A bit of a treat for you all for edition number 24 of Work in PRogress, as we have a very special digital PR freelancer edition where we hear from not one but THREE of the best digital PR freelancers in the game.
Joining me this issue to chat all things shower songs, freelance life hacks and personal development were the wonderful Erica Vonderwall, Matt Lindley and Aliyah Loughlan. This interview is jam-PACKED full of insights and tips, so hope you enjoy!
What is your ultimate shower song? (The song you can give a 10/10 Grammy-worthy performance on in your shower on a Saturday morning)
Erica: Set Fire to the Rain by Adele, 100%. There’s absolutely no way I’d be brave enough to attempt this one at karaoke, but when it’s just me and my shower cubicle/recording booth, I deliver every time (I know this because the crowd goes wild).
Aliyah: If I’m feeling super confident and don’t care that my neighbours can hear me singing, then my absolute all-time favourite is Angie Stone, Wish I Didn’t Miss You. It’s an absolute belter soul-classic!
If I’m feeling something a little more upbeat, it’s gotta be Curtis Mayfield, Move On Up – god help anyone that hears me trying to hit those high notes!
What are your favourite things about being a freelancer?
Matt: My favourite things are being able to work as many or as few days as I want, being able to pick and choose the projects/tasks I work on, and having the option to work from anywhere. Weirdly, there’s also something refreshing about not knowing exactly how much I’ll earn each month and not having the rigid saving goals I used to have (I’m happy just to be in the green each month!).
In terms of tasks, I like pitching the media because the buzz of getting a link never gets old! During my six years at Verve Search I was involved in coming up with campaign ideas and that’s something I’d like to do more as a freelancer too.
Aliyah: I like that I can really mix things up being a freelancer – that refers to tasks, the location of where I work, when I work and the hours I do.
For example, the other day I woke up and realised I’d been working pretty hard for the past few weeks to a month – I decided to give myself a lay in, had a slow morning, went to the gym and grabbed some breakfast by myself. I then cracked on with the work I had booked in for that day a little bit later than planned. It’s great that some people are early birds, but sometimes I really work well later in the day! I like that I get to choose that on a daily basis.
My favourite task as a digital PR is outreaching. I know some people find it a bit monotonous, but there’s nothing better than launching a campaign you’ve been working on for weeks or months, building a relationship with a journo and gaining that coverage and links off the back of it!
My other favourite thing to do in digital PR is training – I offer group training and 121s and it’s so fun to explain the entire digi PR process to a newbie and watch them fall in love with the creative industry.
Erica: Oh man, without a doubt the best part is being my own boss, and managing my own time. I don’t ever feel strapped to my desk, nor like I can’t just take a longer lunch or log off early if I need to, because so long as I deliver what was tasked, it’s all good. The freedom is unreal, and has made me happier than I could have ever imagined.
In terms of actual work, I do lots of different things in a week, which means I’m never bored – which is great! I have one client where I lead on all PR, so that keeps me on my toes, looking for reactive opps and stories to comment on, which is a rush! I’m more into the creative side of things, so I love writing press releases and onsite copy, as well as coming up with fun ideas for my clients!
What are your top 3 tips for anyone considering a career as a freelancing digital PR?
Aliyah: Speak to other digital PR freelancers – the amount of people that slide into my DMs asking for my advice and tips is insane. Asking other freelancers is helpful because it gives you and idea of what is going on in the industry, price rates and what you should be doing and when
Know that things will be okay – our industry is massively booming. Think of the amount of roles that are constantly being shared by agencies out there and how many businesses are looking to start digital PR…taking the leap to freelancing is scary, but it’s important to know that things will be okay if freelance work dries up. There are always other jobs out there and you don’t have to stick to freelancing. Try it for a few months and jump back into employment if it’s not for you – we’re in an exciting time with our industry where you can be exploratory and work out what works for you
Establish your goals early on – work out why you want to freelance, and then mould your work-life balance around that. Are you freelancing because you have kids and want to have the flexibility to work part time? Do you want to work over hours and earn more money for a certain goal you want to achieve? Maybe you just want to explore your capabilities and trial self employment life out? Working out your goals will help you establish how much work you take on, the clients you work for, and how you want to live your life as a freelancer.
Erica: Don’t overthink it. The thought of leaving a full time and secure job is SCARY, so sitting in that scariness will do nothing but cause stress. Life is too short to stay somewhere you’re even minorly unhappy, so just do it.
Network with other freelancers. When I went freelance, I only knew one or two others in my specialty, and so when I had questions, it was tricky to get the hive mind response I was used to. So, I networked my butt off and got to know other DPRs who were freelancing, and now we have a really lovely community space where we chat, share ideas, ask for advice, share work opps, etc. We all work for ourselves, but we share so much with each other, it’s like we are all working together.
Know your worth! When I started out, I was really scared (see point one) of not finding work, that I undervalued my contribution. I took whatever was available, said yes to everything that came my way, and overworked myself “in case the work dried up”. The work is not drying up, and though I’ve only been doing this for less than a year, I know there is no way it is going to. This industry is THRIVING, and it’s such a fast paced one that new clients are getting in touch almost every day. Know how valuable your skills are, show how valuable YOU are, and then charge your worth.
Matt: Just get started. While it’s great to have a personal site, you don’t necessarily need one when starting out as a freelancer. Because of our tight-knit community, I found a tweet was all it took to get some enquiries, and then referrals have come via word of mouth from there.
Consider tax software. It could be worth investing in some online tax software to make generating invoices and filing tax returns a bit easier. In Germany I use Sorted and will probably look for something similar when I move back to the UK in the near future.
Find yourself a mentor. If you know someone who’s been freelancing for a while, see if you can arrange a call with them to discuss any questions or concerns you may have. Big shout out to Mark Johnstone who made time for me when I was getting started and also sorted me out with my first freelance gig!
What’s the most difficult part of being a digital PR freelancer?
Erica: The admin. It’s not for me. I recently took on an accountant as that is one whole area that does not interest me in the slightest (I mean, I like the money, I don’t like the paying tax part), and I’m considering a VA to help with the rest of the admin that I don’t like doing (mainly sending and chasing invoices! Which is another really tricky part of the job – it happens a lot!).
Matt: I sometimes miss the camaraderie of working for an agency, having lunch with my work buddies, and generally feeling more a part of something. I think this is exacerbated because I’m freelancing from another country where I don’t speak the language or know many people, though, and should be less of an issue when I move back to the UK.
Aliyah: I’d say the most difficult part about being a digital PR freelancer is juggling multiple different agencies’ email accounts and campaigns at once. For every agency I freelance with, I get an email created – imagine launching multiple campaigns a week, for multiple different agencies/companies and then having to regularly check them and send updates. I have to keep a tracker going so I can stay on top of it all the time – it’s 100% manageable, but I certainly didn’t think I’d have this many.
Another difficult part of being a digital PR freelancer is that you often – not all the time, but sometimes – get campaigns that are struggling or aren’t performing well. You then have to take that campaign, pivot, trial new angles and attempt to get traction, much like you would have to in-house or agency-side. This is great, but you need to be prepared to really have to get your pivot-head on.
What are three tools or freelancer-life hacks you couldn’t live without?
Matt: BuzzStream and Gorkana are tools I use a lot, if my client can grant me access to them. BuzzStream saves a lot of time as you can create sequences and automatically schedule follow-up emails. Gorkana is great for finding those elusive contacts at publications with no contact information on the website. I also wouldn’t be without my co-working space membership – even if it costs a bit – as I’m happier and more productive when I can work from somewhere other than home and with other people around.
- I couldn’t live without Roxhill – I’ve used many different media databases in my time as a traditional and digital PR and none of them compare (in my honest opinion). It just seems like the most up to date tool and is so user friendly!
- Digital PR newsletters – I really get stuck in a rut sometimes with ideation and inspiration, so having digital PR/creative newsletters are really important for me. Especially now that I have to really get in the zone with ideation and don’t have a team to bounce off. My favourites are The Grapevine by Iona Townsley, Content Curated by Mark Porter and of course this wonderful blog, Work in PRogress. They’re my go-to if (when) I’m struggling for creative inspo
- Grammarly – this is such a simple one, but Grammarly is so, so helpful and has stopped me from sending pitches to journalists with big typos in them! You can be the best copywriter or proof reader in the world, but sometimes a little sneaky mistake can slip through the net – especially after reading the same pitch email 5x over. Grammarly is also super helpful if you need automatically Americanise a pitch or press release
Erica: Probably nothing that everyone else hasn’t already said, because I’m not very original when it comes to what works, but — while Buzzstream is life, when I first started out and couldn’t justify the cost, so I used Streak for Gmail. It tracks opens in the same way, and you can do all sorts of things like schedule follow ups and create “pipelines” and things like that, but, I mainly used it for tracking opens. It’s a really nifty tool, and I have to thank Chris Nunn for that hot tip!
Tweetdeck has been SO great for tracking journo requests in real time. There are obviously some great tools out there for this, but Tweetdeck is free, and I have set it up to track specific requests tailored to my clients, which works for me!
I’m not techy enough to have many hacks up my sleeve, unfortunately, but one thing I do swear by for ideation is Iona Townsley’s monthly newsletter The Grapevine, which is literally a round up of ALL the Digital PR campaigns that have gone live in the last month. Honestly, what a champ she is for pulling *that* together every month, but it’s such a brilliant way to see what campaigns are out there, how they’ve performed, as well as understand the methodologies of different campaigns. I’ve uncovered new datasets and new ways of combining data this way, which is always fab!
Name a campaign you saw recently and wish you’d worked on…
Erica: I absolutely LOVED the Gender Pay Gap Bot that appeared on International Women’s Day this year, to quash all the showboating brands and companies were doing around their D&I and the tokenistic things they were doing to elevate Women on that one particular day. That was reactive PR at its finest; data led, relevant, and topical. It was *chef’s kiss*
I’m also *OBSESSED* with the social activation from Specsavers at the moment. As well as their hilarious TOV on all their channels, they have put paid spend behind a range of real user’s Tweets about how something went wrong, so that the punchline “should have gone to Specsavers” is implied rather than delivered obviously. It’s fantastic, and really demonstrates a sense of humour by the brand team, but also the real-world situations we find ourselves in where an otherwise boring product could actually save the day.
Aliyah: It wasn’t super recent, but I remember seeing it a good few months ago and thinking it was amazing and really tapped into the emotional and nostalgic part of me. It’s the Winnie the Pooh and Airbnb collab where they recreated the Hundred Acre Wood for people to stay in for the 95th anniversary! I think any campaign that can tap into some sort of nostalgia and bring something to life is amazing! It’s also why I think dream jobs are still doing so well, because they’re making what we believe the almost-impossible, become possible.
Matt: Platinum Jubbly. I hadn’t seen anything like this before and didn’t realise it was coming from our industry! The story was funny/cool enough to share with a friend and the concept had creative flair, so props to whoever came up with that one.
Finally, what does being a work in progress mean to you? (Both professionally and personally)
Matt: To me it means continuously adjusting and refining, and never arriving at a “final” version.
Aliyah: Professionally, being a work in progress means that I’m constantly just doing my best, but knowing that I’m capable of reaching higher heights. Two years ago I never thought I’d become a senior in my last agency, but I did it. Six months ago I never thought I’d be freelancing and self-employed, but here I am.
Being a work in progress now means that I have to wear multiple hats, and I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time, but I’m learning every single day, getting better at things, and making mistakes here and there – and that’s okay! Nobody is perfect and we learn from our mishaps.
I know that I’m not going to get things right – in both my professional and personal life – but knowing that I am learning and progressing each day, with good intentions, is really important to me. I think with a positive mindset you can really overcome your fears and worries.
Erica: I’ve been dreading this question, not gonna lie. Mainly because I’m not very articulate when it comes to talking about myself, and also because I’m aware of the industry leaders and people I respect who read this, and I have been conditioned over the years to keep certain things to myself that could make me look bad. But, I honestly don’t know how being human, and sharing your truth could ever be anything other than a good thing? Being authentically me is something I am trying very hard to maintain in my freelance venture, and so far, it’s been met with nothing but positive vibes.
Let me explain. I’ve spent my whole life being misunderstood — by others, but also, by myself. And it wasn’t until mid-2021 that I found out why that is; I was diagnosed last year with combined type ADHD. This has meant reflecting on my entire life, and identifying behavioural patterns, “abnormalities”, and personality traits that stem from the neurodiversity of my brain, and reconditioning myself to accept that they are not BAD things, despite being told constantly throughout my life — by teachers, bosses, leaders, friends and partners — that they are.
I could ramble on this point, but I shall try to answer your question. With this diagnosis, I have begun the journey of self acceptance, which involves a lot of unlearning, unmasking, and undoing a lot of damage to my self esteem. I got my diagnosis around the same time I went freelance, so it very much allowed me to start fresh. To find ways of working that suit me and my brain. To create strategies and find tools that support my executive dysfunction, my hyperfocus, and my distractibility. And importantly, to find the support I need within the industry to help build me back up after years of being torn down.
I am lucky enough to have worked with some incredible women since going freelance, who have done nothing but encourage, support, and uplift my work, my way of thinking, and my contribution to their teams. They know who they are, but they won’t ever know the impact they have made on me, and my re-growth since starting this journey.
Knowing me, that probably doesn’t answer the question, but I hope that gives an idea of my own personal work in progress.
You can keep up with all three wonderful digital PR freelancers here…