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,
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,’
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.
DOS AND DON’TS
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
3. Hesitate to pitch multiple story angles to independents who write for
a variety of publications.