Lessons from running a successful PR business for 5 years

The fundamental reasons for the success of my PR business, which has just had its fifth anniversary, are being flexible, people skills, having the capacity to find positives in all work and people, a hunger to learn, an ability to collaborate effectively and humility.

Success of my PR business? Well, in many ways I feel like ridiculing that assertion. Running my own PR business, as a sole operator, was never an ambition. And sometimes the rapidly materialising precipice of no work and/or no clients and therefore no way to pay the bills has been emotionally exhausting and psychologically gruelling.

But if the bottom line of success is measured in two simple dimensions – making enough money to support my family and enabling me to make a reasonable contribution to society over the past five years (e.g. helping children in the Surf Life Saving movement and through football coaching) then, happily, I can definitely attest this has occurred.

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I don’t think my personality is the best suited in the world to navigate the travails and overcome the endless array of obstacles any business owner encounters, but by the very outcome of money made = evidence to the contrary, perhaps I am being harsh on myself.

In this post I contemplate some of the reasons for how I have been able to sustain my business over five years. In my next post I will talk about further reasons including people skills, the importance of a half glass full attitude, a hunger to learn, collaboration and humility.

Flexibility in PR consulting

If you are an inflexible person, then you will fail as a consultant, whether you work in PR or another field. A lack of flexibility in PR as a whole, not just consulting, will also be your undoing. You will struggle to advance in your career, because in many ways all PR professionals are consultants, including those who work in-house.

Here are some reasons why flexibility is a default requirement to be a PR consultant and/or run a successful PR business:

  • There are many different sorts of platforms and activities you will need to have knowledge of and the ability to implement. If your expertise is too narrow, you will reduce the opportunities where you can gain work. Examples include writing, media relations, social media and market research
  • Being able to deliver both strategy/strategic counsel and tactics. So you need to have strategic capabilities but also an interest and willingness to dig ditches, do the hard yards, as well as the capability to do so. This interest cannot be faked, because you won’t deliver quality outcomes if your heart isn’t in it and your client will easily detect it – and your client will want passion and alacrity or that is just SO much an EX-client!
  • Clients change their minds all the time. Unbelievable, I know, but it’s true… This is the nature of life, so you need to be able to go with the flow, roll with the punches et al or you’ll stress yourself out too much. With any luck (or brains) your arrangement is one where you are paid for your time, rather than getting stuck on that iceberg-fail of all consultancy iceberg-fails, a set fee (but that’s another story)
  • Reprioritisation is a normal part of PR consultancy life. And if you are a sole operator like me, then the only person you have to delegate tasks to is yourself. The upshot of this is that your personal life needs to be on the table as a reprioritisation negotiating asset. Your missus or man may not like that too much, and your kids sure as hell won’t, but as Clint Eastwood said, c’est la vie. (Clint may not have actually said that, but he was pretty big in France with all that auteur thing so it’s a feasible connection.)

Bird in the hand strategy

Flexibility came to me in another, unexpected way, too. And this involved the way in which work is structured:

  • I started out as being fortunate enough to have direct clients
  • Then one or two of those clients asked me to work in-house with them on a secondment basis for a certain amount of hours each week
  • Then I sub-contracted myself through a recruitment agency or a PR agency to work in-house for extended periods of time with organisations
  • And, finally, I contracted to a PR agency for quite a while as a de facto permanent employee.

All terrific experiences, but it just goes to show you need to be able to evolve into the opportunity. Conversely, of course, there is an argument for not being too flexible as it will undermine your positioning, your value proposition etc. I get that.

But my value proposition included two key elements:

  • Be flexible in meeting client requests to assist in sustaining a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship
  • Take concrete opportunities that are there in front of you and which are paying dollars, because I didn’t have the confidence to hold out for other opportunities, which may or may not have eventuated. This is otherwise known as the bird in the hand strategy.

If you have been running your own business, what do you think are the necessary factors to be successful? What do you believe to be the greatest challenges in running a business or consultancy? Do you have any advice you can share with me?

PS. A big thank you to the many people who have supported me the past five years, whether you are a client, someone who has referred me some business or who has shared some content I have produced through social media – it all helps!

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Every public relations professional is a PR consultant

Whether one works for a PR agency or in-house (within an organisation), the reality is that each of us has clients, works on projects, needs to generate new business and is strongly influenced (if not driven) by the need to make money/do business for our ‘clients’, making all of us, in fact, ‘PR consultants’.

 New business in PR is not a monster

This encapsulates one of the beautiful aspects of working in public relations: we are constantly in a position of being able to learn, to gain new knowledge. Every new project will provide us with information and insights we did not previously possess.

This gaining of new knowledge is acquired whilst experiencing another great wonder of working in public relations, interacting with people who we have not previously met and/or undertaken professional activities with. Which leads us to a third incandescent PR characteristic of deep allure, that of refining/enhancing/developing new ways of working and interacting to develop professional communication outcomes and/or capabilities.

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It is true, these three themes may be common across all professional disciplines, but I think there would be few which would achieve it as comprehensively as working in the discipline of public relations.

For me, at least, the act of undertaking public relations is deeplycollaborative and it is nearly always creative. The two feed into each other and the implicit brainstorming which occurs (whether it is ‘officially’ termed that or not) which results from interacting and collaborating is a further great joy of working in the discipline.

Clients in public relations

It is a fallacy that only PR agencies have clients.

In-house PR teams do not only look after the bigger picture of organisational communication.

In-house corporate communication teams have innumerable parts of the business continually seeking their support, guidance, insight and resources. This may be for:

  • internal or external communication needs
  • ongoing initiatives or short-term projects
  • sales-related, reputation-related or other needs
  • large groups, small groups or even single (e.g. ministers) stakeholders.

The multi-tasking required by in-house professionals can therefore be as extreme as working for an agency.

Collaborating with PR agency-PR team colleagues

The access to additional resources and expertise PR agencies possess is one of their most valuable characteristics and why it’s not a matter of if an agency will be required by even the most well resourced in-house PR team, it’s simply a matter of when – as well as how much of an agency’s time and expertise will be required.

This is because PR agencies of more than a few people possess a diverse skill and experience set. As a matter of course, agency teams collaborate with each other and rely on their colleagues’ unique skill sets to enhance the value the agency can offer to clients.

In many ways, this is not so different to working in-house.

Some of the greatest pleasures and best business outcomes come from in-house collaboration, whether with PR/marketing colleagues or with those who have no formal communication background or skill set. These colleagues may just happen to be deeply knowledgeable about the topic under discussion and/or possess insights about target audiences and/or simply have the sort of intellect which adds significant value to the communication process.

In fact, whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, sometimes a lack of communication experience, but a great deal of technical knowledge experience, can sometimes allow them to see the wood AND the trees. In either case, this lack of comms knowledge will often give them the confidence to challenge the communication solution and advice being presented to them, facilitating a greater rigour being applied to the final approach decided upon.

Projects – and their strategic value in public relations

Sadly, one of the chief characteristics of working in PR agencies is that most of the work tends to be project-related and/or peripheral to the generating of holistic, driving communication and marketing strategies. I say sadly, because for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of professional communication is devising the core strategy which drives all communication activity and is most central to the organisation and its business plan.

There’s plenty of positives, however, in being involved in work which is more project-driven in nature, not least being the diversity and opportunity to gain new knowledge.

Do not make the mistake of thinking simply because a communication program may be a project and hence involve limited and/or short term activity, that it does not have a lasting impact on the business. There are also, of course, projects which just keep on keeping on, some of which may involve limited activity and some which may involve considerably more than limited activity.

And the reality is there are always plenty of projects to work on in an in-house environment. Not everyone is employed to spend most of their time strategising and/or being a formal responsibility for leading teams of employees.

The importance of making money in public relations

It is fundamentally true that just as important to a PR agency as devising and implementing successful PR programs is making money (i.e. being profit/business-driven). There are two salient aspects to this:

  • If the PR programs are not successful, then it will make it hard for the agency to retain the business and/or generate new business
  • Without money an agency, just like any business, will cease to exist. The upshot of this being it is no great crime for an agency to make money – this is what keeps people in work and makes the world/economy go round!

What should be equally apparent (though I fear it is not quite recognised as much as it should be), is that unless in-house teams produce results which assist an organisation in undertaking some or all of the following, then it, too, is failing in its achieving its remit:

The first point is particularly salient, I think, as the commercial acumen and business savvy in agencies is often, I feel, sharper than that which is possessed by many professionals who have experienced only the in-house environment. Perhaps this is partially because you realise pretty quickly in an agency environment that if there are not enough clients and/or not enough revenue, then there is not enough money to pay salaries and hence you are out of a job.

Having a job or losing a job brings into pretty sharp focus the need to be business-relevant in the work you undertake.

Generating new business in public relations

An extrapolation of a couple of the points noted above is the need for both agencies and in-house teams to develop new business. I do feel this is a topic which is barely acknowledged within the PR industry:

  • It was not mentioned in any of the PR university courses I did
  • I can’t recall seeing it mentioned in any of the swathe of PR textbooks I waded through
  • And I can’t recall any lecturer ever bringing it up.

It’s not like it’s any great hideous monster which should – or can – be kept in the garret and only dealt with only on dire situations of great desperation. The reality – yes, for in-house as well as agency professionals – is that if we don’t generate new and/or repeat business then we’ll be out of jobs as there is no demand for our services.

I recognise that in-house PR pros have it easier than their agency peers in this regard, as sometimes colleagues have a metaphorical gun put to their head to deal with the corporate communication team. But let me put it like this:

If an in-house PR professional is perceived to be dropping the ball and not delivering up to expectations, it will not be long before the direction to the door is pointed out and a hefty shove helps propel them to said door.

Another prompt to that door and shove coming along is if it gets to the CEO or relevant decision maker that a series of potential corp comms internal clients do not want to deal with the corp comms team, then once again this will not lead to a propitious outcome for the professional communicators.

The in-house team must perform to an acceptable degree to create a desire to work with them, otherwise not only have they failed in one of their most important relationship management exercises (in which they are supposed experts, let’s not forget), but they will not be creating a demand for their services.

In an agency, it’s more straightforward: if you don’t generate new business (whether through gaining new clients or expanding on work being undertaken with existing clients), then two things will occur:

  • The money to resource your job will dissipate and your position will no longer be tenable
  • It will make it extremely difficult for you to rise above the mid-levels of the agency environment as it is default that seniors within an agency are expected to develop new business.

What commonalities do you believe exist between working in-house and in a PR agency which haven’t been mentioned above? Are there any purported commonalities noted above which you disagree with – why?

This post was stimulated from comments made about its overriding precept (that every PR pro is a consultant) by leading professional communicator John Rochester, a Director at Magnus Investor Relations and Corporate Communication – thanks John!

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Journalism and PR at odds?

Journalism is partially predicated on confrontation and divisiveness. In one word: conflict. The discipline, by default, tends to believe conflict is needed in the majority of stories told. It’s what sells ‘papers’ (or so some people think), what generates eyeballs and, these days, instigates the viral dimension.

In many cases I am sure this is true, as old school and tiresome as it sounds to a PR professional like myself. The question, however, is whether a professional schooled in this ‘half glass empty’ attitude can cut it in PR, which by default has a ‘half glass full’ mindset.

Listening to, empathising with and understanding the perspectives of others is a fundamentally important part of public relations. Then there comes negotiation, potentially applied to seek stakeholder and organisational change.

My presumption is that journalists are not trained as fully in these skills as PR practitioners and, just as importantly, they are not educated as to the relevance and importance of these approaches.

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Of course, anyone moving into a new field can learn these skills, but here is another presumption/observation I’ll challenge anyone to refute: most journalists do not study PR at university after they change professions.

A result of this is they will probably not understand the strategic power and potential of public relations to a sufficiently sophisticated degree. This is partially because on the job learning is simply not capable of replicating the intellectually demanding and rigorous environment of an excellent masters course in this or any field.

Journalism is a poor introduction to achieve organisational change

Organisational evolution is as important to PR as stakeholder behavioural change. Journalists can’t be expected to realise this or understand the strategic depth of PR and its capability of helping achieve this (to start with, anyway).

It takes education and practice to achieve this capability. I would not like to see PR become focused ONLY on stakeholder-focused awareness raising and behavioural change, at the expense of achieving organisation-stakeholder mutually beneficial outcomes, so (ex-)journalists will be dragging the PR chain in these latter aspects.

The big bonus of journos moving into PR

Clearly, the advanced capability of journalists to write and/or to tell a story in a compelling manner is their USP. And it’s one PR can absolutely benefit from.

Additionally, journalists are trained to not accept the status quo but, rather, to challenge orthodoxies and dig deeper to ascertain the crux of the issue.

And they frequently have plenty of experience in dealing with a range of people, from CEOs and politicians to the broader community. Similarly, many have reported on a diverse array of issues so have a strong understanding of society and, in some cases, specific industries.

And of course, due to their many media contacts, they will have an advantage in placing stories in the media.

All of these traits are highly valued in PR.

Sales skills needed by agency PR professionals

For anyone, journalists included, moving into a PR agency at a senior level, by default, involves the procuring of new business.

So, selling skills are highly valued. Journalists, not normally trained in this aspect, would do well to bear this in mind, no matter how the issue is positioned in the PR agency’s recruitment pitch. Not that you find sales as part of any PR undergrad or masters course I’m aware of, either – which is a whole other story!

With its greater remuneration and diversity of tactical dimensions, not to mention the societal benefit effective implementation of PR can have, I can certainly understand the allure of the discipline to those working in the media. All of us, however, should consider the ramifications of the two fields seemingly moving closer and closer together.

Collaboration between the media and PR is increasing by the minute, with the primary driver being the economics of contemporary media. Which in turn is being massively influenced by the internet and its star recruit, social media.

What do you think the impact journalists moving into PR is having, and will have, on the discipline? What are the positive outcomes for both professions? Can you give examples? Will the increase of trained journos in PR create opportunities for all parties, or lead to a diminishment in the value of public relations to business and undermine utilisation of its strategic heft?

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