Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Professional Development: Welcome to the Dark Side

Somehow I forgot that I was going to regale y’all* with a synopsis of the latest PWAC take-your-writing-on-a-completely-different-tangent seminar.  Last month’s edition focused on public relations writing…. a.k.a. Welcome to the Dark Side.

If you come from a journalistic background, resisting the Dark Side is ingrained. See, while journalism attempts to present all sides of an issue or story without bias, public relations writing is all about putting the most advantageous spin on something.  In other words, anathema to dyed-in-the-wool journos …

But here’s the rub:  the public relations writers of this world are currently making a far more reliable living than those of us who cling irrationally to our principles.  Which has prompted more than a few to examine their, um, moral flexibility.

Truth be told, the two worlds need not be mutually exclusive.  If one can compartmentalize a bit, one can easily crank out magazine articles in journalistic style, and public relations copy as … okay, a well-paid flak.  Different hats, different jobs.

So you burn for all eternity in the ninth circle of hell…. that was probably gonna happen anyway.

And the stupid thing is, in the eyes of Bay Street traders and waste management technicians and day-care workers and teenage lifeguards and producers of reality TV …. public relations pros get a whole lot more respect than the journos do.

So it was with an open mind and a continuing thirst for re-invention that I scribbled down the thoughts of three esteemed PR pros:  Alix Edmiston, Virve Tremblay, and Susan Crossman.  (Here are their bios.)

From Edmiston:  “The future is bright for those who want to embrace change.  PR writing is moving towards digital media and tablet apps, and away from physical products.  And social media is the ultimate game-changer, encouraging companies now to be completely transparent.

“PR writing is about enhancing and/or protecting a company’s image, and often includes crisis management.  A PR person’s skills can make or break an organization in a crisis situation.”

Edmiston said she hates the term “spin”, because PR writers (at least the good ones) function by a code of ethics, just as do journalists.

One good thing about PR writing?  The “content beast”, as Edmiston called it, needs constant feeding.  In all sorts of formats, from white papers to 140 character tweets. “I don’t see that diminishing,” she emphasized.  “When you create a community through social media, you then have to keep that community informed, and that content can’t be generated by machine.  It requires good writers.”

As for finding opportunities?  “Look at corporate websites and discern their needs.  Then figure out how you can fill them.”

She added, “You have to take the objectivity hat off and grasp the company message.  It’s not very different from altering your journalistic style to suit different magazine markets.”

Tremblay identified 14 trends for freelancers.  And you KNOW how I love a list.

Based on research from the Communications Executive Council (an organization I didn’t know existed, which represents several hundred international corporations):

1. Budgets are recovering.

2. Budgets have grown in 2012 vs. 2011.

3. The increase, if you will, is increasing.

4. Communicators (of the PR variety, presumably) are feeling optimistic about the future.  (Um, less so in Europe, where things are still pretty grim, career-wise.  See, it could be worse, I could live in Greece.)

5. In a business-to-business setting, corporations tend to have 1.2 communications staff people per 1000 employees.  In B2C (business-to-consumer) settings, it’s 3.8 communications staff per 1000 employees.  Larger revenue companies tend to have larger communications departments.  Hence, the best opportunities are in large, B2C companies.  Start-ups generally don’t have the budget to hire writers (nor understand their usefulness, though maybe that’s me, editorializing).

6. 25% of money spent on communications is devoted to freelancers, 25% for materials and commercial vehicles (like videos, newsletters, and so forth), and 50% of the budget tends to be spent on in-house staff.  That’s a fair bit of freelance opportunity.

7. Vendor budgets are expected to increase in 2013, with an average expected increase of 12%.

8. Responsibilities for communications professionals over the past five years have shifted dramatically towards social media.  SM can account for up to 80% of a communications pro’s time and energy in 2012, vs. 0% in 2007.  The #2 priority?  Analytics (measuring and monitoring the impact of those SM efforts).

9.  (Still with me?)  Communications departments are becoming less integrated.  There’s a trend towards separating marketing budgets from communications budgets.

10.  There’s an increasing focus on corporate social responsibility, as opposed to companies just making charitable donations to worthy causes.  “Giving for a reason” is the emphasis that needs to be played up.

11.  Companies are devoting more and more of their communications budgets to social media and analytics.

12.  It pays to know what the shifting priorities might be in the industry you’re targeting.  For example, in the health/pharma field, Tremblay said community relations is the #1 priority.

13.  There’s an increased emphasis on employee engagement — ie. getting your staff to “live the brand”.  And some of the advice on how to do that, is best delivered by an outside contractor.  IOW, a freelancer.

14.  Improved partnerships are a priority for almost all businesses.  Again, this is a result of social media:  interactions with clients/customers are now two-way instead of one-way.

Now here’s the kicker:  according to Tremblay, PR agencies can charge anywhere from about $100 an hour, at the lower levels, up to $360 an hour for a consultation from an agency CEO.  Gulp.  “That’s a huge opportunity for freelancers, because many companies would rather go with a freelancer than a big agency with big overhead.  You can charge what the market will bear.”

Crossman broke down PR writing into four sectors:  internal communications, consumer communications, government communications, and crisis control.  And she offered five important lessons for would-be PR peeps.  (Be still my heart, another list!)

1. Not every client is a good fit, and that’s okay.  It’s good to play to your strengths.  But sometimes you have to get outside your comfort zone and take a chance.

2. Be the best version of yourself for every job, every time.  Preserve, protect, and enhance your reputation.

3.  PR writing is not journalism.  There are certain conventions you need to understand, so get some training or find a mentor.  That said, journalists are often well-suited to doing PR writing, because they know what makes a story.  The trick is to understand which facts you emphasize in a PR piece.

4. Acquiring your first clients is about marketing yourself.  Network, network, network.  Be prepared for any conversation, any time — you never know where work might come from.

5.  Your on-line reputation will precede you.  Manage your social media footprint very carefully.  (Read:  don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your mother to see.  Question:  does this blog cross that line?)

And most importantly, don’t forget to ask for the business.  Every time someone connects with you, whether it be through LinkedIn, Twitter, or a Fetish Night party, thank him or her, and mention that if he or she ever needs a writer you’d be glad to help.

“There’s plenty of business out there,” Crossman said.  She suggested that $80 an hour is an average freelance rate for PR writing.  “Break it down for the client so they see real value for money, and place parameters on things like revisions to protect yourself.  Send out a confirmation note or contract, and make sure the client has communicated what they want.”

Some recommended resources from the speakers:  International Association of Business Communicators including PIC (for independents); the Canadian Public Relations Society; marketing webinars from HubSpot; articles from Ragan Communications; and Public Relations for Dummies.

* Canadians never say y’all.  Sorry.  Don’t know what I was thinking.

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4 thoughts on “Professional Development: Welcome to the Dark Side

  1. Public Relations writing can actually be quite fulfilling and not morally void of meaning. I’ve been doing it for decades with no regrets and no moral quandaries. If I have an ethical issue with a potential client, or a client’s project, as a freelancer, I can always walk away or work with the client to change something.

    Like others in my field (and I worked hard for over 5 years to achieve my APR – Accreditation in Public Relations – from the CPRS – Canadian Public Relations Society), I do take offence at the professional slurs inferred by terms like “spin doctors” and “flacks” etc. But luckily I have excellent clients who value my work and contributions to the success of their campaigns. Also luckily the bulk of my work involves public education about various topics I hold near and dear.

    Speaking of the APR – it is a valued and respected professional designation that requires not only a minimum of five years’ experience but successfully passing a gruelling written exam, writing the equivalent of a short thesis, and defending that thesis in front of a 3-person board of examiners. It was harder to achieve than my BA, B Ed, Marketing Certification (from McGill) or my (formerly CEF) Level I Coaching certification. Much, much harder.

    So – if you are considering taking a leap to the ‘other side’, tread gently and beware the too-high horse :) It’s a long fall ;)

  2. Pingback: My Homepage

  3. I always wanted to go into journalism but all my PR teachers came from the “trenches of journalism” and told me that the job market was so bad, I shouldn’t consider it. I graduated the year of the recession so I think it was particularly true at the time.

    Now I work in PR and I love it. It’s a industry going through a lot of change mainly due to social media and digital trends. Some people find that daunting but that’s what I find most exciting.

    The only spinning I do is on a stationary bike!

  4. Most companies have specialized groups of professionals for communicating with different audiences, such as internal communications, marketing communications, investor relations, government relations and public relations.

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