Solo Story: How Independent Pros Are Revolutionizing the PR Business
In a month when the United States celebrates its independence, it’s fitting to also celebrate the roles of independent workers in the American economy and the solo pros within the PR economy.
According to the 2018 “State of Independence” report from MBO Partners, a firm that helps companies hire and manage independent workforces, 42 million people currently work independently in the United States. The report defines these workers as “contractors, consultants, freelancers” and “side-giggers.” Gallup puts the estimate even higher, at 57 million. MBO Partners calculates that those independents contribute $1.3 trillion annually to the economy, more than 6.7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and that 3.3 million of them earn more than $100,000 per year.
Independent PR professionals help run this economic engine, and are revolutionizing how work gets done. Independent PR consultants have the flexibility of gig workers but operate much like traditional agencies.
Solo PR pros serve clients ranging in size from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, working locally, nationally and internationally. Some independents are highly specialized, offering well-defined services such as crisis communications, media relations or content creation.
Independents may also offer broader services but specialize in specific vertical industries. Others may be general practitioners who offer a full breadth of communication services.
Independents work collaboratively with in-house PR teams and traditional agencies. The diversity and depth of the talents and skills that independent PR pros offer has challenged companies to broaden their hiring criteria beyond staff size and budget to focus on creating in-house and external teams that fulfill their needs. This may mean hiring a solo consultant or a combination of independents and traditional agencies that collaborate with your internal teams.
Independent PR pros are also changing how we define them, from the solo practitioner to the micro-agency. An independent isn’t really a one-person show — even those who manage all of their client work often employ support for administrative client tasks or specialized services such as web development or graphic design, to ensure that their clients are getting the best and most cost-effective work.
Some independents function as micro-agencies, employing contractors or strategic partnerships to serve clients. The micro-agency affords independents the flexibility to customize account teams based on client needs and to scale up or down as needed. This model lets them respond to market needs with in-demand skill sets.
The freedom independence brings
Another appealing aspect of independent work is that it lets you craft a career that maximizes your strengths and preferences. Freed from the confines of a preset job description, you can hone the skills that interest you most or add new skills quickly to meet market needs or expand services.
A study by consulting firm Korn Ferry predicts that by 2030, there will be a labor shortage of 85.2 million skilled workers around the world, resulting in lost revenue opportunities of $8.45 trillion. Highly skilled, flexible “solopreneurs” can help employers fill that gap.
As a new generation of leaders emerges, the efficiencies of the solo and micro-agency may be even more in demand. Just as younger generations eschew large homes and the motto of “bigger is better,” hiring independents is an efficient way to acquire the talent and skills needed to solve specific problems. This approach represents a shift from thinking of external hiring in terms of staff size or budget to optimizing spending based on priority needs, regardless of an agency’s size.
The challenge of the solo schedule
While the outlook for solo business is optimistic, independence does have its challenges. Freedom is the clarion call that attracts many to ditch the corner office for businesses of their own.
Yet, like many business owners, independents can find themselves working more hours than ever before and taking fewer days off. Even when working with a team, independents have a deep sense of accountability and can find it difficult to fully unplug, for fear there will be issues that need attention.
But the challenge of the “always-on” workplace culture can be overcome with careful planning and technology. Many solo practitioners have led the way by adopting a holistic approach to life and work, taking extensive trips that combine work and rest, and engineering schedules that are not the traditional 9-to-5. When you work remotely, your location is irrelevant, as long as you have access to the technology that connects you to clients.
Independents also must perform the non-client work needed to run a business, such as business development and accounting, functions that require consistent effort above and beyond billable hours.
Independent PR pros must also gain the confidence and expertise to handle their own sales, marketing and back-office tasks. Doing so can be intimidating for communicators who are experts at their own craft but have never been responsible for driving sales.
As it is for many companies, it can be difficult for independent PR pros to find qualified help. Independents often team up when senior-level support is needed, but sometimes they may require a more junior person for project-specific help or ongoing support.
Professional groups such as PRSA’s Independent Professionals Alliance and Solo PR Pro are invaluable resources for finding other experts and referrals for qualified talent, and for getting help solving problems. These groups also can help independents feel less alone as they grow and manage their own businesses.
Those who choose independence have battles to fight, but they can celebrate their independence every day.
Karen Swim is a strategic PR and marketing consultant at Words For Hire and the president of Solo PR PRO (www.soloprpro.com), a 10-year-old national industry-membership group that provides tools, education, advocacy and community resources for independent PR consultants.