PR TECHNIQUE: FREELANCE JOURNALISTS - Freelance journalists: separating the honey from the sting. Staff reporters are bad enough When the writer is a freelancer, it makes the PR pro’s job that much more difficult. But, as Sherri Deatherage Green,

One little-used definition for the term ’free lance’ predates the printing press. The original free lances were just that - medieval mercenaries who owed allegiance to no king and were free to use their lances as they chose.

One little-used definition for the term ’free lance’ predates the printing press. The original free lances were just that - medieval mercenaries who owed allegiance to no king and were free to use their lances as they chose.

One little-used definition for the term ’free lance’ predates the

printing press. The original free lances were just that - medieval

mercenaries who owed allegiance to no king and were free to use their

lances as they chose.

Today, the pen of freelance journalism can cut both ways for PR


’I think with freelancers you are often dealing with the best of the

best and the worst of the worst,’ observes Ronn Torossian, a media

relations VP with the MWW Group’s New York office. Freelancers run the

gamut from irresponsible writers who couldn’t hack ’real jobs’ to

top-shelf journalists who can earn more money working for themselves,

Torossian says.

Rod Caborn, SVP of PR at Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown in Orlando, FL,

sees both extremes. He estimates that more than half of the journalists

in the travel industry are not regular staff members. On the top end,

Caborn praises one freelancer who milks six months’ worth of stories out

of a single press trip. On the other end, he’s seen those who expected

free plane tickets for family members, drank too much, made passes at

clients and even one who walked out of his hotel room nude.

Gatecrashers sometimes masquerade as freelancers in the entertainment

field, notes Craig McDaniel, a VP at Michael A. Burns & Associates in

Dallas. Paula Felps, an established writer now working on a book about

the history of Texas music, admits that some people ’will write for

dirt’ - or at least free CDs. ’People who wouldn’t normally want to hold

down a writing job have a passion for music,’ she notes.

So the first challenge in dealing with freelance journalists may be

separating the wheat from the chaff. Caborn suggests contacting

associations, like the Society of American Travel Writers, to check

credentials. He also chats frequently with colleagues at other travel PR

firms. ’Word gets around on who is real or not real,’ Caborn says.

Other pros ask freelancers for work samples or pose questions to gauge

their depth of knowledge about an industry. Beverly Hayon, national

media relations director for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, CA, says

telephone demeanor and publication credits reveal much about overall


Once past the credibility issue, many PR pros find the advantages to

working with freelancers can outweigh the challenges.

Perhaps the biggest benefit independent journalists bring is their

financial motivation to write as many stories as possible about the same


’Recycling - that’s the heart of our profit margin,’ Felps quips. Staff

writers, on the other hand, may be less flexible and less likely to

return again and again to the same source. An independent may ask more

questions, explore more angles and force a PR firm to learn more about a

client’s business, Caborn says.

A serious freelancer also realizes that she is only as good as her last

story, notes Marilyn Mobley of Acorn Consulting in Marietta, GA. ’Their

stock in trade is their reputation.’

On the other hand, staff writers are more plugged into the inner

workings of their publications. ’You know who covers regular beats so

it’s easy to plan your communications efforts’ when dealing with

staffers, Hayon notes. Freelancers may be less involved with the editing

process and hold less sway over what ultimately shows up in print.

The independent who writes on spec can also be a bane or a boon.

Reporters who neglect to mention that they don’t actually have

assignments can waste time and cause headaches. Many PR pros try to

treat all reporters the same and frequently include freelancers on

distribution and invitation lists. But Torossian urges caution when

dealing with those who repeatedly call on spec stories. Frequently,

agency staff members provide background information instead of setting

up interviews with clients. Hayon acknowledges that a query from a

freelancer without a firm assignment might fall further down the

priority scale than a call from a staff writer for major news


But willingness to write on spec, and the fact that they aren’t

bombarded with as many press releases and pitch calls as staff writers,

can make freelancers more receptive to story ideas. Deborah Schwartz of

Jaffe Associates in Bethesda, MD, says she sometimes brainstorms with

freelancers to flesh out ideas. Other PR pros have learned that

freelance journalists can do pitch work for them. ’They can get (my

story) into a top tier placement better than I can do it myself,’

Torossian says.

Pitching to freelancers may be most productive when the story is softer

and less time sensitive. Independents generally write more features than

breaking news stories, notes Darcy Lewis, a Chicago-area writer.

Legitimate freelancers frequently are experienced journalists who

stepped away from mainstream employment for personal reasons. Often, the

most successful are risk-taking entrepreneurs. The quest for better

quality of life may lure some away from major metropolitan centers, but

geographical isolation often pushes them out of the PR loop as well. ’If

you can become an information lifeline for these people, it will pay off

for you and your clients,’ says Dick Wolfe, business and new media

accounts director for Communications/ Marketing Action in New York.

Lewis says she would love to get more pitch calls. Sandy Graham, a

former Wall Street Journal staffer freelancing in Colorado, appreciates

receiving additional background information from media relations people

since she doesn’t always have access to the same resources as her peers

with staff positions.

The wounds inflicted on sources by careless freelancers can be difficult

for serious independents to heal. But top-shelf freelancers just want

the same breaks as other legitimate reporters.

’Treat them as serious professionals unless given reason to think

otherwise,’ Graham advises.



1. Find out whether a freelance journalist is writing on spec or on


2. Concentrate on features when pitching to freelancers, and provide

them plenty of background.

3. Check services like ProfNet and First Source frequently for

opportunities to contribute to freelance-written stories.


1. Discriminate against a writer who doesn’t get a steady paycheck from

the same magazine every month.

2. Hand out airline or concert tickets to freelancers without checking

their credentials.

3. Hesitate to pitch multiple story angles to independents who write for

a variety of publications.

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