Solo PR Pros Discuss Post-Pandemic Work Life
Strategies & Tactics asked members of PRSA's Independent Practitioners Alliance (IPA) Section about the challenges and opportunities for solo communicators today. Virtual roundtable participants included:
• Gina Blume, APR, president, Out of the Box Public Relations Inc., and chair, PRSA Independent Practitioners Alliance
• Mike Crisp, consultant, Crisp Public Relations
• Lisa M. Taylor, founder & chief strategist, Osprey Nest Enterprises LLC
• Michelle Young, creator, Bee Young Communications and Marketing
Here’s what they had to say about life as an independent:
What are some of the challenges facing independent practitioners today?
Gina Blume, APR: Independent practitioners are business owners — responsible for business development through the running of the business. The weekly LinkedIn polls I post (nonscientific) shed light on top issues.
Recent polling revealed 40% of respondents haven’t met their Q2 business goals, mirroring the top concern of business development challenges in a tough economic landscape. Other top issues include setting boundaries with clients, bookkeeping and legal matters, and keeping motivated.
Mike Crisp: The top issue hasn’t really changed for independent practitioners — it has only shifted. For obvious reasons, it can be harder for an independent to invest in basic technologies, whether it be media research tools or AI/machine learning programs. There are, however, creative ways to make up for that, the largest being partnerships with other practitioners — something that makes the PRSA IPA Section that much more important.
Lisa M. Taylor: There are many, one of which is the rising costs of the tools needed to do our jobs well. Tools such as media database subscriptions, media monitoring, bookkeeping programs, calendar and timekeeping programs continue to rise in cost. This can be overcome with a robust client base, but it would be nice if the owners of some of these programs had pricing for independent practitioners.
Michelle Young: During the pandemic, it seems like all the indies were busy. But since then, it feels like a lot of the indies I speak to aren’t as busy. Maybe it’s because of the economy. Maybe it’s because agencies are hiring more full-time staff. In addition, indies have to set up and manage everything business-related as they spin up — they create a logo, a website, contracts they use and more. It’s helpful if they have a good bookkeeper, accountant and lawyer. All of this is important when running a successful small business.
What other top-of-mind issues have you been addressing?
GB: My family recently relocated back to Florida, which, for me, was essentially starting my business again. The main focus is business development and recreating the network I left behind. A lot has changed since we last lived here, so I’ve been maximizing every opportunity to meet people.
MC: With the work-from-home boom of the past few years, more professionals are considering the independent life. I believe, 10 years from now, our industry will be dominated by independent practitioners and growing networks built around experience in specific industries.
Companies are more open to working with independents than ever, and I don’t see that changing. It is an exciting time to be doing what we do.
LT: Several clients have asked about when they should respond to social issues that are in the news cycle. They don’t want to be tone-deaf, but for a small business, making a misstep is even more costly than a company the size of Anheuser-Busch, for example.
MY: Contracts and scope creep. I start by making sure I set boundaries with each client’s contract. I negotiate and sign a contract with a clear scope of work. At times, once we are a month or two in, scope creep begins.
If I haven’t established clear enough boundaries, then I’m the bad guy when I have to say, “That isn’t part of the scope of work.” I constantly have to remind myself that agencies don’t allow scope creep so I shouldn’t either.
Everyone is talking about generative AI this year. What impact is it having on the work that you are doing?
GB: I embrace AI as a tool to help jump-start research and writing framework, but not as a replacement. We need to be proactive regarding the ethics surrounding this technology. Our role as PR practitioners is to create relationships for our clients and their audiences and convey value at the same time. The “talk” or fear is that AI will replace us, but [some futurists] also thought we’d be in flying cars by now, so I think we have a little more time on our side!
MC: The core impact of generative AI on independents doesn’t really differ from its impact on the rest of our industry. It is a new proficiency we all need to hone. Used properly, however, it will help independents become more competitive against large agencies due to the inherent time savings and pure market research potentials.
LT: I have embraced generative AI and am committed to using it ethically. I use it as a “first editor” of my written work, being careful never to use client names or proprietary info. I have some clients who are interested in seeing what it can do, but there are some who think it can replace what a communications professional can do. It cannot. It is a tool like many others that can create efficiencies, but there still needs to be a strategic thinker to determine the best communications strategy for a business.
MY: This spring, I started using AI to help me be more creative in blog writing and with social media posts. I don’t use it to do the work, but it helps me with ideas and brainstorming. I’ve only tapped the surface for how I can use AI in public relations, marketing and communications. I look forward to learning more about it in the coming months.
I recently met with several college students I am mentoring. I talked about how I used AI for ideas when writing social media posts. They didn’t know anything about using it like that. For once, I felt like I was ahead of their generation at least!
Hybrid work/return to the office has been a major flashpoint in recent months between employers and employees. Has this been a topic of conversation for solo practitioners, who typically work from home or in shared office spaces?
GB: The perk of being a solo practitioner is you are your employer, so RTO mandates are not an issue since we maintain our own office. However, during the corporate push for a return to the office, a majority of us still meet prospects via video meetings due to convenience, cost and time savings. Personally, after the pandemic-era lockdown, I prefer in-person meetings.
MC: Absolutely. While the work-from-home trend is new to many, most established independents have it mastered. Some of us have been working from home or in shared spaces for decades. I get questions from other professionals (not just in PR) monthly if not weekly on the topic — and it is something the PRSA IPA group discusses on a regular basis.
LT: Since outside agencies of any kind rarely work in a client’s office, this has not really been an issue. One benefit to independent practitioners is that younger colleagues are going out on their own rather than being forced to return to the office, which provides a wonderful new pool of talent with whom to partner on projects.
MY: I have worked from home for three-plus years. I have a dedicated office space at home. This has allowed me to service clients from coast to coast. I occasionally travel to visit clients. It’s great to visit at their offices and meet in person.
At the beginning of this year, I was lonely at times. I needed to be around people more. I didn’t need to be in an office working with other people — I just needed human interaction. So, I started “Work Away From Home Wednesday,” where I pick a place to go and work for a few hours. It’s been so refreshing. I don’t have any desire to go back to an office full-time, but I do love going out into the world once a week and working!
Is the advice you’d offer someone considering a solo shop different today than 5-10 years ago?
GB: I’ve been in business just over three years, but I’d counsel anyone to have a support network in place — a business adviser, accountant and accountability partner. I was fortunate to have a wonderful business adviser who provided daily guidance as I set up shop.
Outside PRSA, we have a twice-weekly virtual networking group that serves as a “board of directors” of sort. The diversity of experience provides counsel, laughs and recreates the water cooler conversation that many of us don’t experience working from a home office.
MC: No. The two core pieces of advice I would give today are the same I would have offered 15 years ago and will probably offer 15 years from now. Define your unique value to the markets you serve (marketing 101), as you will have to compete with firms much bigger than yourself. And focus at least some energy every week on broadening and strengthening your professional network. These two elements are the keys to success as an independent practitioner.
LT: I’ve only been a full-time independent practitioner for 2.5 years, but I also worked for myself for three years about 25 years ago. Boy, have things changed! Setting aside the differences in technology, one major change is the normalization of going independent and the level of support from the industry.
To anyone considering going independent: If you believe in yourself, are good at what you do, have a strong network of friends and colleagues, are willing to be uncomfortable, and willing to make mistakes and learn from them, then do it. Find a mentor or group who can help you along the way. Independent doesn’t mean alone. There are people out there willing to help you succeed.
MY: Public relations and communications strategy and tactics are so different from 10 years ago! Think about how we used to use fax machines 10-15 years ago, or social media now as compared to five years ago.
With the PRSA Independent Practioners Alliance, anyone who joins can find help from others completely out of their region or comfort zone at any time of day or night. When I first joined, and even today, I set up one-on-ones with different people in the group to get to know each other and get tips of the trade and learn how they do things. Those people are now my lifelong friends!
Managing Editor Amy Jacques compiled this edited virtual roundtable with the help of Gina Blume, APR, 2023 chair of PRSA’s Independent Practitioners Alliance Professional Interest Section.
The seventh annual IPA VirtuCon, titled “The Business of Your Inside Business,” takes place online on Sept. 27 from noon to 4:30 p.m. ET. To register, visit this link.