Covid-19 has accelerated the long-term trend of freelancing. Growing numbers of American workers, including those in public relations, have embraced freelance work, also called gig jobs. About 57 million Americans were freelancing in late 2019, according to the Freelancing in America: 2019 report from Upwork and the Freelancers Union. Freelancing income totaled almost $1 trillion, approaching 5% of U.S. GDP.
Many PR pros dream of life as a solo PR consultant, at least occasionally. They imagine working from home in their pajamas, setting their own hours, and attaining creative freedom. Now, some PR pros have been forced to live the freelancing dream as communications agencies and corporate PR departments slash spending and lay off or furlough workers.
Recommendations for Successful PR Freelancing
Paperwork first steps to creating a business. First complete set up of your independent business be it a sole proprietor or LLC, recommends Kathy Keating, founder of ProsInComms. An online service like Incorporate.com may be easier and cheaper than a lawyer. Obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN), fill out a W9 form, and plan to pay taxes quarterly. Get a business checking account and a professional email address. Creating a website can building credibility and attract clients.
Ask yourself this question. Arik Hanson, principal of ACH Communications, recommends first asking yourself how long you plan to freelance. If you’re in it for the long haul, consider a business plan with short- and long-term goals, and specific product offerings. But if you just want to freelance to survive during the pandemic, you may just seek smaller projects and not bother developing a larger brand presence or even to build a website.
You can do contract work with your Social Security number. The employer will provide you with a W-9 showing the income paid. The employer will not withhold income tax or Social Security payments. The contractor must pay both the individual’s and the employer’s portion of Social Security withholding. That’s one reason why hourly rates for consultants or freelancers are higher than for employees.
Network. Contacts are often a main source of job referrals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your network can be a source of helpful advice as well as work assignments. Ideally, communications pros who become freelancers have already built a robust professional network. Networking may be more challenging during Covid-19 due to the lack of in-person events.
“You just can’t start networking when you need something. Networking is an ‘always-on’ proposition,” Hanson says. “And, if you’re going to try the solo consultant thing, hopefully, you were already doing a fair amount of networking.”
Investigate government resources. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes financial benefits for freelancers such as loans and unemployment benefits traditionally reserved for salaried employees. “For the first time in history, under the federal stimulus package, unemployment will now cover freelance workers,” Rafael Espinal, president of the Freelancers Union, told Fortune. “This will inject needed money for workers to get by. Of course, it won’t cover all expenses, but it’s a start.” The benefit may become permanent in the future, Espinal says.
Define your niche. Find your strength and sell yourself as a specialist. Touting your skill as “strategic communications” is too vague. “Initially, I was driving myself crazy trying to stay up-to-date on every facet of the PR and marketing industry,” states Dotti Gallagher, owner of Dotti Gallagher Consulting in the PRSA’s Public Relations Tactics Newsletter. “I’ve since developed a clear mission, vision and focus for my business. I’ve learned to walk away from prospects that aren’t a good fit and to partner with other professionals who offer expertise that I lack.”
Consider pro bono work. Performing pro bono work for nonprofits can help PR pros expand their networks, enter new markets, sharpen their skills and obtain professional recommendations. Pro bono work also provides a sense of satisfaction from knowing you made a difference in your community. Keep in mind that pro bono accounts require all the attention and dedication that’s required for business accounts. Poor reviews or lackluster publicity will ultimately harm your attempts to build your reputation or gain new paying clients.
Research your fees. Research your market to determine realistic fees. Then stick to them. Walk away from prospects who cannot or will not pay your standard fees or that otherwise aren’t a good fit. Nonetheless, you may have to rethink your fee structure if you continually get pushback, even from well-heeled prospects, or have lost multiple assignments to other freelancers because of cost.
Outsource. You can’t do everything – and shouldn’t do the things you’re not good at or that are very time-consuming without much return. Outsource tasks such as media monitoring and measurement to independent services that can deliver real insights at reasonable cost. Find a way to add value to the outsourced services so that you can mark up their costs.
Bottom Line: Communications professionals joining the ranks of freelancers due to Covid-19 face some tough challenges, and it’s not certain how many will remain freelancers over the long-term. These recommendations from industry leaders can help PR pros launch successful freelance businesses.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.