FREELANCING: Is freelancing for you?

In these times of financial uncertainty, firms are forced to tighten their PR belts. So is this the right moment to give up job security and branch out on your own? Alex Blyth talks to six PROs who have done just that.

Louisa Barnett
Louisa Barnett

LOUISA BARNETT
Freelancing since: 2003

Current role: Interim director of information services communications at AstraZeneca

Background: Agency-side at Emmett & Smith and Weber Shandwick, then comms director at the Marine Stewardship Council

After two years at the Marine Stewardship Council, Barnett had set up the comms strategy, and was planning her next move.

Louisa BarnettShe recalls: 'I spent some time reflecting on my career and realised it had been made up of lots of roles, none of which lasted more than a couple of years. So it seemed obvious to look at more project-based and short-term work with clear starts, finishes and objectives.'

She continues: 'I also wanted to get a better work/life balance. I'd spent the previous few years putting in 14 hour days and knew that working as a consultant you aren't expected to live the role 24/7.' She landed her first contract at the Metropolitan Police through an email that a friend forwarded from chat group CSR Chicks.

The move has worked out well, and Barnett reports that she now has more time for new hobbies. She adds: 'I've worked in a wide range of sectors including banking, telecoms, pharmaceutical and government, and have met many great people along the way, some of whom have become good friends.'

During 2007 she was able to pick up contracts when she wanted them, alternating stints at BP, the Home Office and AstraZeneca, with decorating her living room in January and a month off in June.

'If you want to freelance, be prepared not to work some of the time,' she says. 'A good rule of thumb is to think of a working year as ten months. If you get that much work you're doing well!

'Make sure you have the support of your family or partner. And finally be true to yourself. Don't stay in a role because it's easy; stay in it because you are challenged and it makes you want to get up in the morning.'

FIONA WOOD
Freelancing since: August 2007

Current role: Account manager at Kazoo

Background: Three years at 2ic, a small consumer agency in Sydney, working on Toyota, Phillips, Breville and other accounts

Fiona Wood

Wood moved to the UK from her native Australia in August 2007 and picked up her first freelance position within a fortnight.

'I know I was really lucky to land a role at Lewis PR,' she says.

'I didn't want to be one of those freelancers who does a day here and a day there.

I love the variety and it's great meeting different people, but in order to really understand how things work it was important for me to see a campaign through from start to finish.'

She does miss being part of a team but has no regrets. She says: 'I've had no trouble picking up work and looking forward and I can't see that changing. I think there will always be a need for freelancers.'

Wood concludes with this advice: 'Think very carefully before you take the plunge about whether it really is right for you.

Don't make the mistake of thinking it'll be more money for less work. It's not.

You need to relish variety and thrive on fresh challenges. Finally, you need to get a good recruitment agency. Having someone good on your side can make all the difference.'

TONY ROONEY
Freelancing since: 2004

Current role: Project communications manager at Resolution, working on the 'treating customers fairly' project, a regulatory initiative to ensure customers are treated fairly

Background: PR roles at AOL, Transport for London, Alliance & Leicester, Nomura, Visa, Declavy PR and Which?

Tony RooneyFor Rooney the appeal of freelancing was the variety. 'I get paid to think, to have an opinion and to use my years of experience,' he explains.

'I'm not owned, and I think this provides a certain psychological freedom that can work better for you.'

Looking ahead, he is uncertain whether freelancers will be more or less in demand.

'I would expect some organisations to cut back, but in an unstable market companies try to keep a lid on employee headcount and so are keen to bring in freelancers.'

He offers this advice: 'Make sure you have a few years under your belt and some money in the bank. Only do something you enjoy and enjoy the free in freelance.'

RONA LEVIN
Freelancing since: 2001

Current role: PR consultant at Bedfordshire & Luton Partnership NHS Trust

Background: PR and editorial roles at Sky News and Teletext

Initially Levin went freelance so she could juggle her career with her daughter's school timetable. However, she has found that it suits her well. 'I enjoy the diversity of people and corporate cultures,' she says.

Rona Levin'The role allows me to work with organisations that I might ordinarily never set foot in, and very often I have the ear of some of the most senior executives from the minute I start.'

She expects that in this time of financial turmoil it will be harder to pick up work in the private sector during 2008.

However, she anticipates it will be easier to find public sector work, as in her experience they have a PR requirement to fulfil, but run streamlined teams, filling in the gaps with freelancers.

Levin advises: 'Take tax advice. Think hard about whether you'll be financially secure enough to ride out the quieter times and bear in mind that some clients can be slow payers. Network hard and keep abreast of what's happening in the industry.'

SHIRLEY CARNEGIE
Freelancing since: Autumn 2007

Current role: Media communications officer at Cherwell District Council

Background: PR manager at Wandsworth Council from the mid-1980s, until 1996, when she left to set up her own agency with her husband

Shirley CarnegieAfter feeling she had gone as far as she could at Wandsworth Council, Carnegie took the leap and started up her own agency, SCPR. She ran the agency successfully for 11 years.

However, 2007 was a tough year for her. She says: 'I was at a crossroads in my career and was considering going back in-house. The upshot was that I didn't have any existing commitments to worry about.'

So, she took the placement at Cherwell District Council, and, as it came to an end in April, she is currently contemplating her next move. She says: 'I like having a lot of different clients, and being able to work at my most productive times of the day rather than being constrained by a nine-to-five routine.

'On the other hand,' she continues, 'I've really enjoyed being part of a team again. It's been great to just have one client to focus on and to be able to give it everything.'

Having experienced so many different ways of working in PR, she is well placed to offer advice to anyone considering going freelance. She says: 'Be prepared to do all your research before you start your role.

You're being paid more than everyone around you and you have to earn that. There's no time for settling in. Also make sure you get a good recruitment agency behind you. For me, that has provided much-needed stability.'

GARETH WATKINS
Freelancing since: June 2007

Current role: Senior publicist at consumer PR and events agency Splendid Communications

Background: Four years at music PR agency ZZonked

In 2006 Watkins left his role as head of press at ZZonked for a gap year. Towards the end of his travels around South America he signed up with a recruitment agency from the comfort of a barrio in Brazil.

Gareth WatkinsHe says: 'Freelancing was an excellent way of creating a profile in the industry and gave me the option to work on a variety of accounts without committing to one agency.'

He adds: 'Each role challenges me and helps to develop my skills and build my contacts among clients, agencies and media.'

What he misses least about being a staffer is the routine. He now works four days a week and this allows him to pursue other interests. However, he does miss the relative security and benefits such as sick pay.

Like most other freelancers, he now relies on a good relationship with a recruitment consultancy.

'A well connected or specialist recruitment agent is essential to a steady flow of work. If you find the right one it allows you to be involved at a variety of different levels, from straight-up publicity to management of accounts and projects.'

So important has this been, that his top tip for anyone considering moving into freelancing is to develop a good relationship with a recruitment agent.

He adds: 'You should also think about what you want out of your career at that point in time. If it's guaranteed security and a regular routine then you might be better off holding out for the right staff role.'

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