Let’s revisit a familiar scenario for most public relations agencies. You’re sitting in a monthly capacity planning meeting when you realise, 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 specialist freelancer to consult on strategy, handle special projects or produce creative marketing assets. Either way, you want to engage a fantastic freelancer, but HOW?

 In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • What to look for in a freelance PR consultant (or any freelance expert for that matter)
  • How to find top-notch freelance PR experts (and other freelance experts)
  • Freelancer contracts for a public relations agency

What to look for in a freelance PR consultant

While in-house communications or marketing heads tend to own the freelancer selection process, with PR agencies, HR is generally in charge of making the hire. 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 looks good on paper. However, more discerning criteria is required to avoid the kind of PR professional 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 and attitude when selecting freelancers across disciplines to invite into our collective:

Aptitude

Freelancers need to demonstrate superb skill and experience in their area of 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, PR freelancers are tricky because there’s little to see or share to get a sense of work quality or project results.

For freelancers who specialise in media relations or social media, 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 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 if the expert is in high demand, it’s of course instant credibility if they have 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 a PR 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, especially for a PR freelancer.

If you ask for references and people 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. A PR consultant 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.

Sometimes people go 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 positions, so they’re not close enough to the work anymore to actually execute, even though their advice may be as good as gold.

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.

Attitude

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 and other 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 expert (or 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 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 experts after aptitude 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 and of course, nice. No one wants to work with a jerk!

How to find top-notch freelance PR experts

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 specialise in PR or other related disciplines get booked up for months and often before they even finish 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 them. This way, you’ll at least have a bank of contacts to reach out to when a need 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 and scopes from a variety of agency and company clients. This is how we’re able to staff projects on-demand with very high-calibre, seasoned freelancers.

Freelancer contracts for a public relations agency

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 by continually renewing the termed contract making them “permalancers.” While IR35 is bound to put an end to permalancing in the UK, termed contracts 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.

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 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 brands) already take this approach even though they sometimes struggle with availability, especially for PR freelancers due to agency-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 currently looking for a PR freelancer or other type of freelance expert, please drop us a line.

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