FEATURE: The key to solo success - The price of freedom is an uncertain one, but more people are trying it

A few years ago, being a freelancer in the PR industry was as good as admitting that you’d been made redundant and couldn’t find another ’proper’ job. Now, a freelancer is just as likely to be an account director who has made a decision to quit the office backbiting and take a more flexible approach to their career.

A few years ago, being a freelancer in the PR industry was as good

as admitting that you’d been made redundant and couldn’t find another

’proper’ job. Now, a freelancer is just as likely to be an account

director who has made a decision to quit the office backbiting and take

a more flexible approach to their career.



This is in line with a general shift in working patterns, as more people

in a variety of industries are choosing to use new technology to work

away from an office. But the freelance market isn’t just made up of

women who don’t want to go back to work after having children. It’s also

about PR agencies and in-house PR departments buying in experience and

expertise as and when it is needed.



Freelance PR placement agency PRXchange has just carried out a survey of

120 of the 400 freelancers on its books, ranging from junior account

executives through middle management, to director level. The survey

revealed that the majority of the respondents were happy with the

decision they had made, and for some convincing reasons.



Around two-thirds of those questioned said they would not go back to

permanent employment if it was offered. A number of benefits to being a

freelance came out strongly, the top ones being a better quality of

life, and no office politics. Also cited were the ability to give a more

personal service to clients, greater control of their working schedule,

and a greater variety of work.



In some situations freelancing can be an adaptable lifestyle which suits

working parents. It can also be very lucrative: 20 per cent of those who

responded to the survey are earning pounds 400-plus per day; 50 per cent

are earning pounds 200-pounds 350 per day, and 30 per cent are earning

between pounds 130 and pounds 200 per day. Around 70 per cent work a

full five-day week.



There are also downsides, however. Of those who said they would take a

full time job if it came up, the top reason was a desire for a regular

income and greater security. Others are not happy with the isolation and

lack of social interaction, and the difficulty of keeping home and work

separate as a freelancer. And the money may be good, but only if you can

get your hands on it: most freelancers in the survey said payment took

30-60 days, and it some cases it took more than 90 days, creating

cash-flow problems.



PRXchange director Emma Brierley, who set up the company with Alison

Starbuck in April this year, says freelancing has become much more

respectable as a career choice. ’People’s priorities are shifting and

they are more interested in quality of life and doing good work rather

than being part of an organisation. A lot of accomplished PR consultants

have the confidence to become independent because they’re good and are

in demand - we’re supplying freelancers for Shandwick, Coca-Cola,

Novartis, Hill and Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, among others.’



More freelancers - about 60 per cent of those surveyed - are likely to

be working for PR agencies rather than in-house, as agencies tend to

have more project work on the go for which it is difficult to plan

permanent staffing. Brierley says when a freelancer is employed for a

set length of time on a project, this tends to involve working from

home. When companies want a boost in expertise, as is the majority of

cases, then freelancers go into the workplace. Freelancers, particularly

those at more senior levels, are often brought in to train permanent

staff while they carry out a project in a new area for the agency.



The qualities that make a good freelancer are hard to define, because so

much of it is down to personality, but adaptability and flexibility go

without saying. Freelancers also have to be able to absorb information

and understand different businesses quickly, as employers haven’t got

the time or the money to pay for temporary additions to the team. They

also need to be incredibly self-motivated.



Simon O’Brien has been freelancing for two years after an in-house

background.



He works from a home office with a portfolio of clients, mainly in the

finance sector, and is one of those who would not go back to full-time

work if it was offered: ’I’m hopeless at office politics, and I prefer

the direct contact with, and feedback from, the client, and being able

to choose the work I do.’



On the down side, O’Brien agrees that working alone doesn’t suit

everybody, and it is a myth that freelancers get more holiday and more

flexible working hours: ’You can’t afford to be away too much in case

work comes up, and you still have to work the same hours as your

clients.’



He also points out that one of the considerations for freelancers who

aim to work from home rather than working in an agency or corporate

office, is being realistic about what can be achieved alone.



’I do need to consider the logistics. The bulk of my work is straight

press relations, because I can’t event manage single-handed. Being in

business for yourself also means that you have to beware of making

promises you can’t keep.’



From the employer’s point of view, there are advantages to buying in

freelance talent. Freelancers can boost specialist skills and experience

in a team, strengthen teams on a temporary basis when needed, and even

provide interim management cover or develop one-off projects.



At Paradigm PR in Sheffield, director Surriya Falconer calls her

freelancers ’my valuable fluctuating workforce’. ’The key is to find

quality freelancers to meet increased demand at certain times. Knowing

that I have regular freelancers to call on to hit the ground running is

invaluable, as is having a fresh and experienced brain to bounce ideas

off.’



But Falconer says there are a number of caveats to using freelance staff

in an agency: ’I tend to have people in on a short-term basis first, not

only to see the quality of their work, but also where they fit in with

our team.’



Falconer also highlights one of the main points for agencies to bear in

mind when using freelance staff: it’s fine to use freelancers to

implement a campaign, but the client must still have direct contact with

permanent staff at the agency: ’They are part of the team, but they will

always be freelancers - you have to be aware of the difference,’ she

says.



Freelancers can supplement an existing in-house PR operation for

corporates for the same reasons as for agencies. At internet security

company InterClear, based in Egham, business development director Simon

Bailey is keen to use the ’high-level skills and flexibility’ of

freelancers, and he has taken on one freelancer as head of

marketing.



’I’d much rather tap into the range and depth of skills of a network of

freelancers than deal with an agency - I’ve had too many experiences

where you get a great pitch which is then implemented by junior

staff.’



One of the main downsides to taking on freelancers, for agencies and

corporates, is continuity. This can be overcome by employers planning

ahead and setting up long-term freelance relationships, but this is not

always possible.



So where is the freelance sector going in the future? Freelancers and

their employers believe that freelancing is here to stay as an option in

PR, and it will develop further. Agencies and corporates will continue

to have a core group of staff, but will build a preferred selection of

freelance personnel, made up of a mixture of specialists and

generalists.



The days when PR teams could afford to look down their noses at

freelancers in the belief that they couldn’t cut it are over.



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