changes I had made to a couple of pages and a couple of blog posts, but it’s a small price to pay for having a quick resolution to something which could have meant a) a bad reputation for my site being down b) people may have got viruses from whatever was on my site with the bad code and c) I could have potentially lost new leads from people not being able to access my website.

Here’s a list I’ve started on Google sheets. Please feel free to add anything you can think of…

#3 Loneliness

Well, you’re bound to be lonely at times if you work on your own, but it’s something you need to work on yourself. When do you feel lonely? Is it because you need help with something? What communities are you involved with which you can share this and ask for advice?

In January, I wrote a blog post which looks at the main challenge facing independent PR practitioners. You might also find this a useful post.

The Facebook community is actually worth joining. Although there are often basic posts from people asking for back copies of papers or other simple things, people like me often spark interesting conversations, which turn out to be helpful. Like this!

Joining a community or two is essential. I also have industry peers who I regularly speak to, not always asking for advice, but they are happy to chat about what’s going on and generally offer encouragement.

So, think about who you want in your community? It might just be making a conscious effort to catch up with them once a month, face-to-face, or you might decide the Facebook community is a better way for you.

#4 Over-servicing

This is an industry-wide issue and not limited to independent PR practitioners!

There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, so I’ll leave this blog link here. It’s a post written by Sarah Hall (CIPR President-Elect) “Over-servicing or not delivering against budget is the PR agency’s responsibility” – How to manage clients and increase profitability. The main point is that it’s your responsibility from the very start of your prospect meeting, through to when you’re bill and when you’re evaluating. Now, read this post and consciously make an action plan!

Let’s also feed this into some sort of client services funnel…

In terms of tracking your time, this is essential. I use Toggl and it’s a free version because it’s only me using it. I set up clients and projects and ensure I mark them in real-time or else I add to them at the end of the day. What do you use to track time? Add to the Google sheet!

#5 When you need to take on an additional person

We’ve all been there – too busy with the work you’ve got on and more new business leads coming in. You’ve identified you probably need to take someone on, but there lies the issue:

  • Recruiting the right person, with the right skills and knowledge and who’ll represent your brand and standards
  • Having the time to invest in training the person to be the person you need
  • Having the funding to attract the right level of candidate
  • Knowing someone who can vouch for that person

The list goes on…

So, when you’re ready to make that step, have you already considered outsourcing to another independent PR practitioner? Maybe that’s not the right move for you and it also presents similar issues. Fiona Chow mentioned that she doesn’t want to invest the time to train someone to a great standard when they’re going to leave after three months and go travelling! Fair enough.

What are the essentials and desirables? Have you got a job description written and specific scoring?

Let’s ask CIPR if they can provide us with guidance on ‘taking the next step’.

#6 Cashflow and projection

Finance is a key business and management skill and all PR practitioners should possess it! Understanding profit and loss, your own and your client’s, plus everything in between like planning and forecasting your year and indeed your month.

Cash is king. That’s what my brilliant accountant has always said – he’s right. Money is a big worry to independent PR practitioners, especially if some clients are public sector, late payers or have no understanding of the important of timely payments.

Your payment terms need to be included within #1 and let’s look to see how we can include this in ‘the funnel’. You need to be prepared to start as you mean to go and enforce when necessary.

I wrote a post a while back about other skills essential for PR practitioners – Working in PR requires more than PR skills.

Also, take a look at #FuturePRoof work. It’s all about PR being a management discipline and there may be useful information here for you to take away or read more on.

In terms of what can be done do to help practitioners in this area, including scenarios around non-retainer work, once again, I’ll speak to CIPR to see if they can help develop a guidance document and some templates. There may also be webinar training we can set up. The CIPR will require you to be a member to access this though. It’s one of the big benefits of membership.

Feel free to add any helpful links or templates etc to the Google sheet.

#7 Key man insurance

As an independent PR practitioner, or in any small business there will be a key person, if you’re diagnosed with an illness and may be off work longer term, or perhaps won’t be able to work ever again, have you made plans?

Key man insurance is the right thing to consider.  Here’s a good post from Entrepreneur Handbook to have a read through explaining about it.

Be prepared. Your professional insurance provider should be able to quote or recommend another supplier for this. Make this one of your tasks!

#8 Taking time out

independent pr - time outWhether it’s a holiday or just some time out to chill, we all need it and it’s a very important part of your work life balance.

The challenge comes when you’re an independent PR practitioner and don’t have anyone to hand over to.

I tend to only go on holiday for a week at a time and generally I work this around my clients. It should be the other way around. You should plan your holiday when you need it and two weeks off in a row ensures you are suitably refreshed!

You’ll want to be assured that when you’re away nothing goes wrong and if it does, it can quickly be addressed, whether it’s someone hacking your website or a client emergency.

A few things to consider:

  • If you’ve planned your year, like good business people do, you’ll know roughly when you’ll be busy and quieter. If you don’t tend to work with retained clients, then you can choose not to take on any work over certain weeks of the year
  • Who do you trust, who is also an independent PR practitioner, that you can ask to help out when you’re away? It’s comforting for clients to know there is someone there if necessary and it’ll let you enjoy your holiday all the more! Coming back to having a community of people you can speak, this is often the way reciprocal holiday cover starts. I personally have two or three people I use to cover me if I need an extra pair of hands or holiday cover. I’ve built relationships with them over a period of a good few years. Two are independent practitioners and one now has a small agency, which also offers other services such as a design and web development.
  • Do you have brand policies and processes you need them to follow? Write a brief!
  • Let them know in plenty of time so they can plan their work
  • Take your contact sheet with you – if you’ve got them on your mobile, even better!

This blog post is hopefully the start of an initiative which can help independent PR practitioners do their jobs, at the same time as having lives and being less stressed in the long-term. Please share this post with anyone you think would be interested and indeed any other independent practitioners. The more people who feed into the Google sheet, the more knowledge I can have and the better I can try to action the development of guidance, templates etc. It’s not a one woman mission – I need your help to do it so you can benefit!

What else do you suggest? Add to the Google sheet.

Thanks to Rachel Picken, Lisa Palompo Dixon, Jonathan Weinberg, Fiona Chow, Stuart Bruce, Helen Crow, Kate SG, Elaine Fleming and Catherine Grinyer, for your contributions.

Blog post by Laura Sutherland, Chief at Aura PR and Founder of #PRFest.