Monday, 13 August 2018

So what makes you an expert??

And my speciality subject is...how to be special
As PRs, we need to demonstrate our clients’ credibility if we want to get their voices heard – but first we have to make them understand why journalists won’t just take their word for it. Comms Crowd PR Pro Debbie Smith hunts for those elusive proof points.

We know journalists get hundreds of pitches every day. Their mailboxes and twitter feeds are full of companies competing for airtime, all offering informed, relevant comment. But why should a journalist listen to what they have to say?

Your client may be a world expert in their field, whether that’s digital widgets, cloud computing or new legislation. But if you can’t make them instantly credible in the eyes of the journalist, they’ll go straight to the deleted folder.

I’ve been thinking about this since one client wanted to remove a statistic from our pitch because a) he thought it wasn’t that strong and b) he wasn’t sure it was accurate. We pointed out that, while we understood his concerns, we needed something concrete to show that they were well established, had delivered a lot of great work and hence were worth listening to. We thought the number was convincing, but if it couldn’t be used, it was vital to have an alternative.

One way of gaining credibility is to name high profile customers. This isn’t easy, unless you can persuade your client to include ‘permission to be named in marketing materials’ in their standard contract (yes this can happen). However, there are creative alternatives. For example, when one customer mentioned that they worked with one-third of the London Boroughs, we didn’t need names – the statistic was enough. Similarly, the phrase ‘working with law enforcement agencies’, as was the case with one Comms Crowd client, speaks for itself.

Demonstrating credibility can be even more difficult in the finance sector, where every ‘expert’ has professional qualifications and offers similar services, and you will have to dig a little deeper. Links to topical issues can help, as can the ability to understand both sides of an issue. I’ve obtained a lot of coverage for one client on the topic of angel investment because not only does he advise clients on obtaining investment, two of those clients have appeared on Dragons’ Den and he also invests as a business angel himself. So he is extremely credible.

Another option is to work with experts whose credibility is a given, such as academics. Hitching your wagon to a star, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, can be an effective way of enhancing your own credibility, particularly if your opinions complement those of the expert.

If you’re still struggling for hard facts, the solution may be your client themselves. One of our favourite clients is someone who really ‘gets it’ where journalists are concerned. No matter how busy he is, he’ll quickly give us a short, snappy, often controversial comment to pitch which shows he knows his topic inside out, then makes himself available at short notice if the journalist wants to speak to him. As a result, he punches well above his weight in terms of influence and coverage.

It’s not easy finding proof points and can be even harder to persuade your client to let you make them public. However, it will be time well spent in establishing them as a credible source.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Journalists working with PRs - how to avoid conflict of interests

Can a  journalist comfortably hang out with PRs ? Our in house writer and working tech journalist SandraVogel explains how it works for her...

Poachers and Gamekeepers can learn to play nicely
There are some who say journalists and PRs are chalk and cheese. They want different things, they see the world in different ways, and it is impossible to work in both camps. But that’s not true. It is possible to be a freelance journalists who also works with PRs.

There can be significant benefits to working in both camps. I can bring to PR clients an understanding of what journalists might be looking for because I know what I would be looking for. Meanwhile when doing freelance journalism I have a feel for what it is like to be in a PR’s shoes, which can help me get the best from them and their clients.

But working on both sides of ‘the divide’ isn’t something to be taken on lightly. There can be difficult situations, and challenges which can sometimes mean saying ‘no’ to particular opportunities.

For example, it is important not to write about an organisation as a journalist while working with them as a PR. In my book, the only exception to this rule is if whoever has commissioned work is fully aware of the PR side of things and gives the OK, and the PR side is also fully aware and gives consent. If a commissioning editor asks me to write about something and I work for, or have recently worked for the company involved I say so, giving them the option to find another writer. If a PR wants me to do a piece of work that might compromise or affect my relationship with an editor, I’ll turn it down and tell them why.

Similarly, it is completely wrong to break confidences. As a journalist I am told many things I can’t make public until a certain time – or indeed I can’t ever make public. The same goes as when working with PRs. Often agreements are signed which prohibit disclosure. But even where there aren’t formal agreements, keeping schtum when it comes to insider information really matters.

I don’t find any of this to be a problem. Keeping a professional distance between the two ‘sides’ is not difficult when you work with editors and PR bosses who understand and share the same ethics. A good PR boss simply won’t ask a journalist to push a particular client forwards with a commissioning editor. And frankly, if a PR ever did ask me to do that, I’d just walk away.

As long as professional respect remains in tact, the relationships can flourish.






Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Reasons to be freelance: 1 2 3

We set up our virtual PR agency six years ago, and it’s good to see the business model is gaining in popularity, so the demand for freelance PRs is out there. But just because you can freelance doesn’t mean you should. 

freelancing, it's like hand gliding - you've got to hurl yourslef off that cliff...

Here are my top three tips for determining if you would be happy as a freelance PR: 

1) Because you want to do it - not because you don’t want to do something else or because you can't find a 'proper' job or because you think you will make way more money than you do now. In my view, going freelance so you can hope to work every hour of every day to make loads of money is a guaranteed formula to make yourself utterly miserable. 

Myteam and I, all chose to go freelance, we left great jobs to do it, so we brought commitment to the role from day one and are in it for the long haul. And we are all able to ride out the occasional lean month  with a shrug of the shoulders rather than a wringing of hands.

2) Because you don’t need a boss  - don't mistake not wanting a boss with the same as not needing one. In a 'proper' job the structure provides sticks and carrots, but you have neither when you work for yourself. Sure there are no petty rules but there are no promotions either. 

But if you have a big and burly work ethic combined with a very small ego then you’re able to push yourself to get results and when you bring in that piece for the FT be content with a ‘well done me’ cup of coffee and an adoring look from the dog.

3) Because you are actually able to implement a healthy work life balance – we all talk about it but unless you can be bold enough to actually implement it you’re just going to stare at the laptop 52 weeks a year stressing that there is not enough work.

The one overriding factor my team and I share is not just our love of work 
but also our love of not working. 

Whether it’s kicking off each day with a long walk in the park with the hounds, or the weekly art classes, or the sax summer school - we schedule to take time off. Sure we take advantage of the portable desk and it’s great to be able to get in a few days' work when visiting family elsewhere. But it’s not just about working away, it's about not working at all and booking those amazing trips you've always promised yourself, for as long as you want to take them.

Our holiday calendar looks like the Conde Nast to do list, and in the last couple of years our small crew have ticked off holidays in:

Sussex, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, Yorkshire, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man, Guernsey, France, Corsica, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Bulgaria, Finland (northern lights), Spain, Lanzarote, Majorca, Ibiza, Greece, Italy, Barbados, Tobago, St Lucia, Mauritius and Uzbekistan.

Freelancing is a bit like hand gliding: tentatively trip off the edge of the cliff and it will be bloody all the way down. Instead, we recommend you whole heartedly hurl yourself off it and see where the thermals take you!

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, stupid!

8I didn't have the time to write a short letter,
so I wrote a long one instead."
Mark Twain

Fellow CommsCrowd freelance PR Lianne Robinson makes it brief:

I saw this tweet from Tom Knowles a few weeks ago, and it stayed with me. I see this type of thing all the time. Paragraphs beyond paragraphs of long clunky words with no clear explanation as to what it is they are trying to say.

You can spend what seems like an age watching a company description going around the various the heads and powers that be of a company. I know this as I’ve worked in-house too. Everyone wants to add their own point of view, something that makes them feel that they played a part in the creation of the copy. But in doing so, adding a long word here and a bit of jargon there, we can completely lose all sense of what we’re trying to say.

When you work for a company you can get so immersed in it and the technicalities around how it works that to come up with a simple sentence to describe what it does exactly can be the hardest thing. We see this a lot in PR too. When I ask a company for 800-1000 word article on a chosen subject its easy. When I ask for a two-sentence reactive comment, it seems to take all day. And it’s the same for me too. For some reason writing less always takes more.

Let’s take the example above with Tom Knowles. Tom is the property reporter at The Times so we can assume that this is a property company (if the PR has got the pitch right!) but what they actually do is anyone’s guess.

Tom’s a busy man. He needs to sift through hundreds if not thousands of emails every day looking for the best news stories all while writing insightful copy for tomorrow’s paper under tight deadlines. He doesn’t have time to read 800 word emails. Tom needs to understand clearly from the outset why this company is great and unique and why it is that he should be speaking to them.

Think about how you read a news article or blog. If you read the first 100 words and you’re either a) not interested or b) you can’t see where it is going, then you are going to switch off and move on to something else. It’s the same with PR pitches. You’ve got to be succinct right from the start and make it very clear why your client is so interesting.

I’ve often questioned if my pitches to journalists can at times be too simplistic. I go back through them trying to add in fancy adjectives and make things sound perhaps more revolutionary than they actually are. What my clients are paying me to do is make sure that the journalist understands why they are so great and why I think it will make a good story. Translating this 800 word description in to two or three easily digestible sentences that get the journalist interested and want to find out more.

So next time you’re thinking about your ‘story’ find the three things that you think make it unique and interesting and express these points high up in your pitch. If you can capture the journalist’s attention in the first two sentences, then that’s half the battle won. If you’re not entirely sure what these key messages are, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and start the process again.

You don’t need to give the journalist a life story about the company and the 30-year career of the chairman. Keep it brief. If the journalist is interested in the story that you are pitching then they will come back to you with questions. Keep it clear, to the point and highlight why it’s interesting in a couple of short sentences. Keep it simple.





Saturday, 24 March 2018

How to be a good client or how to get on the right side of your freelancer

She may get out of bed for somwhat less then £10k, but CommsCrowd content writer Sandra, sets out her terms for a good client relationship:
they say he who pays the piper calls the tune,
but it's better when we're all singing off the same hymm sheet 

Over the years I’ve freelanced for some of the biggest names in tech, for national newspapers, and for some of the best known technology web sites. I’ve also worked with lots of small companies, mostly but not all with a technology angle, with voluntary organisations, and with communications agencies.

I’ve found good and bad clients across the spectrum. It’s not the size or sector that matters – it’s the approach and attitude of the client to using freelancers. The good clients value, support and nurture their freelancers, and in particular they get three very important things right.

Respecting my time. If I say I don’t work Friday afternoons and weekends, although i may make the odd exception, don’t expect me to be free to work as a matter of course. Similarly, if I am set to work for you, say, Mondays and Wednesdays, then if you need to change the day please give me lead time. In return I’ll only change our fixed days if it’s impossible not to, and I’ll give you as much lead time as I possibly can.

Keeping me in the loop. If I’m contracted to work on a specific project, then knowing what’s going on with that project is helpful. Rather than just being asked, ‘please do A, B and C this week’, it can be useful to know how A B and C fit into the bigger picture and what others are working on. I appreciate that if I’m not in the office full time stuff will happen without me. Of course it will. But it’s useful to be briefed on the bigger picture, not just because it makes me feel like one of the team (it does, it really does), but because I can take wider points into account in my work. Even extra-busy clients that fall into my ‘love to work with’ group manage this.

Paying on time, and at the agreed rate. It should be unnecessary to make this point, but sadly it’s not. Renegotiating rates downwards during a contract or paying late are simply not on. Freelancers are working for a living. They are not volunteers. Trust me, you’ll soon get called out, word will get around. In exchange for paying on time I will deliver on time. And if there’s a chance I’ll be unable to do that, I’ll let you know well in advance.

Now, there’s circularity in this. You treat me well, I’ll treat you well. We’ll have a grown up, professional relationship that we will both enjoy. Heck, I might even work for you on a Friday afternoon. Now and then.

Friday, 23 February 2018

the seventh year - and no itching for me

It’s seven years this month since I walked away from the big West End PR agency to set up office in the dining room, buy a domain name and a dog.
You got you a seven-year itch goin' on?

In that time working life has evolved from lone PR freelancer to freelance collaborator, to creating a collective and now to running our (cloud-based) PR agency that continues to grow at around 25% a year.

So what does the seventh year herald? Am I going to get itchy feet and chuck it all in to become a landscape gardener, a masseuse or apply for Bake-Off? Or should I consider taking a back seat and let the team take the strain?

I think not. After seven years of being my own boss I still love the buzz of running a business and the challenges our kind of work brings. Still love my team and nearly all of our clients, nearly all of the time. I get a huge thrill when a campaign goes well, and I feel the pain if ever it doesn’t. I am alive to it.

Although I get to take a fair few holidays, I never have the blues on my return, and Monday mornings are much of a muchness to me. Among all my friends I never have one moment of work envy, not even when they are essentially paid to get plastered at Ascot under some vague notion of corporate hospitality. They are welcome to it - it’s small recompense for those inhuman early morning commutes, petty office politics and stingy levels of annual leave.

As for taking a back seat now that we are way up and running… Our clients have bought into the whole team and while there is no ‘I’ in team there is a ‘me’. We’re not going to become one of those agencies where you only see the founder on pitch day. Instead we’ll keep our growth to manageable proportions so we can continue to be an all-in kind of crew, as therein is where the happiness lies.

Turns out for me a seven year anniversary is less about an itch more an affirmation of vows.





Sunday, 21 January 2018

A PR degree - is it REALLY worth it?

Was it worth it?
As Holly's three-year PR degree draws to an end and the student loan looms large, she asks: Was it worth it? 

Ultimately only time will tell (although I would like to think YES) as I am yet to graduate and secure a job in the industry. However, I can still look back on my time studying PR at UAL and pick out the positves and negatives.

Firstly, I do think studying in London brings such an advantage to any student, particularly a PR student, as your University is located on the door step of some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. Additionally, my Uni has fantastic connections with a variety of PR professionals, with completely differing backgrounds.

Consequently, every week we received a guest lecture from somebody different, who would provide us with an insight of their experience in the PR industry and offer advice to those wanting to take a similar path. For me this has been one of the highlights of my PR degree experience. The talks have opened my eyes to the different paths, sectors and opportunities working in the industry has to offer.

The opportunity the university provides to being exposed to different PR professionals gives you the ability to be proactive and make connections. In my case, if it wasn’t for Sam being one of my guest lecturers in my second year, I wouldn’t have landed an internship at the tech PR agency Hotwire in the summer of 2017. This then led to me landing my role as a junior for The Comms Crowd.

However, if I am being completely honest, if someone was to say to me do you think a PR degree is worth it, I would struggle to definitely say yes. This is simply because I feel as though the duration of three years is far too long for the work that you do. In addition to this, obviously this differs depending on where you study, however my course has been primarily theory based. It has been interesting to unveil the theories and history behind PR, although I feel it could be argued whether it is necessary to have this knowledge to succeed in the PR industry.

So although I have obtained a great deal from studying a PR degree, I do feel three years is too long and nor do I believe it is essential if you want to go into the industry. In my experience, PR internships are not too hard to come across, once you have gained the necessary experience from carrying them out. If you are hard working, passionate and approachable it is possible to secure a role in PR without a PR degree.