The Loneliness of the Long-distance Freelancer

Like many freelancers, I spend much of my time working alone at home.

A few weeks ago, I left my mini office to meet up with a client who has a workspace in a large building in Manchester city centre.

As I waited in the foyer and took in the sheer size of my surroundings and watched the dozens of people milling around I was struck how strangely alien it all seemed. Most days, I’m left to chew over the day’s events with my two dogs while the majority of my (mostly email) conversations are with people hundreds of miles away in London, most of whom I’ve never even met.

It also got me thinking about how, as a freelancer, you can keep faith in what you are doing or trying to achieve while facing up to the very real challenges of being your own boss.

The title of this blog is nicked from Alan Sillitoe’s novel The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and the film of the same name. The film poster’s byline, which even less-rebellious types with no interest in running can relate to, reads: ‘You can play it by rules… or you can play it by ear – WHAT COUNTS is that you play it right for you…”

So my question is this, how – as a freelancer – do you make sure your are playing it right? I’m not the type to get lonely but I do worry sometimes about the long-term effects of working alone. For example, what difference does it make to my creativity, productivity and willingness to explore new opportunities? I can measure my own success in the number of commissions/projects I secure each month or my annual profits but beyond that how do I know I’m really doing the best I can or achieving all the goals I could be achieving? Naturally, I can talk to other freelancers, network, and stay in touch with developments in my industry. But, inevitably, I still have to plough a lone furrow and hope it brings rewards.

I recently clocked up ten years as a freelance journalist, which is longer than I’ve been running, so I guess I must be doing something right. But it does get harder to keep pace with the competition.

Want to write a good press release? Then chew on this.

I was recently sent a press release about young people’s failure to get what they want out of life describing them as a generation of “could have beans”.

What’s this, I thought? A lack of carbs at breakfast has meant the under 35s lack the ambition and drive to achieve their dreams and goals?

Personally, I love beans but the “cringeworthy” typo (the PRs description, not mine) got me thinking.

I’ve worked in many newsrooms, fielding dozens of emails from PR people everyday, but I’ve also stood on the other of the fence trying to ‘sell in’ press releases on behalf of clients. So I’ve got a pretty good idea what works and what doesn’t.

Here are my golden rules when it comes avoiding a messy press release that will only end up the trash folder.

1. Make it newsworthy

Seems obvious, right? But it’s astonishing how many press releases I’ve received that don’t really say anything interesting or revelatory. You know, something like: “Survey says 70% of British holidaymakers enjoy taking summer breaks”.  If it isn’t new it isn’t news. Why is your story something that a journalist or producer should care about and why would people want to hear about it? What’s interesting to you/your client isn’t necessarily interesting to the public. Think carefully about the news hook and what your trying to say.

2. Brevity

Many press releases are just too long and overcomplicated. It’s important to watch the word count,  have a structure and not overuse stats – otherwise key messages can get lost. Don’t think adding unnecessary words will make you sound clever. Keep it simple and to the point. If you’re using an expert/academic to offer insight on a subject, their quotes should be relevant and easy to understand.

3. Know your market

Reporters are tasked with writing all kinds of stories, so if you want to grab their attention you have to know how they’ll pitch your story to their editors and why it’s relevant to their publication. Ensure you’re clued-up about previous stories, ongoing campaigns, and topics and issues that will interest their target audience. Emphasise how you can help them with the brilliant press release that’s just dropped in their inbox.

4. The pitch itself

Many PRs will have heard the ‘I’m a bit busy right now’  line over and over again. But with fewer reporters these days, it should probably be taken at face value. So try to make it clear what you’re offering in about 150 words or two minutes chat. You can always add more detail later on if a reporter shows interest. Cultivating a relationship can be crucial to the success of your pitch, so don’t mis-sell, mislead or try to tell them how to do their job. Follow-up emails and phone calls are fine – in moderation – and if they’re not interested all is not lost. Emphasise what you can offer in the future and learn about the kind of stories that will chime with their audience.

Do journalists and PRs still have a love-hate relationship?

When I started out in journalism more than 20 years ago PRs were viewed with great suspicion. Newsroom culture fostered a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality: us hard-bitten journalists knew what was newsworthy and what wasn’t, while PRs were constantly trying to spin stories or peddle some puff-piece. If I was interrupted by a phone call from a PR while working on a ‘real’ news story – perhaps about a dog that likes to swallow socks – I would often be dismissive and reluctant to give up more than a few minutes of my precious time.

Times have changed of course and so has the media landscape. There are now more PRs than journalists in Britain and budget cuts have changed the way news is broadcast and published. Fewer journalists has inevitably changed the way the media sources content and stories, as has the growth of social media. This has obviously presented more opportunities for PRs who want to pitch stories on behalf of their clients, with regional and national newspapers increasingly relying on their input.

It’s fair to say that many journalists, certainly the ones I know, believe the PR industry has become something of a behemoth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the old love-hate relationship prevails. Journalists, on the whole, are realists and have had to accept they cannot control the news agenda how they used to. However, they also want to work with PRs they can trust and who know what makes a good story instead of being offered poorly-conceived press releases which have been written more to please a client. Storytelling should be the industry watchword and PRs still need to cultivate good relationships with journalists if they want to make headlines. Many journalists have crossed over to the ‘dark side’’ (I’ve worked in a consultancy role for a PR company in the past) and this has also helped remove some of the suspicions about ‘bad’ PR.

Are journalists really only as good as their last story?

Has the old newsroom cliche that ‘you’re only as good as your last story’ still got any merit?

When I began my journalism career on local newspapers 20 years ago the newsroom was a very different place than it is now. Reporters adopted a long-term news-gathering strategy by nurturing their contacts, building relationships with public bodies, organisations and businesses and keeping an eye on developments on their news patch. They would religiously update their news diaries and rely on their instincts when reacting to breaking news and if a good tip came their way they knew the best way to ‘stand up’ the story and secure the sort of exclusive that would put in a smile on a news editor’s face. Moreover, a great story could top the news agenda for several days and produce several follow-ups, earning an eager newshound much kudos in the process. They could then bask in the glory of their success before putting their nose to the ground and sniffing out their next story.

But technology and social media have transformed the media world and with fewer trained journalists this has opened to the door to more PR-generated stories. News organisations use analytics to assess their performance so a journalist’s output, online clicks and social media reach are closely scrutinised. The job description has also changed and many reporters have to video, live blog and tweet as events unfold and act as their own news editor. The scale of some news sites means there is added pressure produce engaging web content every day while today’s 24-hour news cycle means the news agenda is constantly changing.

All this means that the cliche is still relevant but chasing the next big scoop has always been essence of journalism.