Q&A: Working in PR & Starting a Business
Emily lives in Brighton with her partner and their mad sproodle Ozzie. She runs a small PR (Public Relations) firm that works exclusively with startups and small businesses, now in their fourth year. We chatted to Emily about working in PR, starting her own business and how she manages writer’s block!
Why did you decide to start your own PR business?
Before, I managed a PR agency of 12 people, based in Soho, for seven years. The last business I worked for was growing so my job morphed into recruitment, training, HR and management and away from the stuff I loved which was the account work: getting coverage for fledgling startups. I decided to go solo and start a business that would let me return to what I loved doing, and cherry pick the clients I wanted to work with.
Initially I thought I’d work alone, but it’s too lonely a life so I hired Alex. I have deliberately kept it really small and uncomplicated so I could do the good stuff. It’s hard to turn down new business when we’re busy, but it’s tactical, because it means I get to really enjoy work.
What is your workday like?
Lots of writing, pitching and detective work to spot opportunities, talking to clients to better understand what they do, a decent amount of reading which helps me come up with good ideas – or at the very least to understand where we’re entering the conversation – and 10% dithering. Around the edges I’m hunting for new business, writing proposals and putting off financial admin!
What are your favourite parts?
Getting under the skin of a business to pull it apart, simplify what it does and tease out its story. Most business owners are in deep and use their own industry lingo – which no one else understands – so it can be useful when an outsider helps them make things sound less complicated and more appealing. Every business is sitting on a story, they just don’t know what it is, or else they’re struggling to present it in a media friendly way because their commercial agenda has smothered an otherwise newsworthy angle. For me, it’s being able to manoeuvre the business so I’m doing exactly the kind of work I enjoy, and the sense of achievement I get from working out how to do things I’ve never done before.
What the main challenges?
Even when I’m supposedly on holiday, I usually do at least a little work every day, which I’ve sort of made my peace with. I do switch off at weekends though. Some days I feel like I’m hitting brick walls, but those are outweighed by the highs of a getting a small business no one has ever heard of into a national newspaper or on the telly. My job can be really addictive. Also, I rarely read a piece of editorial or enjoy a magazine without thinking about how my clients might fit in, or wondering how it’s been put together.
How do you find working remotely?
In normal times, I really enjoy it. During the pandemic I’m not loving it, because I don’t have the option to go to a café for a change of scene. It’s all an advantage to be able to work from literally anywhere. I don’t think there are any benefits to being tied to an office.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
All the time, but it’s usually for one of two reasons: because I haven’t yet put in the work to understand what it is I’m actually writing, or because I’m missing the pressure of a deadline. Once I’ve dealt with those, I can write a decent feature with considerable speed! When working from home, I find ways to manufacture urgency. Using a timer for stints of work can help.
Do you have any tips for copywriting?
Read the work of other writers and look at it critically to understand (literally) how they string a sentence together.
What advice would you offer someone wanting to start a business?
My knowledge-based business is completely different to a fast growth startup trying to raise investment or a consumer goods business that involves tangible products, so I’ll keep it as general as I can:
- Be curious. Curiosity is what will help you work things out, from your responsibilities as an employer, to how to grow to your business. Studies show that the most successful people read a lot.
- Unless you’re qualified to do it yourself, outsource your bookkeeping to a good accountant, and use a cloud-based system like Xero to do your expenses, invoicing and VAT from day one. It’s the best money you’ll spend.
- Don’t try and start a business with a limited network and no savings.
- Don’t expect instant results. In many cases, momentum comes after around three years of hard work.
What are the main routes into PR?
I believe there are PR courses, but I wouldn’t prioritise hiring someone who had one. Anyone with a curiosity about business, a good understanding of the media and strong writing skills can do PR. For that reason, I prefer to hire people who have at least some work experience in journalism.
Do you have any other tips for people wanting to work in PR?
Speak to as many people across the industry as you possibly can because it’s vast. Media relations is a very different specialism to corporate communications, which is different to crisis management, or consumer PR.
If you’re applying for a job in PR, you can stand out with an exceptional personalised covering email that shows off your writing prowess. I barely even look at people’s CVs, I only really care about the cover letter because grabbing a journalist’s attention with a great pitch email is a big part of the job.
When you’re working for yourself, how do you ensure good time management and maintain a good work/life balance?
Pick one big job to do every day, not five. If I have loads of work piling up, I’ll work Sunday afternoon and take half of Monday off. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get things done without any distractions.
How do you wind down after work?
You’re asking me during lockdown so at the moment it’s watching sweaty nether crevices of Netflix with a box of Lindt balls. I do a fair bit of exercise: HIIT three times a week, running, yoga and I’ve started mixing in YouTube dance workouts like zumba and ballet barre.
I love to read (always a real book as my eyes need a break) and I walk miles through the countryside with my partner who’s an adventurous outdoorsy sort and with my binoculars so I can gawp at birds. We’ve just got an allotment plot so I think lots of our time will be spent there over the next few months killing vegetables.
I like to go deep into things I’m interested in, one of which is the English wine industry, both the business of it, and what’s being produced. I started @SussexWineTaster on Instagram so I could chart what I was learning.
I’m also big on volunteering and interested in healthcare, so I trained as a First Aider with St John Ambulance which has led to some huge opportunities through the pandemic, initially doing shifts in my local hospital’s A&E to support the NHS, and now we’re about to start helping with the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Always honour your commitments (my dad).
Find out more:
Grad Bites: Working in PR
Alex talks about the day-to-day of working in PR and gives some helpful tips for starting a career in PR.