How to hire a freelance PR consultant

Finding and hiring a public relations consultant can be time consuming and full of traps for the inexperienced. If that’s you, then ten minutes reading the following advice will be well-spent.

Public Relations is an unregulated market, so anyone can call themselves a freelance PR consultant. There are no basic standards or requirement for professional qualifications. This means the quality of people you find can be anywhere on a spectrum from brilliant to hopeless.

Public relations also covers a wide range of activities. So, if you think a Google search is all it takes, prepare for an overwhelming choice.

I want to make the process easier, and I’ll do this by sharing what I think are the main things to consider. I’ll also provide some tips on how and where to focus your search.

This advice is based on my own, long experience of being hired to provide PR advice and support, and from hiring others in associate or junior roles.

Start with defining the problem

Write down the business challenge you need help with, and keep it specific, comprehensive and measurable. Put this into a ‘Request for Proposals’ document if that’s your style. Be concise – two or three pages should do it.

This first, crucial step means you must do some careful thinking before you begin searching. But the effort always pays off and will save you wasted time later. Avoid defining your challenge in vague terms such as ‘we need to increase sales’.

If that’s what you ultimately want your PR effort to contribute to, aim for something like this instead:

“We currently have 20% of the market for widgets and believe we can increase this to 30% or more in two years. Our customers are engineering teams in medium to large-sized manufacturing organisations. We already have a lot of customers in the automotive and aerospace sectors in France Germany and the UK, and want to win more. However, the real opportunity is in the pharmaceutical and other sub-sectors of the process industries in the UK.”

The above example is just an extract of the level of detail you should aim for. There will be other information to include.

Your challenge could be quite different. Whatever it is, you’ll see that using specifics provides information to help you focus on finding the best freelance PR consultant.

It also gives you the basis for your written brief to them, more on which later. Specific parameters offer your chosen PR consultant something to work with.

Sticking with the example given, they tell them:

·         High-level goal:  10% market share increase

·         Timeframe: within 2 years

·         Primary audience: engineering teams in firms employing at least 250 people

·         Where: UK process industries, weighted towards pharma

This still leaves some gaps, such as the all-important ‘How’. But that’s what a great PR consultant will help you create. It will form part of their recommendations, and the ultimate strategy and work plan you build together. On to our next step.

Identifying good people

Work your contacts: Arguably the best approach is to seek recommendations from your first or second-degree network. Great freelancers get most of their new work by referral.

Even if someone recommended isn’t quite suitable or available, they can often refer you onwards to someone who is. I specialise in B2B public relations, but there are good people in my network active in food & drink, travel, entertainment, public affairs, financial, technology and other PR specialisms. I’ve often passed enquiries over to them.

Ask a journalist: This is a variation on the above, although second best. Here, the standard drill is to pick someone senior in an editorial role at one of your target media and ask who they rate. However, there are some limitations.

Most journalists now screen phone calls. Getting to speak to one can be tricky, especially if they don’t know you. And if your call coincides with a deadline, it will be unwelcome.

Even if you do get to talk, some journalists dislike the idea of ‘shilling’ for PR professionals and will refuse to help. Others may be on opaque referral deals, tainting their objectivity.

Another limitation is that journalists can only judge a PR consultant in a narrow way, based on story facilitation and meeting deadlines. They won’t, for example, know if a consultant is competent in strategy or campaign planning. Equally, they won’t be able to say if they can manage and deliver against an agreed budget. Or work effectively with your colleagues, and many other important criteria you may have.

Public relations is about so much more than media and publicity. But if all you need is media relations support, this approach offers a reasonable way of identifying prospective freelancers.

Professional Groups: Both of the UK’s professional PR trade bodies offer match-making services. The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) once ran its own for members. It’s now outsourced to a web-based match-making platform called The Work Crowd, an offshoot of PR recruitment firm Hanson Search.

Any freelancer can register, not just PRCA members. It’s keyword-driven, just like all other match-making platforms, so has the same limitations.

In terms of quality-vetting, The Work Crowd asks for and validates references before a freelancer’s profile appears on its site. Although billed as ‘free’, any sensible freelancer will have built The Work Crowd’s 15% + VAT commission into their quoted rates. Clients also pay 15% + VAT of the project value if they hire someone. It could become expensive if you need a long-term partnership, rather than short-term project support.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations offers a membership search service called PRFinder. This is crude by current standards. The service hasn’t evolved in all the years it’s been around – at least ten. All it does is allow you to search using filters for UK regions and 12 specialisms.

During all my years as a CIPR member, only a handful of new business leads came via this route. Almost all were poor quality. To see if it has improved, I ran a test search for this blog post. Searching for a B2B public relations consultant in London produced just three entries. Only one of these was relevant.

The final factor that rules PRFinder out as a useful source is this: only a small fraction of the UK’s freelance PR consultants are members of the CIPR. It’s the equivalent of fishing in a puddle.

Niche communities: Facebook UK is a better option. It has a few PR groups: Freelance PRs with c1,900 members; PR Pros with c360 members; and Freelance PRs – Talented and For Hire with c2,000 members.

The latter is a vibrant, growing community of people advertising and seeking PR work, so would be the best one to start with. To avoid inbox overload though, always be as specific as you can. Include details such as likely time-commitment, desired experience, skills, start date and location.

SoloPR Pro is a US based, membership-funded community of independent PR consultants. It offers an online database search of its c140 members but this appears to be only slightly more sophisticated than the CIPR’s service. You can search by country, but my unfiltered test didn’t bring up any UK members.

It also has a LinkedIn Group with more than 5,000 members. But like almost all such Groups, it’s become a wasteland of self-promotion and zero engagement. Posting on there is unlikely to be worthwhile.

Recruiters: Not so long ago it was relatively easy to identify specialist PR recruiters. But the convergence of formerly separate marketing communications disciplines in the agency world is now reflected by recruitment. This makes the job harder today. There are also lots more smaller recruiters serving the PR sector. Some of them offer access to freelance junior to mid-level PR consultants. Very few can match you with senior freelance PR people.

Recruitment firms operating in PR are no different to any other sector. You need to work quite hard to separate out claims from facts, and good from bad. In all cases you’re paying agency commission of up to 30% on top of the freelancer’s fees. If you prefer to pay this premium to save time identifying freelancers yourself, you’ll still have to choose who to brief, liaise with each recruiter and read through a lot of CVs.

A new matchmaking service: PR Cavalry launched a few weeks ago and looks promising. It’s the brainchild of UK PR stalwart Nigel Sarbutts, an ex-agency MD based in Manchester. Its business model is like that of The Work Crowd mentioned earlier (free to use and register; fees apply after a successful search). Where it differs is how it works, which appears to be algorithmic than simple keyword driven.Being new and in ‘build’ mode, it’s unlikely to have the critical mass of registered freelancers needed to provide a great match for all client needs. But it’s worth checking out all the same and keeping a watch on.

Narrowing down your search and appointing someone

The chances of finding someone good and immediately available are slim, so start your search in good time. You might get lucky. Much depends on the scope and scale of work you need doing, and your timing. Following desk research, aim to speak with three freelancers by phone. Remember, this is a business partnership discussion, not a job interview.

They will be evaluating you too. They’re asking themselves questions like these: would I like to work with this person? How achievable are their goals and time frames? Are their expectations realistic, relative to their budget? Will they become a good, long term and profitable client; a great future reference?

Judge the freelancer on the quality of the conversation about what you’re trying to do. Expect constructive challenge. Don’t expect fully-formed answers at this stage, although they might throw in some ideas to rule in or out later.

Look at how they present and promote themselves online. If they do a poor job, what does that say about their capability to help you? Where do they rank in a Google search?

Don’t over-estimate the importance of who they claim to know, their knowledge of your sector and what they’ve done for others. These factors might be less important than you imagine, as I outline here.

When you’ve decided who is the best fit, arrange to meet them for an hour. The aim here is to finally nail down a decision. If the freelancer will be regularly work with a colleague, invite them along too. Always take up references from previous or existing clients.

Don’t ask for detailed proposals from multiple sources and expect each to pitch your company’s management team. The amount of work required to do this properly, especially at short notice, is huge and costly. It’s simply not appropriate for hiring a freelance PR.

Briefing them

I mentioned the importance of providing a written brief earlier. The discipline of actually writing things down forces you to think about what you’re trying to do. It also signals you are serious and professional to the freelancer, establishing your business relationship on the right footing.

If you’re unsure what the brief should contain, take a look at this guidance I produced on How to choose a PR agency a few years ago. Many of the points apply to hiring a freelance PR consultant.

I’ve chosen not to include advice here on using the growing number of freelance contractor portals such as People per Hour, and Upwork. They appear to be more useful for sourcing help with small, low-level and discrete PR tasks like writing a press release or a blog post.

They also seem to be driving prices down, which is not necessarily the good thing it appears to be. If you know differently, I’m all ears!

In addition to all the tips and advice covered here, you should also think about sensible measures like simple contracts setting out payment terms, copyright, substitution, etc,  NDAs and professional indemnity insurance.

Thanks for reading this far. If you’ve found this post useful please share it. You might also like to read my earlier articleon the differences between interim, freelancers and independent PR consultants.

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