How to hire the best freelance medical writer
Looking for a freelance medical writer or medical communications expert? This guide explains everything you need to know to hire the best fit for your project.
Let’s revisit a familiar scenario for most public relations agencies. You’re sitting in a monthly capacity planning meeting when you realize, there’s no way you’re going to make forecast with your current team allocations, even if you all work 24/7. Your mind darts to the thought of borrowing capacity from another team or even a sister agency. Ugh…everyone else is in the same boat because there’s work peaks all around.
Or, maybe you’re client-side, and in need of a freelance publicist, social media manager, public relations specialist or creative to handle special projects or produce marketing assets. Either way, you want to engage a fantastic freelancer, but HOW?
While in-house communications or marketing heads tend to create their own freelance public relations jobs, with PR agencies, HR is generally in charge of making hires. Without a deep understanding of the clients or expertise required to execute the work, their well-meaning efforts often yield a warm body with availability that only looks good on paper. However, more discerning criteria is required to avoid hiring the kind of freelancer that drains a budget with only a shoddy work product and your team’s frustration to show for it.
So, what should you look for? PR-it looks for a special combination of aptitude, talent and personal attitude when selecting freelancers across disciplines to invite into our collective:
Freelancers need to demonstrate superb skill, talent and experience in their area of expertise or speciality. With creative freelancers (web designers, developers, video producers, animators and graphic designers) this is relatively easy, as their portfolios can be viewed online. With freelance medical writers and copywriters, you can request writing samples or even ask them to take a writing test. However, freelance public relations specialists are tricky because there’s little available to show proven ability, work quality or project results.
For PR freelancers who specialise in media relations, marketing or social media strategy, you can request to see recent press coverage secured and a client case study with social media results that you can corroborate online.
For freelance social media marketing experts, it’s also worth checking out the expert’s social media profiles. While it can often be a ‘cobbler’s child has no shoes’ situation, it’s of course instant credibility if the freelancer has 10,000+ engaged followers on a social media platform. In our humble opinion, if an SEO freelancer isn’t on the first page or two of Google themselves, it’s unlikely they’re going to figure out how to get you there either.
At PR-it, we check client references that correspond with the work submitted to further verify skills, ability to work to a brief and of course, results. We think reference checking is absolutely critical to assessing any freelancer’s aptitude. Also, the reference collection process itself can serve as a screening mechanism. For this reason, we require a minimum of three references.
If you ask for references and freelancers can’t be bothered to submit them or can’t secure any, well that says a lot doesn’t it? Also, if all the references are from before the expert went freelance, that can also be telling.
PR pros may function well in a PR agency environment or even client-side, but may not have been successful in cultivating the business or industry experience required for freelancing. Firstly, there’s lots of places to hide in a team if one is lazy or skilled at managing up, but once you’re on your own, you got to roll up those sleeves and actually do the work.
If experts can serve up three relatively recent and glowing references, that’s a great start. Now it’s time to check the references they didn’t give you. Take a look at the expert’s resume and/or LinkedIn profile, are there recent business contacts they did not supply references from? If yes, is there anyone in your professional network who may have worked at the same place at the same time? If the feedback from these people corroborate the references provided, that’s a good sign. If not, well, now you at least have a fuller picture of that person’s limitations so you can make a more informed decision.
When you’re hiring full-time salaried employees, it is often argued that attitude is even more important than aptitude. You can invest in teaching eager professionals the skills and processes required to be successful in PR, marketing, communications and creative industries, but you can’t change whether they have a good attitude or not.
However, when you’re hiring a freelance PR or social media management expert (or any other expert), its critical they have aptitude AND a good attitude. Even if you find the most talented freelance PR expert in the world, if they have a poor attitude, they’re not going to be great with your clients or teams, will probably struggle to deliver to a brief and will not be open to feedback. Conversely, if a freelance PR expert is a ray of sunshine, but doesn’t have the know-how or experience, that’s not going to work out either. The last thing you want is to get into a partnership where you’re redoing the freelancer’s work or they’re absolutely miserable to collaborate with.
At PR-it, we look for the following qualities in our independent communications experts after aptitude, passion and know-how: acts with integrity, reliable, great attention to detail, takes ownership of projects, intrinsically motivated, responsive, service-focused, solutions-orientated, polished/professional, exercises good judgment, flexible, intellectually curious, up on industry related news and of course, nice. No one wants to work with a jerk!
So where do you find these unicorns? Well, for one thing, they’re generally not hanging around on marketplaces like Upwork waiting for project opportunities that are going to pay a cut rate. Most freelancers who specialize in writing, PR or other related disciplines get booked up for months and often before they even finish writing the job at hand. The industry is fairly small, especially if you’re looking for experts with sector specific experience like healthcare. Word gets around as to who’s good and who’s not.
The best thing to do is to vet freelancers and establish relationships before you urgently need services from them. This way, you’ll at least have a bank of contacts to reach out to when a need for services arises. Also, freelancers tend to work with contacts they already know or contacts of contacts because they tend to have more of an idea of what they’re getting into and greater confidence they will get paid.
However, even after you’re a trusted contact, it can still be very competitive to secure availability. At PR-it, we function like a resource pool so we flex with changing timelines, tasks, and scopes from a variety of agency and company clients. This is how we’re able to staff projects on-demand with very high-caliber, seasoned freelancers.
From media mavens to crisis conquerors, freelance public relations consultants can handle it all. That is, as long as they have enough experience under their belts. You’ve heard the conventional wisdom that one needs 10,000 hours to be an expert? Based on our experience, 128,000 hours or seven years’ industry experience is a good minimum for public relations. At seven years, PR freelancers have generally amassed enough knowledge to be self-starters, lateral problem solvers and can work autonomously.
Sometimes a public relations specialist goes freelance before they should – they don’t have enough PR industry or sector experience to produce work that is both considered and immaculate. Conversely, some experts go freelance after holding senior management positions, so they’re not close enough to the work anymore to actually execute the strategy, even though their advice may be as good as gold.
Here’s a list of freelance PR jobs that experts with seven years (or more) experience should be able to help you with on top of developing a PR strategy or integrated communications strategy:
Establishing and maintaining relationships with journalists and media outlets including developing a media strategy (and targeted media list), pitching stories to the media, coordinating interviews, preparing / media training spokespersons and reporting media coverage.
Writing press releases / media alerts and developing copy for media materials including infographics, fact sheets, backgrounders, etc.
Writing blog posts, articles, white papers, case studies, social media posts, etc (and repurposing them across social media platforms). And now with AI tools, freelancers should be able to churn out high quality content even faster. Freelancers can also develop content marketing strategies and content calendars in addition to creating and scheduling posts, engaging with followers, and monitoring social media analytics to track performance.
Providing strategic guidance and developing crisis communication plans to navigate sensitive situations, manage public perception and communicate effectively with stakeholders.
Planning and executing logics for press conferences, product launches, trade shows, or networking events.
Identifying and building relationships with influencers and content creators, coordinating collaborations / sponsorships and managing campaigns.
Positioning clients as industry thought leaders by securing speaking engagements, contributing guest articles to industry publications, and developing opinion pieces or expert insights.
Monitoring for media coverage, tracking mentions of a client or their industry, and providing analysis and reports on trends to facilitate data-driven decisions.
Developing or refining a brand identity, messaging framework and key talking points to ensure consistent communication across channels.
In the PR agency setting, freelancers are generally on termed contracts where they work four days a week 9-5 for three to six months in an agency’s office. Agencies often try to hold on to the really great ones long term by continually renewing the termed contract making them “permalancers.” While IR35 is bound to put an end to permalancing in the UK, termed contracts for freelance work will probably remain the norm since PR agencies on the hourly billing model, budget and plan based on available hours.
The thing is, the termed contract approach is doing both freelancers and agencies a disservice. Experts become freelancers for many different reasons, but none of them involve doing the job they previously did as a salaried employee, but without the benefits. Most desire lifestyle flexibility, project diversity and remote working – three things that aren’t normally associated with a termed contract job.
On the other side of the coin, you have the account leads who are often left scrambling to find billable hours for freelancers to keep them occupied between the deliverables they actually need their support on. We often hear that freelancers do a lot of “mopping up” type work as even the press releases and marketing campaigns are given to the juniors on the team to hone their skills. This means that the agency isn’t getting a good value out of the termed contract and the expert probably isn’t having the best freelancing experience either.
A project-based approach is more cost-effective for agencies and satisfying for freelancers. Most businesses (i.e. companies or global brands) already take this approach even though they sometimes struggle with availability due to agency or brand-related termed contracts.
After experiencing the freelancing dilemma both agency-side and client-side, PR-it was founded so both healthcare-focused agencies and companies / brands can access the best freelance talent across disciplines on a cost-effective project-basis. If you’re looking for a public relations freelancer or other type of freelance expert, please drop us a line.
While you’re here, you may also want to check out our guides, How to hire the best freelance medical writer or Do you need a medical communications agency or a healthcare PR agency?
Post originally published 26 April 2021; last updated 31 May 2023.
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