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Hi, I'm Tom Woolf and I have been practicing public relations and offering marketing communications strategies for 20 years. And I'm still learning from people like you. Drop me a line!

  • 11Dec

    Many thanks to Alison Kenney and Lindsay Olson for this week’s blog post on Lindsay’s PR recruiting site, Six Things You Didn’t Know About Solo PR Practitioners. In her guest post, Alison offers six reasons to hire a sole public relations practitioner. As Alison notes, each PR consultant has his or her strengths and unique talents, but she has identified six universal truths about PR soloists:

    1. Solo PR consultants are self-motivated. This is a given since when you work for yourself, whether you are in PR, a freelance writer, or even painting houses for a living, if you aren’t self-directed, you won’t stay in business long. PR soloists are virtuosos at many tasks, including finding and pitching their own business, which requires many of the same skills required to promote yours.

    one-man-band-1289602. PR soloists can become dedicated partners. This is a little known fact for those who have never retained a PR consultant. Most PR consultants who have been doing it for a while like what they are doing, and they like working for themselves, which means they do make great partners because they want to work with you, not for you. They like working with short-term projects or projects with a limited, well-defined scope because they know they can excel at those types of projects. They can work closely with your marketing team in ways that a larger PR firm can’t.

    3. You can find PR consultants to fit the need. Not all PR soloists offer the same services. Some like to do everything from strategic development to execution, and others like to fill in for a missing team member of help with specific projects like writing white papers or product launches. PR practitioners come in all shapes and sizes, so you can find one who fits your needs.

    4. They take their work personally. I like to work as a consultant because it suits my temperament and allows me to deliver well-thought-out, well-executed projects because I am responsible for strategy as well as the hands-on work. I take my work personally because I have to answer to my clients directly, without an agency to run interference, and I have to use my past performance as the means to sell future and repeat business.

    5. Soloists have a niche. PR consultants often have a handful of skills at which they are particularly skilled, as well as the PR basics. the good consultants know what they are good at, and that’s what they sell.

    6. There is no such thing as a truly “solo” PR professional. Every PR consultant is the product of his or her professional experience, drawing from past PR agency work, professional affiliations, clients, and contacts. Most PR consultants I know use a “virtual”agency model, tapping their network of friends and fellow consultants to find the right resources for any project.

    Those are the common traits that Alison identified for PR consultants. Of course, there are many others that I often cite when I talk about PR consulting.

    7. What you see is what you get. One of the things that used to irk me when I worked with larger PR agencies was the “bait and switch”; the firm would bring in the senior practitioners with years of experience to sell the business and build a program, but once the contract was signed, the actual work would be turned over to the junior team for execution. The challenge with the agency structure is that the senior staff is actually too valuable to actually do the work. They are much more valuable closing new business and running the agency. Within the agency, the goal is to rise above doing the day-to-day client work. With PR soloists, it’s exactly the opposite. When you hire a PR consultant, you know they are the ones actually doing the work they promise.

    8. You pay for results, not process. A curse of the agency business is the billing process. Most agencies work on the billable hour, and even those that don’t use billable time against a retainer model to measure employee productivity. A large part of the agency business model is proving their raison d’etre by generating reports and spending an inordinate amount of time proving their value. When you hire a good consultant, they’ll concentrate on getting the job done and not wasting time justifying the invoice.

    9. You get more flexibility. Part of the idea of being a business partner is adapting to the needs of the program. Sole practitioners are much more nimble at adapting to their client’s needs, suggesting ways to improve the program and achieve the target objective without a lot of internal discussion to realign the agency team.

    10. You get better, dedicated service. I also believe you get a lot more loyalty from consultants. After all, you are one of a handful of clients who make up their entire business. The stakes are higher when you are a consultant, and you have a greater vested interest in keeping the clients happy.

    11. You save a lot of money. The savings you get versus the quality of service is not to be discounted. Consultants operate with much lower overhead and less infrastructure so you are paying for their expertise, not for maintaining the office for their staff and their administrative overhead. Consultants can generally charge a more cost-effective rate and offer better service because they have less overhead.

    So overall, you can get more from PR consultants. You get experienced professionals willing to work hard and apply all their expertise. You get a business partner who is committed to helping you succeed because your success reflects on his or her success. And you get more value. When you bring a PR soloist in to solve the right kind of problem, chances are you’ll get superior results.

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  • 07Jun

    YouTube Preview ImageI have been tracking a discussion on one of my PR groups on LinkedIn about ageism and employment. The complaint, which is not new, is that those of us “of a certain age” are being bypassed for choice agency and marcomm jobs as the hiring demographic skews younger. As Randy Block, one of the career coaches who works with my client, NETSHARE, notes, no one wants to hire mom or dad. It’s no wonder that those of use who have the experience and years are being passed over. We are too expensive, and there is the misperception that we don’t “get it” when it comes to newer tactical programs like social media.

    So the grumbling oldsters like me are making noises about forming a new Graying Communications type agency to show we still got it, and we still get it. I continue to adopt a different strategy, consulting. One of the other things that Randy says is that while the younger generation of managers are interested in hiring mom or dad, they will pay them for their advice. One of the more interesting things to come to light from the discussion thread on ageism was an column by Karen E. Klein from Bloomberg/BusinessWeek on “Why Self-Employed Consultants Fail.” Having been a serial consultant for more than 20 years, I found the insights right-on and very useful, since I still violate a few of them now and again. Here are some insights from Karen’s column for those of you looking for an alternative to downsizing or early retirement.

    First, according to Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting:

    There are about 400,000 people in the U.S. calling themselves consultants. My estimate is that only half of them are actually working as consultants. Most enter the profession as a second career or after they’re retired.

    What all these people have in common, and few realize, is that consulting is a marketing business, period. It doesn’t matter what your area of expertise is or if you are the best in your industry, unless you have the skills to sell your consulting services, you don’t have a consulting business.

    What are the most common mistakes that consultants make? Here’s a list that should look familiar to those who have been there/done that, especially if you have any PR agency experience:

    • You bill by the hour. The rule of thumb in the agency world is you bill your time. The problem, of course, is that time is finite; there are only so many hours in the day. And while billable time may work for an economic (read cheap)) client, it doesn’t help you build your consulting business. Better to bill on value. If you can offer a service that saves a company $1 million, then paying $100,000 for that service seems a small prices to pay, whether the task takes 1,000 hours or one hour.
    • Dealing with middlemen. I always try to deal with C-level executives. If you deal with the middlemen, they you are subject to their MBOs, and their political problems, and if a project goes awry as the consultant you will be the first one thrown under the bus. You also can’t show your value to those lower down. Better to approach the C-suite and show them what you offer before you start working with the less senior staff.
    • You don’t see yourself as peers with the clients. You are working for the client, but you are not an employee.You are providing a service that they value on your terms. That makes you buyer and seller on equal footing. Never forget that. The problem with most consultants is a lack of self-esteem and the confidence to stand behind the value of their service. It may be from working alone or constantly selling yourself and the fact there is no “boss” to front for you, but you can’t be a subordinate. You can’t show up with your hat in your hand; you have to sell your value.
    • You don’t offer lasting value. If you can create intellectual property, such as systems or intelligence you can package for reuse, then you become an expert and your value increases exponentially. Better to sell IP than expertise.

    Remember, if you can fix the client’s problem, you have value. The amount of pain the client is suffering because of that problem should dictate your fee. If you help them achieve their objectives and build their profits, they will be happy and the price tag doesn’t matter.

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  • 29Mar

    peanut-butter

    Forrest Gump believes that life is like a box of chocolates, and I see consulting as like a jar of peanut butter. Some people like their smooth and some like it chunky (my preference) but the challenge is not to spread yourself too thin.

    Consultants face an ongoing challenge in terms of work balance. You should be spending about 20 percent of your time on new business development, and the other 80 percent of the time on keeping your current clients happy. But when that 20 percent of effort yields multiple projects simultaneously, then you need to be prepared to step up and deliver advice and services that have value; deliver the chunky stuff so you don’t have to spread the creamy peanut butter too thin.

    Granted, having more work than you can handle is a good problem to have, sort of, but it can backfire if you don’t manage the work appropriately. If you overpromise and under deliver, it will affect your professional reputation, and probably cost you a lot of current business. If you overcommit and then work yourself too hard to get the job done, which leads to second-rate service and ultimately burnout.

    So how do you spread yourself appropriately to make sure you are optimizing both time and money? Here are a few strategies I have used in the past:

    Set up a monthly work calendar. I recommend to all my clients to establish a “scope of work” for each month, outlining objectives and tasks to be completed. As part of this exercise, you should establish your own time estimates to assess how much time you need to allocate. Granted, priorities will change during the course of the month, which means as you add new tasks you take other tasks off the agenda. This exercise is not only about creating a roadmap for yourself as to what you can reasonably achieve during the month, but it’s also about setting expectations for the client.

    Touch every client every day. It’s so easy to focus on projects that are interesting or that have seemingly more urgent deadlines. Therein lies a common consulting trap – oiling the squeaky wheel. If you only pay attention to the clients and projects that are demanding your attention, those other tasks that support the less demanding clients will fall by the wayside. If you touch every client every day with some communication, task, or even checking in on work in process, you can stay on top of your client work.

    Keep track of your efforts. I like to bill on a retainer since this makes budgeting simpler for the clients and eliminates billing surprises. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep track of your work. I keep timesheets for all my clients, retained or not, to determine whether my time budgeting is on target and to determine if one client is demanding too much of my time. If you keep track of where your time goes, it is easier to identify where the problems are emerging in time management so you can either reset expectations or realign your hours.

    Get help when you need it. When the floodgates open and new business comes pouring in, I know many consultants turn away business based on their availability. A better strategy is to take on the projects and enlist partners to help. I have operated a “virtual” agency model for years and for larger projects can bring in one of my peers to help with the day-to-day tasks. You can scale if you have help and assume a project management role, assuming you can continue to maintain the quality of the work.

    Know when to say no. There are times when a giant project might land in your lap that is tempting and lucrative. You need to ask yourself a few leading questions before you accept the contract. Will it jeopardize your other work? Will you be able to continue to build your business while you handle this mongo project? What about when the project is completed; will you still have enough work? I find that putting all your eggs in a single client basket can be fraught with risk.

    Get rid of the dead wood. If you have new work coming in the front door, consider kicking the dead wood out the back door. There are always some clients that you will never satisfy or that aren’t a good fit. Either your work styles don’t align, expectations aren’t set properly, or you just don’t have the right tools to deliver what they need. If, like a bad job, the client isn’t a good fit or they are too demanding, taking on new business gives you an opportunity to clean house.

    Follow the money. As part of your housekeeping, take a look at some of your less lucrative clients and determine if new business opportunities give you a chance to renegotiate or change the terms of your contract. Even fun contracts can prove to be a loss leader in terms of time and energy. New, more lucrative contracts will give you a chance to change or end a less profitable client relationship without risk.

    Successful consulting is a a continuous balancing act. Knowing when to streamline your operation and how to balance dueling priorities is the key to consulting success. So keep it crunchy and don’t spread yourself too thin.

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  • 28Feb

    badhireFor those of you are consultants or sole practitioners, you understand the need to balance your workload in order to provide superior customer service without stretching yourself too thin. I have run a “virtual agency” for a number of years – that means I have a database of contacts whom I can call on in a pinch to help with a last-minute client request or a new contract. The advantage of the virtual agency model is that you can scale your operation without maintaining unnecessary staff or overhead. And the clients still get your expertise instead of a handoff to a junior person; a failing I have identified with most large agencies who use the “bait and switch,” bringing in the senior team to close the contract and then the client never sees them again. Of course the challenge of consulting, or any business, is that you have to plan your workload to make best use of available resources.

    That’s why I was frustrated this week by a flurry of new business activity that failed to pan out. I think it was a combination of miscommunication and expectations on both side. At the start of the week I had three new contracts pending; verbal agreements with commitments like “we are ready to go and need you now!” By the end of the week two of the three contracts faded away, despite the verbal commitments and the signing of NDAs. It seems the prospects’ priorities and budgets changed. I guess a handshake on a deal isn’t worth what it used to be.

    My dilemma, or course, is that I had to find the resources to support the new work, which as a good consultant I did before committing to the contracts. Now I have the resources lined up and no work. It would be a bigger problem if I had staff waiting idle in the wings rather than other consultants awaiting instructions. But I still find it irksome that experienced executives from profitable companies can’t manage their operations more effectively. It’s not as though they are asking for a quote on a car or an estimate on a construction job – not once they have looked you in the eye and said “you’re hired.” If you have already written the proposal, given your best advice up front, and received a commitment from the prospect, there should be no question about moving forward.

    Consultants aren’t protected by the same labor laws as employees, and there is always an element of risk with being self-employed. I have been stiffed by a client or two in the past 20 years, and often have had to renegotiate contracts to accommodate changing client needs and budgets. It’s never pleasant, but it’s a necessary part of consulting.

    What can you do to protect yourself? Here are some thoughts based on my experience:

    1. Discount for cash up front. If you need to close a deal, cash is king. I usually ask for a retainer when I take on a new client. If they are willing to put their cash down up front, then I know they are serious. And if they are willing to show me the money, then I am usually willing to give them a break and show them the discount. It’s a good way to set the ground rules and cement the relationship.

    2. It’s all about expectation setting. You need to make sure the client knows what they are buying, which is not as obvious as it sounds. Provide a list of deliverables and, if you can, a timeline for delivery. Your best bet is to take the guesswork our of the contract, and they will commit.

    3. “Pay me for process, pay me for results.” This is an adage that was passed on to me by one of my first clients, and I continue to live by it. You can pay me for process, like keeping timesheets and activity reports, or you can pay me to deliver the goods. If I can focus on the objective, you get more value in the end. Keep your eye on the prize and don’t let process get in the way.

    4. Set your terms up front. I always give my clients an escape clause. Most agencies I have worked with use 30-day termination clauses in their contracts, and I find that makes the uninitiated nervous. Be willing to compromise. Offer 10-day or 15-day out so they don’t feel trapped.

    5. Know when to dump a bad client. The difference between hiring staff and hiring a consultant is like the difference between marriage and dating. If you hire staff to deal with your problem, it’s a much bigger commitment, since most staffers cost 150% percent of their salary when you add in benefits and overhead. By comparison, consultants are a cheap date, and if it’s a bad date, know enough to walk away. If you aren’t getting what you need or there is something that doesn’t feel right, it’s better to cut and run than hope it’s going to get better.

    6. Stand up for yourself. Okay, consultants are easy targets. They are sole practitioners; hired guns with only expertise to sell. So when a client decides to stiff you and complains you didn’t deliver, it’s time to look inside and ask yourself, “is this a valid complaint, or are you getting stiffed?” Consultants seem to be fair game for unscrupulous companies who just don’t want to pay. You don’t have to take it. There are law firms our there that will work for you on contingency. I recall a client many years ago who claimed they were underserviced and wouldn’t pay. I had nothing to lose so I found a lawyer to sue them (out of state) and since my complaint held up an IPO, they paid at least two-thirds of what they owed, which was better than nothing. The bottom line was they expected me, as a consultant, to give up and go away. Don’t.

    It would be nice to think that all clients are willing to honor their obligations on a handshake. They often don’t. So learn to protect yourself with solid contracts and well-defined deliverables and business practices that put you in control. Just because you choose to maintain a small business doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mighty.

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  • 09Nov

    What does it take to launch an effective social media program? What kind of help do you look for? Finding a good social media consultant is a lot like hiring any consultant – you have to understand what you need and find a resource who has the skills that match your needs. It’s curious that a lot of marketing professionals and CEOs forget the basic rules of hiring subcontractors, and they look for a consultant with mystical powers who can help them tame this unknown monster called Social Media.

    I was gratified to see a recent blog post on this topic that offers a lot of common sense advice about hiring social media help. The basics include:

    1. Determine your objectives. You need to understand what you want to get out of your social media campaign. That doesn’t mean producing the next killer viral video or getting your corporate blog off the ground. It really means what you expect to gain from adding social media to your marketing mix. Why do you need it and how do you want to measure success?

    2. Does your consultants have the chops? Has he or she got the right expertise, and can they deliver what you need? You need to assess their metrics of success for other clients. What have they done and how do you know they know their stuff. Don’t be fooled by the names of high-profile clients they list on their web site. And don’t be put off by social  media mumbo jumbo. A social media marketing program has the same measurable results as any other program, so don’t let the newness of the medium get in the way of the metrics.

    3. What can this consultant do for me? You need to match your prospective consultant’s capabilities to your marketing needs. Ask for samples. And ask questions about how what they offer maps to your objectives. How does it matter to your brand, and how will they make a difference.

    As I talk to prospective clients about their social media needs, I encounter a lot of confusion and uncertainty. SMBs in particular understand the power of social media, but aren’t sure (or sometimes aren’t completely convinced) that social media can help them. That’s when we get into discussing the tough questions, like what are their real social media objectives, and do they have the resources to really sustain a social media campaign.You have to identify their real points of pain before you can determine if a social media program can relieve some of that pain. If the consultant is good, they will be able to map the use of social media tools to the prospects’ marketing goals. If they overpromise or say that social media is the cure for all their marketing ills, there is definitely something amiss.

    For many companies, the real pain is usually pretty basic – it’s lack of resources. They want to embrace social media, but they can’t make it a natural extension of their internal marketing program. They don’t have the time to Tweet or post to Facebook, and senior managers are too busy running their business to talk about it. And many companies are rightly concerned about losing control of their messaging and their brand if they turn social media over to junior staffers (the social media channels are clogged with examples of poor representation of corporate brands). These companies want to outsource social media because they don’t have the time and staff to deal with it internally.

    The challenge for the social media consultant is to provide value and support the client’s program objectives without overpromising. The client needs to be willing to give you the time to build a following. They also need to understand that while you can help them facilitate a social media program, the real value of social media is personal engagement. Social media is primarily social, and it’s tough to outsource authenticity and personal interaction. (We need to leave a discussion of the ethics of ghost-tweeting and ghost-blogging for another discussion.)

    In those situations, I find the greatest value for clients is helping them mine their brand intelligence and package their brand insights in a way that makes it easer to feed the social media machine. As part of any social media program, you have to inventory your content and what internal intelligence is worth sharing with your contacts. A consultant can help you gather your content, repackage it to highlight your brand and its value, and show you where to cast the bread upon the social media waters so it will do the most good. And they can help you define ways to measure social media success.

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