Eric Leist conducted a Q&A for our blog with Shonali Burke, ABC about her experiences working as a freelance PR professional.
Based in the Washington, D.C., area, Shonali Burke, ABC, is the IABC-accredited, award-winning principal of Shonali Burke Consulting. She blogs at Waxing UnLyrical, under the watchful eyes of Chuck, Suzy Q. and Lola, her three rescue dogs. Much to her husband’s chagrin, Shonali can most often be found on Twitter.
1) What are the advantages and disadvantages of working as a freelance PR pro?
One of the most obvious advantages of being independent is that you are your own boss; so if you have an independent streak, it’s a great way to go. You’re able to make your own schedule and have some flexibility in your life without feeling guilty or having to “ask permission,” as you might if you were employed. And you can work with clients and on projects you really like, as opposed to (perhaps) having to work on projects and accounts you might not feel very excited or passionate about, such as at an agency.
On the other hand, you’re the only one doing anything and everything related to your work – so you’re the chief cook and bottle washer. Flexibility is great in theory, but it’s sometimes not that easy to put into practice; even if you don’t have anyone to answer to, you still have to answer to your clients and provide them the deliverables you’ve promised. And while a freelance life means you’re not tied to any one organization, it also means you have to be prepared to deal with ups and downs in your work cycle, which means ups and downs in your income.
2) What skills are most important to practice freelance PR?
First of all, you’ve got to be really good at whichever aspect(s) of PR you intend on focusing on. If you’re positioning yourself as a media relations pro, you’d better be a really good media relations pro… and so on. But to manage your freelance business successfully, I think you also have to excel at time and project management, and be extremely disciplined. You need to assure your clients they are not shortchanging themselves by working with you, which often means you have to be harder on yourself than you would as an employee somewhere else.
I think it does help to be at ease with basic accounting, since you have to keep on top of your numbers. Finally, you have to be really good at relationship-building, because that is what will grow your business. You’d be surprised at how many PR people are not good at it.
3) How and where do you find clients for your business?
Anywhere and everywhere. Even though we’re into the 21st century, relationships and networks are the primary way people find work and assignments, and that holds true for me too. I can’t afford to advertise much, so I have to depend on word of mouth. So far, at least, I haven’t cold-called for work.
For example, my first consulting project was to research and develop a social media strategy for BurrellesLuce. I found that opportunity via a LinkedIn group I belong to, but a good friend of mine who works in their DC office gave me a recommendation that helped me get the assignment. Earlier this year, I secured work with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, with whom I’m working on multicultural outreach for the organization’s Paralysis Resource Center. But they’re an “old” client, whom I met when I was at Ruder Finn. Maintaining that relationship—which I did with no agenda whatsoever, but because I really liked the organization and the folks there—was what made us cross paths again.
I’m actively with IABC/Washington and making my way up the speaking circuit. That helps people get to know who I am and what I can do. I’ve also found that starting to blog and getting active in social networks—particularly Twitter—has helped me tremendously. These have given me the chance to start finding my own voice (which is something PR pros struggle with, as an excellent post by Kellye Crane points out), as well as engage with and learn from my peers, resulting in everything from new speaking engagements to client inquiries and actual business. Finally, when people I know offline see that I’m active both online and in the community, they send leads my way.
4) How has social media changed the game of freelance PR?
I think it’s added an incredible dimension to the freelance business, just as it has to every other business. For one, there are a great many more ways to find business leads, since you can use social media and networks to stay on top of what’s going on, who’s looking for what, and so on. Not that you couldn’t do this before the proliferation of social media and networks, but it’s become much easier to do so. Second, as you build your networks you find people with whom you can partner and refer business to/from, which can be a good way to grow your business.
Most importantly, though, social media can vouch for your skills, experience and standing in a way even your best reference might not be able to. The first thing we do when we’re looking for information on someone or something is turn to the Internet, right? If you’re watching and maintaining your digital footprint, and that includes your social media activity, that’s about the best thing you can do for yourself in terms of building your reputation… and that is what builds your business.
5) How much does developing your personal brand help your business?
Whether you agree or disagree on personal branding, you certainly have a reputation, be it good, bad or ugly, that you have built up. The catch is that you start building your reputation from Day 1, often without even knowing it. How you’ve approached and delivered on your work is a huge part of it, but people sometimes don’t realize how you interact with your community, colleagues and even strangers all adds to it. And as I said earlier, your reputation is what will make or break your business.
6) How much has your day-to-day lifestyle changed since leaving the corporate/firm environment?
Honestly, not all that much. I don’t travel as much as I used to (through choice), but otherwise I still work fairly long hours, which I did both at my last job as well as when I was in the agency business. I have more autonomy over my life, certainly, but that’s a natural progression for almost anyone as they progress in their career. Though my dry cleaning bills have certainly fallen drastically!
7) What advice would you have for students looking to pick up freelance work?
The first thing you need is a body of work that inspires confidence. That’s difficult for a lot of students since, by default, they don’t have a lot of experience. To get around that, volunteer with professional development organizations like PRSA and IABC; look for pro bono clients or assignments; offer to support more experienced PR pros or folks who run their own businesses—the experience will do you good.
Build and nourish your networks. The best time to grow your networks is not when you need to activate them, so that should be something you do as a matter of course. Then, when you actually need help, or are looking for something, you’ll have a circle of trusted resources to which you can reach out. More importantly, they know and trust you, so they’ll have no hesitation in passing along leads or referring you to folks looking for freelance pros.
You have to keep your ear to the ground just like everyone else. Monitor the conversations that are going on in social media and in industry circles. By knowing what’s changing, who’s leaving and who’s joining, you’ll be able to tell where the opportunities are.
Finally—ask. It always surprises me how people forget the adage: ask, and the door will open. It’s true. If you don’t ask, there’s someone out there who will not have the opportunity to say “yes.” The caveat is, don’t be obnoxious about it.
8) What inspired you to go solo?
I think it’s a direction that many of us lean toward as we grow and find we are less willing to sacrifice our personal lives or work-life balance for “job satisfaction.” I’ve been extremely lucky with the progression of my career. But the stress that comes with a a fast-moving career was wearing me down. I’ll never forget going down an escalator in New York’s Penn station and thinking I was in DC’s Union Station—that’s how much I was traveling, and I was always tired. By early 2008, I realized something had to change, and since it wasn’t going to be my husband (he’s a keeper), the only wiggle room I had was with my job.
Initially I envisioned taking a few months “off” before moving into another fulltime position. But I found that I was often perceived as “too young” for positions comparable in scope to my previous position, and I had no interest in making a lateral or downward move. After a few times of coming really close and then not getting “the” job, the BurrellesLuce project came my way and thought: why not… especially since I’d freelanced before. So I decided that if I hadn’t found the kind of opportunity I was looking for by the end of the year, I would go out on my own in 2009. And that’s what I did.
9) How do you compete with firms and in-house programs that have more resources than you do?
Very simple – I don’t. When clients look for a really large agency or outside resources, chances are they are looking far more for “arms and legs” rather than strategic guidance. I currently don’t take on huge projects or assignments, because I’m realistic about what I can deliver. However, as an “agency of one,” I can deliver the strategic smarts clients who don’t have big bucks are looking for, as well as the implementation that goes with it. Having an agency background, I’m well-versed in the various vendors and providers out there, and have good relationships with them as well. I can bring these on board for a client, via strategic partnerships, if that’s what they need. So, really, it’s the best of both worlds for me.