Looking back, 2016 has been a great year for me professionally – with some definite highs, and only one or two lows. It’s not been a year about big client wins, or turnover. This year has been about me realising that I am in the right place, doing what I love, and in a sector that fires me up.
Being an Independent PR Practitioner is not easy. You spend most of your time working on your own, without someone at the next desk or office or cubicle to bounce ideas off, to sense check that what you are doing is actually what you should be doing. Independent Practitioners (IP) need to have the confidence to trust their instincts … and just run with them.
Sure, we can create our own support network (I highly value the people I meet through the CIPR and find the Freelance PRs group on Facebook useful), but by the nature of being ‘independent’ we work on our own. Even the most experienced and hardened PR bods find this hard to cope with at times and as I spend more and more years as an independent I realise that pretty much everyone (yes everyone, deep down) is just winging it!
Thinking about my nearly 13 years as an independent practitioner, I’ve learnt some valuable lessons. Getting to the point I am now has been a slow burn and I don’t even think I am exactly where I want to be just yet (this changes), but I am definitely on my way there. I hope that by reading this post, you can learn from me and have a career as an IP that you love and which enables you to reach your potential.
Here is my journey …
After 15 years as an in-house public relations person (with a six-month blip in an agency which was not my cup of tea), I became an IP and have spent the last 12 years (it will be 13 in April 2017) carving my own career path.
I started out in 2004 with the idea of advising exhibition organisers and as a white-label service for their exhibitors, how to maximise the PR potential and opportunities open to them. A contact set up a meeting with the PR boss of a major exhibition organiser to discuss my idea, but he squashed my hopes and dreams in one go. From the off he said there was no need for the service I proposed. I was crushed and dropped the whole idea.
Lesson learnt – don’t take one person’s view as gospel. I subsequently fund out that this guy felt there would be demand from exhibitors for PR support and advice, but felt threatened that his department could not provide this service and did not want his paymasters to think it could only be provided from outside the company. So, his view was nothing to do with me and my skills, but everything to do with him and his insecurities. I let this person change the course of my business – how naive was that?
Somehow, I fell in to providing PR, well, more marketing really, services to small businesses. When I say small, I mean tiny as in sole traders. This is a group of people who desperately need PR and marketing, but either can’t afford or don’t appreciate the long-term vision they need to have. I worked in this sector for the next ten years, met some amazing people, learnt a lot about me and business, and developed new skills along the way.
I began to feel hollow and wasted as this work was piecemeal and not of a type I could get my teeth in to. This sector tends to want short-term fixes not long-term solutions. I began to think that my skills and experience were not being used to the best of their ability and liken the work I was attracting as chicken feed – picking up scraps and bits and pieces. Although I got results for my clients, I knew that this was not the long-term solution to their success.
I am a strategic girl at heart, with tactical abilities. The problem I found with sole traders / micro businesses is that they just want to know that something is being done. It is not that they do not understand the value and importance of integration and working towards a common aim, i.e. a strategy, as I made it very clear to all new clients, it is just that they do not want to pay for one. This was summed up by the owner of one micro business saying: “So you expect me to pay you to tell me what you need to do for me!” Errrrm … yes … was my answer, and I walked away from this guy, he was never going to get the whole strategic concept I was offering..
Lesson learnt – stick to your guns. If someone really doesn’t get what you ‘sell’, move on and work with someone who will. Value what you know and believe to be right as to work for someone who does not value you will only slowly eat away at your confidence and make you doubt yourself.
At the end of 2014, I had a session with a business coach and one question she asked was the turning point for me. She asked: “Who is your ideal client?” My response was instant … membership organisations.
Membership organisations are a unique bunch (and as a PR person I do not use the word ‘unique’ lightly!), but when I looked back on my career, the work I enjoyed and valued the most was for membership organisations. The concept of ‘stronger together’ and working for a common goal as a collective is what lights my fire. So, at the end of 2014, I decided to focus my business on being a strategic PR consultant for membership organisations, and it was the best decision I ever made.
I have worked for membership organisations in my in-house career as well as as an independent, so the experience is definitely there. All those years before, I fell in to working with SMEs, but specialising in the membership sector is very much a conscious decision and it has really focussed my mind. I just need to make it work … and not fail.
This flexibility and ability to shape-shift is what I love about being an Independent Practitioner. I made the decision to focus on membership organisations, so that is what I did. Simples … I just needed to find new clients and move away from sole traders. That was two years ago now and I am more confident in my offering and abilities as I know I can make a long-term difference to clients in this sector.
I am a firm believer in things happening for a reason … although appreciate you have to give some things a nudge to help them along … but this quote (on a wall at the National Portrait Gallery) sums me up pretty well:
“My life just seems to take me where I’m meant to be” – Dusty Springfield
Lesson learnt – Do what you have a passion for. You will better serve your clients if they invoke fire and enthusiasm. Clients who make you feel empty will suck you dry and you will never do your best for them. It is hard not to chase the money and go for any job, but experience will tell you who are the blood-suckers and who will be a joy before you get too entangled with them.
As I said at the top, getting to the point I am now has been a slow burn and I don’t even think I am exactly where I want to be just yet (this changes), but I am definitely on my way there. Lessons learnt throughout my career have made me the practitioner I am today … are you the PR practitioner you want to be just yet?