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Updated: Jun 6, 2020

The creative, resilient and energetic minds of freelancers have long been providing a boost to the UK's economic sectors - notably the media and creative industries - making up a significant portion of business operations - and it's time for decision makers those who have the luxury of 'playing it safe' to be decisive and take on some of the risk.

Just because our strengths - a focus on output over time, the ability to build and maintain relationships quickly, cracking on to 'get the job done' and sourcing new work at short notice - mean that the way in which we work is flexible - it does not mean our value is reduced in the power dynamic of the current relationship we have with employers, engagers and the state.

Believe it or not - I'm sure I'm not the only freelancer to say that freelancing chose me - I didn't choose it. My personal strengths - creativity, writing and passion for the news agenda and building relationships over a short space of time - aren't compatible with doing the same thing day in day out with the same people in the same room. From experiences in my early career it can be stifling and unproductive - especially when office politics takes over because everyone has run out of ideas.

I identified I can add the most value to work across projects -making a commitment to learn new skills, build new contacts and generate better ideas as a result. Many non-freelancers are now realising they need to adapt more - work on a project basis, and now being forced to work from home - maybe you could learn a thing or two from how we've been working all along?

I've worked in many places where the creative energy and consistent stream of ideas from freelancers is valued when projects have stalled, or need new energy - and ultimately - results. So why then, has the covid-19 crisis revealed what some freelancers may have feared for a long time - there is a power dynamic at play and we are on the losing team?

Whether we are available at short notice to plug gaps in projects, or leading from the helm, our invaluable adaptability seems to dissolve into nothing, and it is not good enough to say we should carry this level of risk - as has been the case with the state's response to freelancers during covid-19. It's funny how our perceived strengths are used as the stick to beat us with when things go wrong.

Many freelancers flitter between PAYE, sole trader, umbrella, LTD companies - all coming with extra costs and deductions - some at the source of the paycheck - leaving them with no buffer whatsoever and in light of the current situation - for some - the inability to claim self employed support or employee furlough. It's been a nightmare for many and this will continue.

There needs to be a complete re-set.

After this crisis, freelancers will bounce back with their in-built resilience using their brilliant skills that have been callously undervalued, and undoubtedly, until there is state recognition for a freelance status (for all freelancers - which means none of this sole trader/PSC nonsense, with transparent taxation and National Insurance with some forms of protections built in by mandatory insurance or via the NI system) - those who do not show the respect and good will to the freelance workforce will be deemed less attractive to work for.

Luckily, unions like Bectu (who have a new media branch), the GMB and NUJ recognise the contributions and value of freelancers alongside the injustices they face each day (nevermind during a global pandemic). For anyone seeking advice, check their social media and get in touch with them. I'd also recommend getting fellow freelancers on a Whatsapp group for solidarity, to share experiences and get a sense of how your experience compares to others, with a view to seeking more advice.

Thank you to Bectu official Sean Kelly for providing insights for this blog.

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My first experience of internal comms was being the face of an internal poster campaign to promote resident satisfaction surveys at a local housing association. A Photoshop mock-up of a TIME magazine front page bore a photograph of me, holding a rainbow fan of colour-coded printed surveys with the headline 'TIME - to think about resident satisfaction'. A quick photo shoot courtesy of the marketing assistant and a blank office wall in my branded fleece and in no time at all my A3 laserjet printed face was plastered around the office; in the kitchen, by the photocopier and on finance department's door.

The posters served as a quick reminder to passing housing officers on their postal errands to encourage residents to fill out surveys for services provided by the housing association, from plumbing to income management, repairs and accessibility improvements.

My next stint at a national health charity saw a large internal comms team work on a number of projects that often lived and died in head office HQ (particularly after the regional offices closed), with the printed monthly newsletter just about getting to the pigeon holes of remote staff who used the office as a satellite. I believe moves to make the newsletter into a pdf were rejected by employees operating 'in the field' and whether or not the Royal Mail delivered the hard-copies to those unwilling to deal with inbox overload is another matter.

Working in agencies for the last five years has seen varying methods of internal comms. Generally, everyone works closely with similar roles and the only understanding that needs to be grasped relates to things like filling in time sheets, booking holiday, company away days and in-house training requirements. The focus of our efforts primarily goes onto client relations and external relations with media - monthly company face-to-face meetings iron out any wins and losses, promotions and departures, and then its quickly back to the cut and thrust of agency life. If you don't like it, make changes to make it work, or find the door.

But my work as a freelancer has opened my eyes to the importance of internal comms within organisations that look to practice PR in-house as an add-on to their core business objectives, both through becoming aware of how organisations act internally and externally. This relationship highlights how it's not just about the lines of communication open to colleagues to find out when the next summer away day is, but crucially, communicating the core values and beliefs of the organisation, how it places its people at its core, and of equal validity, what behaviour and conduct it expects of its employees. Because, nothing says crisis like having no documentation or practice of an internal culture which ends up bearing no relation to whatever external communications strategy is being fed to the media.

Good organisational PR starts with the employees. It doesn't matter what column inches you are grabbing with warm or established media titles and writers if you have 200 employees with no sense of cohesion or common understanding of their value, contributions or shared respect for their fellow workers. What is the point in investing in an all-singing-all-dancing media campaign if you do not invest in your people to have every reason to sing your praises? And no, getting staff to play the guitar and do stand-up in a team meeting won't solve the problem. Etsy, i'm looking at you.

People remember how you make them feel. If someone asks an employee what your organisation is like to work for, do you think they'll start with your amazing PR campaign in the Guardian, or the time when the HR department had no idea how to deal with harassment in the workplace?

I used to think internal comms was the poor cousin of external communications (less glamorous, slightly dull, and reinforcing brand identities at the expense of the individual, unless they were allowed to label their milk in the fridge), however, with organisations struggling to retain millennial work forces with a chasm of misinformation and lack of understanding between managers and this purpose, belief and value-driven generation, building the right foundations will ensure a stable and transparent organisational core.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Guardian Masterclass with Mark Leruste, an exciting life coach who's developed corporate reverse mentoring scheme (and talks, workshops and coaching) that directly facilitates junior millennial staff providing advice to management teams to build a bridge and fix lines of communication. For more information, get in touch with Mark at Also - make sure you check out his podcast The Unconventionalists.

#media #PR #internalcommunications #millennials

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I have been a PR freelancer for almost two years now. Often working from home on my own or from a number of different locations on a broad range of clients, I've become very focused on work-related output and goals and ever-more reliant on the wisdom received from people I consider to be mentors and leaders in PR since I embarked on this career path in 2010.

One of the benefits of being freelance is the external perspective I can provide to organisations, which has made me begin to reflect on the importance of the PR leaders who have made a difference to my career by challenging me to question my work and also to consider the future of where our industry is heading.

I feel strongly about making time outside of the working day to interview the people that have helped shape my PR path on this blog each month to encourage wider discussion around the industry and to inspire other PR people at different stages of their career to think about the bigger questions.

My first Q+A is with Jo Marino, Senior Freelance Communications Consultant, who I was lucky enough to work with at Way To Blue where Jo was Director of Consumer. This was an incredibly valuable time for me as she challenged me to unpack everything I thought I knew about storytelling and the role of PR in doing this well. I shall let our chat do the talking!

How important has mentoring and having role models to look up to been in your career and is it important for it to be ongoing?

Yes, I think it’s hugely important as having a good role model gives us an alternative reality with which to question how we approach things and what our barriers may be that are stopping us thriving. When looking for role models, I think it helps to not only look up but also to look from side to side and below us in the hierarchy. There is much we can learn from those who have been around a while but equally there is plenty to learn from those who have been in the industry for much less time and are therefore less jaded. Ours should not be a linear profession (although the management charts would like to tell us differently) as we can, and should allow ourselves to be inspired by attitude, outlook and creativity wherever it grabs us. There is often too much competition at a peer-to-peer level which can stop individuals buzzing off the most relatable role models.

The reason ‘360 degree’ role models are important is we must never stop learning to be better PRs – there is never a time, ever, in your career when you will know everything. I got asked in an interview recently what I wanted to learn more about. My answer was brand strategy. The interviewer’s response was ‘Why, are you not very good?’ I found this peculiar and replied that I thought it was actually one of my strengths but that we should never stop looking to learn and especially not in those areas where we believe our talents to sit. So look up, look down, look sideways, learn and keep feeling challenged and inspired by whoever floats your boat, regardless of job title.

Mentoring is plays a different role and, done well, is probably one of the things that will keep you sane in this industry! But it needs to be consistent. The majority of us PRs are emotionally charged, that’s what makes us good and what we do. This can have a down side though in that we can start to believe our own hype – both good and bad. A good mentor will act as a leveller when you are maybe riding the wave a bit too fast but will also pick you up by your boot straps when you crash and burn. I’m lucky enough to be married to my mentor (but you don’t have to take it that far!) and his best advice, which I come back to time and time again when the sh*t hits is ‘You don’t suddenly become a bad PR’. A good mentor should be similar enough to get you but not too similar that they join in your ‘GAH’ moments with a ‘GAH’ of their own. I’ve never felt that a mentor needs to be the same gender in order to get me. Personality fit, generosity of time and spirit, an interest in having a long term connection and a level head are far more important factors in getting the most out of a mentor relationship. And I think it’s important to remember that, like friends, there are such things as bad or toxic mentors who can want to mould you rather than letting you grow into your own PR, rather than theirs. If you think that’s the case with someone in a mentor position, cut and run as what this industry needs the most of is individuals with their own defined sense of individualism and creativity

What do you love most about working in PR?

The variety, the people, the crazy jobs and the buzz when an idea hits or indeed doesn’t hit….or a crisis strikes and the team need to pull together at a lightning speed to pull it off. Those are some of the best days in PR as it’s when you get to see the grit at the heart of a good PR team in terms of tenacity, team spirit, idea generation and commitment. And nothing beats the high of pulling a job off against all odds!

What do you view as the biggest changes for the industry?

The rise data and how this affects storytelling. A middle ground has opened up for agencies in terms of ownership of this storytelling and we are seeing the old hierarchies between PRs, AD and marketing people break down as a result.

It’s great to see agencies – like Taylor Herring with their Samsung TV Ad – being bold enough to cross the blurred lines in terms of content creation but for me there is a watch too and that’s the fact that not all content is created equal. I love a bit of an insight and data is an extremely valuable tool for drilling down and getting to a kernel of an idea but we mustn’t forget our editorial roots in the process.

I think that the term ‘storytelling’ has become one of the most mis-used phrases in our industry to a point where it’s become a bit meaningless. So much of the content out there lacks a strong narrative and my feeling is ‘it’s the data what’s done it’. A story that really resonates goes beyond the data and back out into the world and layers on observation, gut and instinct. To relate to a story, you need to be able to feel it.

For me, it’s not just storytelling – a tale that carries you away in a book, it’s editorial storytelling - a piece that grabs you for its relevance to the world you live in now – that’s the heartbeat of our industry and one of the biggest distinctions, and assets, we have to sell.

Why do you think so many women work in PR yet are underrepresented in the board room?

Our reproductive systems! It seems to me that there are so many talented women who are making the choice between going all the way to the top and seeing their kids occasionally. There are some great companies who are embracing flexible working (for both genders) and all credit to them. However, there are still too many agencies and PR departments in our industry that equate not working full time with a lack of commitment. Not every women feels this pressure of course but there are women being pressured in our industry to either go against what they feel is the right balance between work and family or opt out of the upward trajectory. A defining memory for me was when the response to a discussion on flexible working (from a recruiter I might add…not dissing all recruiters here as there are some great ones flying the flag for flexible working but then again there are plenty that aren’t) was being told that kids don’t really notice if you are not there (they do!). The other issue here is the art of paying lip service to flexible working arrangements. Again, far too often I hear women say ‘Well, four days a week isn’t really full time as you do the fifth day anyway’. So we may be our own worst enemies here by feeling the need to squeeze a five dayer into four days but this is also driven by industry culture. The problem here is that we keep trying to do the big squeeze and either get so knackered or so disillusioned that we opt out. I know this is a bit of a rant but I don’t think it should be an either or. I’ve worked flexibly for 12 years and done some of my best work in that time and I believe this is because my world has expanded beyond the necessary grind of the office. I would imagine this is the same for anyone (male or female) working flexibly whether for reasons of family or a passion point…or both!

What can all leaders – men and women do to change this?

Ditch the presenteeism and build trust between employers, employees and teams. A few years ago, my team and I had to work remotely due to an office issue (long story!). What did I learn about my team mates? It validated what I knew already, which was they were one of the best bunch of people I had ever worked with, but it made me realise something too - not only their amazing resilience and resourcefulness but also that their creativity, client service, team work and collaboration didn’t diminish just because they weren’t all in an office together. Each person in the team knew what they needed to do to keep the ship moving and had a huge respect for the part they played in doing that. This led to a strong sense of trust that all the work would get done, and it did. We live in an incredibly connected world but pockets of our industry still seem to measure dedication by bums on seats. What I learnt through our ‘out of office’ time was that if you have trust you have everything you need.

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