MARKET FOCUS: FREELANCERS - Freelance survival skills. The currenteconomic climate is tough on everyone. But smart PR freelancers stillthrive. Sherri Deatherage Green reports

To freelance or not to freelance? That's the question

bureaucracy-weary managers and laid-off account executives ponder.

Whether now is a good time to shuffle off the salaried coil depends on

who you ask.



The demand for freelancers has dipped since last year's recruiting

frenzy, observes Jeffrey Prince, director of Cantor Concern Staffing

Options Group in New York. 'The people with more experience will be in

better stead to compete,' Prince says, stressing that realistic pricing

is also a must in a tighter market. Dennis Spring, president of the

Spring Associates executive search firm, believes freelancers will earn

less this year and shouldn't count on filling the void left by agency

contractions. 'The notion that freelancers are abundant and are earning

enormous sums of money when economic times are bad and full-time people

are not working is a real fallacy,' Spring opines.



Hi-tech freelancers did report a slower first quarter, with clients

tightening budgets and taking longer to pay and make decisions. There

are indications, however, that some agencies are using freelancers in

lieu of full-timers, not uncommonly contracting the same people they lay

off. 'Gradually, the agency I had been working for found they needed my

services and skill base,' says Jack LeMenager, sole proprietor of

Strategic Business Communications in Winchester, MA. LeMenager now

counts his former employer among his best clients.



'Never burn your bridges with the agency you used to work for,' agrees

Lesley Hensell. BSMG offered Hensell contract work when she quit the

agency's Dallas office last year. Her relationship with agencies is

symbiotic.



When a client can't afford the minimum retainer, an agency may refer it

to Hensell, who sends it back when venture capital comes in. 'They know

I'm not going to steal the client permanently,' she explains.



Bob Schiers, sole proprietor of RAS Associates in Hainesport, NJ, proves

tough times spawn independents. Schiers worked for 7-Eleven until the

company's ill-fated leveraged buyout in 1987. Many PR employees lost

jobs, but Schiers joined 7-Eleven's network of independent field

consultants.



A few 7-Eleven executives eventually migrated to senior positions at

Blockbuster, which adopted a similar strategy and created a network of

regional PR consultants, including Schiers and a few of his 7-Eleven

compatriots.



Relationships formed with other consultants go beyond the clients they

share, Schiers says. When a recent illness took him out of circulation

for several days, fellow independents called to volunteer their

help.



Are you freelance material?



LeMenager recommends self-assessment before hanging out a shingle. Nail

down sellable strengths and consider whether clients would find your

experience valuable.



'If you are highly extroverted, working alone at home all day, even if

you are on the phone quite a bit, is not going to resonate with your

personality,' warns Stuart McFaul, principal of Spiralgroup Marketing +

PR in San Francisco.



People who need imposed structure should probably stick with salaries,

and things like child care and creative writing can easily overwhelm

paying freelance work. '(Freelancing) demands a tremendous amount of

self-management and self-discipline,' McFaul says.



Going it alone can be more difficult for those with exclusively

corporate backgrounds who didn't learn to pitch and bid for new business

in agency settings, warns Julie Walke, sole proprietor of Walke

Communications in La Jolla, CA. Walke, formerly a corporate PR exec,

says her first few years as a consultant were difficult.



Going solo is no vacation. 'Be prepared to work like you've never worked

before,' says Schiers. Independents must plan their schedules and

budgets carefully to take vacations and allow for sickness.



Taking the plunge



Linda Mastaglio built such a successful freelance business in Dallas

that she was able to move into the east Texas woods and continue serving

national clients. Developing a business plan was the key, she

believes.



Others advise applying your best PR skills to yourself. Define your

specialities, but be flexible and develop multiple income streams.

Setting rates may seem onerous for newbies, but veterans say it's fine

to ask friendly agencies and fellow freelancers what to expect.



'Appear bigger than you are,' says Judith Lederman, an independent in

the New York suburbs, who advises naming your business. Lederman calls

hers JSL Publicity & Marketing. Don't scrimp on business cards,

professional resources or equipment.



Several freelancers recommend mixing retainers with project work and

agency assignments with direct clients. 'You have to have retainers who

pay the bills and projects that fill in,' Walke says.



Networking with fellow PR people and with other professional service

providers and potential clients is vital, says Laura Link Maggio,

proprietor of Strategy-Link PR in Jacksonville, FL. 'Don't be on your

own,' she implores.



Banding together has become a well-honed survival skill for many. Some

work through formalized 'virtual' PR firms, while others develop casual

alliances to share job leads. Maggio's small group also shares expensive

resources like media directories.



Freelance alliances often hinge on close-knit relationships among small

groups of independents with varying specialties or in different regions.

They often team up for pitches and fill each other's talent gaps. For

example, Ted Agne often serves as project manager for five core members

of Communications Strategy Group in New England. McFaul's Spiralgroup is

a larger concern with three full-time employees and about 20

contractors.



Groups like these select virtual partners judiciously. McFaul seeks

common values and entrepreneurial spirit, while others let new members

prove their worth behind the scenes on tasks that won't sink

accounts.



Those who prefer strategy to tactics may find bigger profits by

managerially farming out tasks than by working peer-to-peer. Mastaglio

uses 13 subcontractors, and Maggio says she recently turned over

implementation of an award-winning project to a sub so she could seek

new business.



Tightening the belt



Long-time freelancers don't seem overly concerned about the current

business climate.



'If you see tough times coming, you may have to adjust your lifestyle.

You may have to adjust your rates,' says Jon Kemp, a Dallas-based

freelance writer. 'If you've got good clients, hang onto them. In bad

times, hang on even tighter.' Kemp has benefited from the downturn by

picking up freelance work from troubled J.C. Penney, which recently sold

its direct marketing arm and lost key employees.



Schiers remembers the Gulf War period as his most harrowing and learned

then not to be shy about demanding payment or passing through

expenses.



Some independents fall back on journalism when PR slows. Separating

'church and state' can be tricky, says Lederman, who has contributed to

The New York Times. Some newspapers won't knowingly work with

freelancers who also do public relations. Lederman recommends being up

front about PR work and never writing commissioned stories about your PR

clients.



Lederman has freelanced since 1989 and doesn't think the economy is

going south. 'I think this is a shift,' she says. The tech market may

deflate, but Lederman believes other segments will strengthen. Meantime,

freelancers can use their low overhead and cheaper rates to attract

business.



The freelancing dream need not make cowards of self-motivated and

well-disciplined PR pros, Lederman says. 'Jump in and don't be afraid,

because you'll make more money doing this than working for a company,'

she asserts.



FREELANCE TIPS



1. Do develop a business plan and define your strengths before jumping

into the freelance pool



2. Do make yourself known and visible to your clients' upper management

in case of PR staff changes



3. Do learn everything you can about bidding and pitching, especially if

you come from a corporate background where such skills weren't

necessary



1. Don't expect a lot of free time as a freelancer



2. Don't go it alone if you aren't highly self-motivated or if you can't

handle solitude



3. Don't forget to set aside a big chunk of your gross for taxes and

expenses



4. Don't take the word 'independent' too seriously. Network with other

freelancers.



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