Self employed. The first time I wrote those two words in the space that asks for “Occupation”, I couldn’t help but smile. After 28 years of working for others, this was the first time I was able to say that I now worked for myself.
Don’t misunderstand. I wouldn’t change a thing in my career even if given the chance. I was very fortunate to be able to apply my college degree (Speech Communications, Auburn University ’81) in my chosen profession. But being able to apply that training and knowledge in a self employed manner is different – good, but different.
I began my career as a cub reporter hammering out stories on a black manual Underwood typewriter. I did “rip and read” newscasts for radio stations, and I called in sports scores at college games. A public relations opportunity soon presented itself at a mid-size Chamber of Commerce, when good ‘ole DOS systems were being introduced with those black screens – such a design no-no these days!
Over the next 20 years, I served as public information officer at a small liberal arts college, senior account executive at a large public relations firm, public relations director for a large nonprofit and vice president of communications for a publicly traded company. While not all smooth sailing, these experiences were priceless and made me the general public relations strategist and counselor that I am today.
After working in all those environments, I was ready to go solo without the safety net of a paycheck every two weeks; without colleagues to go grab some lunch; without the constant audio stream of phones, pagers and PA systems; and most relevant to me, without the stress of having to repeatedly explain a public relations strategy to decision makers unfamiliar with the profession.
So I quit. I started squirreling away my money and eventually gave my 30 days notice. I was on my way to being my own boss. However, if I didn’t have the full support of my husband – a critical step to a successful transition – I wouldn’t be writing this article today.
On my founding day of January 1, 2001, I had no office space, no clients, no business cards and oddly (or perhaps naively), no worries. The only thing I did have was a strategy which included the following:
- Networking – I met with former supervisors, co-workers, PRSA colleagues and business contacts to remind them of my capabilities and ask for referrals.
- Volunteering – I continued to volunteer for PRSA and other opportunities involving public relations, college students, mentoring and the like.
- Researching – I conducted due diligence with executive colleagues and other entrepreneurs to find out what worked and what didn’t work for them in starting their business.
This loosely defined strategy eventually gained traction. The economy was doing well, people were referring work, and I was learning how to sell myself, typically a very difficult thing for public relations professionals to do. Thanks to my salesman of a husband, I learned a lot about sales techniques and human behavior that are invaluable to any professional.
For anyone considering starting a public relations practice, consider the following:
- Establish Parameters – From day one, I knew my company would begin and end as a one-woman practice. The only growth I seek is for business. Outsourcing and partnering work for me as needed. Many colleagues have grown their staff when times are good only to downsize them when things change. While money can talk, listen to sound business counsel – and your gut.
- Quality over Quantity – I made this my mantra decades ago, and it still holds true today. Although you have to pay the light bill, you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity for a client who doesn’t appreciate your skills and value for the sake of a paycheck. I learned the hard way that the nickel-and-dime clients cost more in time, lost sleep and stress than it’s worth when you finally do get paid six months after the project completion.
- Be True to Yourself – There are two types of clients I choose not to work with for personal reasons. If I don’t believe in their mission, how am I supposed to influence others to do so? Don’t try to fit into a space because the client and money are enticing.
Entering my 14th year as an independent solo practitioner, I’m blessed to still be around despite changing economic climates, client mergers and bankruptcies and other challenges. But at the end of the day, I still smile when someone asks me what I do for a living. I proudly respond with “I’m self employed.”
Susan Hart, APR, Fellow PRSA, works with clients to help solve their business problems with public relations strategies. Based in Nashville, TN, Hart Public Relations represents healthcare, financial services, real estate and technology. She also is a director for PRConsultants Group, a national network of senior level public relations practitioners representing the top 50 markets in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Are you an independent practitioner or do you prefer to have a large agency behind you? There are many paths to PR industry success. Which is yours?