We hear a lot about the boom in the “gig” economy, but there’s one segment I’ve specifically kept a close eye on in the past 1o years: independent PR professionals (aka freelancers, consultants or contractors). I founded my company seven years ago, in part with an eye toward this workforce as an alternative staffing approach to traditional models. As expected, I’ve seen a significant increase in professionals moving into this role and companies actively looking to hire from these type of experts.
What’s happening to cause this shift, and what does it mean in terms of business opportunities for independent PR pros? Let’s examine a few converging trends creating a perfect storm for the rise of independent PR.
1. Technology Advancements
The rise of technology has changed the game for PR (and just about every other industry). It forced the role of PR to expand beyond a myopic focus on media relations into a range of other disciplines for a more holistic approach to communications strategy. It has also enabled an industry comfort and acceptance of virtual teams and online collaboration. In short, it has made working from home a real and productive way to do things.
2. Burnout And Lifestyle Change
Burnout is real, especially if you’ve spent 20 years working in tech, which is like 50 in dog years. I have talked to countless independents who were desperate to make a change. Most have 15-25 years of experience; many have families, and all have spent years slaving away at agencies, in-house or a combination of both.
A lot of these folks are waking up to the fact that there is an alternative available, and going freelance affords a range of benefits — from being selective about projects, not working 60-hour weeks (unless you want to) and having flexibility with time to allow for a greater focus on health and family.
3. An Increasing Demand From Businesses (And Agencies)
I’ve seen a distinctive uptick in companies exploring and hiring independents in lieu of traditional PR agency solutions due to negative past experiences, an overall sense of disenchantment and a desire for something different. The complaints are consistent across the board: lack of strategic counsel and deep vertical insight, high churn, reactive versus proactive programs, and lack of experience or exposure to in-house communications needs. To be clear, agencies are a crucial part of the overall PR ecosystem, but change is most certainly afoot with where all the dollars are going.
On the flip side, agencies are also turning to independent PR pros to supplement account teams by filling gaps in senior management, bringing a depth of knowledge and vertical expertise, and helping manage younger staff.
I’ve talked to a large number of independents over the years, and there has been a steady increase in agencies reaching out as many make a move to hybrid staffing. Not all agencies are created equal, though, and there are some real horror stories of independents being taken advantage of. On the upside, if independents find a good agency to partner with, it can mean a steady new business pipeline and a reliable paycheck. Expect to hear more on this trend.
Overall, it’s a good time to become an independent and start your freelance lifestyle, or, on the flip side, to be hiring independents.
What should agencies know?
If you’re an agency looking to augment your workforce, start out by building a roster of go-to independents who have relevant vertical expertise. Odds are you have people who have left your agency who would be open to freelancing for you. Make sure to establish clear guidelines of what’s expected of them in terms of team and account management. Some independents don’t mind managing clients and pitching press but prefer to leave the employee growth and training to the full-time in-house people.
And be realistic about the hours your giving said independents. Don’t take a $10,000 piece of business and try to give the freelancer $2,000 a month to run the account and manage a team (true story: this happened to someone I know). One, that’s taking egregious advantage, and two, you get what you pay for. That only equates to a handful of hours and a freelancer who is sure to get frustrated, burned out and quit.
Also, as a hiring company, it can be easy to want the freelancer to use an email with your agency’s name, but sometimes it’s best to let independents use their own with the notation that it’s on behalf of said agency. I’ve found that it can be easier to let the independent contact media from an address the media has become familiar with versus the independent having to explain they are only subcontracting for said agency.
What should PR pros know about going independent?
If you’re a PR pro looking to make the leap to being an independent, let your network know your plans and where to find you. Connect with fellow contractors, and join groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Peer-to-peer networks are crucial for independents. It helps you course correct on rates (especially if you’re aiming too low), build out your new business pipeline and find people to partner with to capture bigger accounts, and it provides a crucial support network that is lost when leaving the corporate workforce.
When evaluating whether to subcontract for an agency, determine clear rates, roles and responsibilities upfront. Be realistic about the time it will take to do what’s asked versus what you’re being paid. One independent I know had an arrangement with an agency before the client pitch, and afterward, the agency tried to renegotiate the rate and take more for themselves. The independent ending up walking away and warning a group of us to avoid that agency. As you know in PR, word travels fast.
No matter how you slice it, or what side of the fence you’re on, independent PR offers opportunities for individuals and agencies alike. Tapping this workforce will, I believe, become the norm, and both sides need to develop best practices based on individual needs and culture.