What Independent Public Relations Professionals Need To Know About Business & Money

Money & Business Tips For Independent Publicists

Not too long ago, I was chatting with a lovely senior professional who’s now an independent public relations professional and transitioning into the world of independent public relations.

These are public relations professionals who work on their own and are not a full-time employee at a larger company.

He shared his more than twenty years of expertise and the types of tech verticals he was looking for opportunities in.

“How much do you charge per hour?” I asked.

I’m always curious what the various independents I talk with charge, especially those just starting out.

“Fifty dollars.” he replied.

“I’m sorry. Did you say fifty dollars? As in 5-0?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Please don’t do that. That is way too low for your level of experience and it sets a bad precedent for the industry.”

“But, that’s what companies are paying these days.”

“No, that’s what they’re paying you.”

<insert record scratch>

For independent public relations professionals, it can be an uncomfortable jump from corporate or agency life to setting your own rates and seeing that money go right into your pocket (or right to the IRS). Often when starting out, independent PR folks–any many freelancers and self-employed professionals in general–tend to give “deals” or “breaks” because they don’t feel established enough to charge what they want.

I have seen more freelancers than I care to count who’ve gotten into situations where they’re working too hard for little money.

In the five years since founding Radix Collective, a Los Angeles-based independent public relations collective, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with many independent PR professionals. Some were established, others were newbies earning their sea legs.

There was something interesting: Many challenges these independent public relations professionals face–and the mistakes they made–are common across the board.

Here are five of the most important things independent public relations professionals can do to both earn more money and reduce their overhead:

Independent PR Money Tip #1: Don’t Undercharge Your Services

If you’re starting out in your field, ask fellow consultants what they charge. You may be asking for $50 per hour and be very surprised to find out someone in your network gets $150-$175 per hour for the same type of work. (FWIW, $125-175 per hour is the average range I’ve seen public relations professionals charge.)

Different verticals have different thresholds. For example, I know PR consultants who specialize in repping creative ad agencies who command $200-$250 per hour. Other verticals might charge much less.

Despite representing different industries, it’s my opinion that no experienced PR person should ever charge less than $100 an hour. If you ask around and your immediate network is also undercharging, you and your network need to adjust your rates to be closer to industry average.

Otherwise, you’re depriving yourself of fair pay for your hard work–and driving wages down for your fellow public relations professionals.

Independent PR Money Tip #2: Know Your Value

Too many indie PR pros sell themselves short. They compromise where they shouldn’t and undersell their capabilities. Marni Raitt with First Raitt Communications, an independent PR pro in NY says, “Don’t undervalue yourself–you are worth it.”

Raitt is 100% right. At the core, being afraid to push for a higher rate means you are afraid to value your time and your skills.

Know what the market will bear and aim for the high end, not the low.

Public relations and communications use incredibly valuable skillsets. Most companies looking to hire independents don’t just want media relations experts. They want holistic communications experts.

The ability to be strategic while executing is incredibly valuable and should be charged for accordingly–without apology.

Independent PR Money Tip #3: Just Say No

Sometimes, when negotiating with clients, you need to just say no and walk away.

Imagine that your rate is $150 per hour, but your potential client only wants to pay you $75. That’s all they have. Your potential client tells you that they don’t even pay their own developers that much; surely they can’t justify that spend on you.

Just. Say. No.

Being an independent means that you are the boss. You are the CEO and you need to approach these business discussions from that mindset. Your time is your most valuable asset; giving it away for less only hurts you in the long run.

Remember that you have a business to run. Don’t be afraid to stand up both for your business and yourself. You’ll end up with better clients who appreciate you much more than someone who pays you half what you ask for.

Be diligent about your math for projects, and be realistic about what is involved.

Independent PR Money Tip #4: Don’t Underestimate Your Hours

An area where many independent public relations professionals indirectly cause themselves pain is in calculating a proposal. Most independent public relations professionals aim for a minimum of three-to-six month engagement in a reoccurring retainer.

However, many independent public relations professionals underestimate the amount of time they’ll spend working with a particular client. Here’s an example:

Joe PR has a prospect with a budget of $4500 per month. Joe charges $150 an hour across the board. In theory, his client proposal should limit all work to 30 hours a month for everything.

But then Joe PR falls into the hourly sand pit. Joe wants the business, so he gives a range of 30-40 hours a month in the proposal. At 40 hours a month the hourly just dropped down to $112.50.

Joe is also overly focused on the hours required to execute the work–things like finding media, drafting pitches, and writing bylines.

You aren’t just a “PR freelancer.” You are now a business owner. Don’t ever feel bad about demanding a fair wage.

Our imaginary public relations professional failed to account for time spent on phone calls, emails, research, and all the administrative work that independent PR folks don’t list as line items or incorporate into their hour/month estimates.

Joe PR then finds himself making more phone calls that add hours to the weekly estimate he included. He’s also spending more time on emails back and forth to the client, chasing answers, and other activities that should be billable hours. Instead, Joe PR eats the cost.

If Joe PR spends ten extra hours over the course of the month on administrative tasks for his new account–a perfectly reasonable estimate–that means he’s spending 50 hours monthly working on the account, which brings his hourly down to $90 an hour. Take taxes into account, and he’s looking at about $68 an hour. Yikes!

Be diligent about your math for projects, and be realistic about what is involved. This will save you frustration in the long run from feeling like you’re working hard yet not making enough money.

Most importantly, it can be a challenge to get a new client on board with higher rates unless they’re negotiated in advance.

Audrey Jacobson of PRFrenchy Consultancy says “I charge $150-200 per hour. I’ve stayed around the $150 per hour for projects and short-term engagements, but will likely start to increase for short-term one-offs based on upfront time investment and the time crunch typically involved.”

And if the prospect doesn’t like it, revisit points #2 and #3.

Independent PR Money Tip #5: Set Boundaries

Boundary setting is a challenge for even the most seasoned pros. You don’t want to lose potential business, or have the client decide to resign if you push back on needing more compensation, or have them cut your hours, so you don’t speak up or enforce boundaries. This is a huge mistake and sets a bad precedent with clients.

Boundaries are healthy and necessary. As an independent public relations professional, set boundaries (and contracts) with clients that are clear about consequences–such as terms of payment. For instance, Jacobson pauses work for clients whose payment is past due.

At my job, I once had a client who loved to talk on the phone and go over and over the plan. It not only ate up allocated hours but also decimated the budget. They were a good client, so I let a lot of things slide until it reached a critical point.

By the time it reached a critical point, phone time with the client was eating up at least $10,000 a month in admin time.

Resolving this issue required putting my foot down and not taking certain calls. It also required being very upfront with my client about the time it was taking from other items.

If you value yourself and your time, and you’re not afraid to say no, then identifying and communicating boundaries will come that much easier.

Independent PR Money Tip #6: Find Your Right Mix

We lied, there’s one additional tip.

Much of the process of handling business as an independent public relations professional is based on personal preference and trial-and-error. All of us have war stories about situations we wished we’d handled differently. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Learn from your mistakes and note how you can handle things differently moving forward.

Remember: You aren’t just a “PR freelancer.” You are now a business owner. Don’t ever feel bad about demanding a fair wage.

This is one reason women–the dominant PR workforce–tend to make less. They simply don’t ask for it. Let’s change that.

Go forth and prosper… but don’t be afraid to stand firm in your worth. It’s the base for a successful business and overall peace of mind.

Nicole Jordan is the founder of Radix Collective, a Los Angeles-based PR collective.