A decade ago, I started freelancing by writing 1,000-word articles for $250, and working for magazines that took six months or longer to pay after publication.
At those low rates and dreadfully long payment cycles, I had to work like crazy and live on peanut butter and jelly to survive.
As a longtime business journalist, I knew there was a way to work smarter, not harder, to increase my revenues. A fellow technology-reporter-turned-freelancer supplied me with valuable information that helped my business grow annually and ended the feast-or-famine cycle.
Crossing a mythical line to PR writing
What did she say that made such a difference in my income?
“Why not try writing articles for companies looking for media exposure, and working with the public relations firms that often place those articles?”
Those articles — known in the PR biz as “contributed articles” — turned out to be my prime ticket to higher earnings.
Now, for many journalists, suggesting they work with public relations firms is like telling them to start selling advertising. After they stop gagging, they’d say certain lines shouldn’t be crossed.
But I wasn’t one of those journalists. Throughout my newspaper career, I had forged good working relationships with publicists and knew several who started their own agencies. All it took to start working with them was a phone call.
Pitching articles, writing press releases
Immediately, I was asked to write press releases and contributed articles, and was pitching stories and articles to the media rather than listening to those pitches as a journalist.
You might think journalists would be unwelcome in the world of PR, but you’d be wrong.
To these PR folks, I had secret knowledge: Because I was a journalist and magazine writer, I knew just what journalists and magazine editors wanted in a pitch. I knew how to talk to them, approach them, and treat them because I was part of the media.
Soon, I was making five times what I was paid by newspapers to ghost write “contributed articles” for CEOs.
Many of these columns and articles were placed in the very same newspapers I used to write $250 articles for! It wasn’t hard to see why many journalists make the switch to working in PR.
Which hat? PR or journalist?
Because I was also working as a freelance writer, it took some careful planning and full disclosure to make sure editors knew which hat I was wearing, that of a PR person or that of a journalist.
Additionally I never use clients in articles I am writing as a journalist – unless they are appropriate sources for a story, past clients, and I fully disclose my relationship. These instances are very rare.
Working for PR firms, I’ve gotten to do a variety of interesting assignments, including:
- Landed television, radio and print coverage for an 8-city tour for a hip-hop teen band sponsored by Walt Disney Records
- Generated print and television coverage for the 50th anniversary of a nursery’s poinsettia festival
- Wrote press releases and created media pitches for a game company as well as telecommunications, technology, and health firms
Offering PR services, landing fat retainers
With every PR project, I learned more — this is a field where you really can learn on the job.
Soon, I added direct PR services for small businesses to boost my income and services mix. I learned what to charge, how to convince firms that an ongoing PR effort was vital to their marketing efforts — and most importantly, why offering PR services is a long-term marketing activity requiring an ongoing monthly retainer fee.
Sure, there are plenty of websites out there with jobs posted where you can end up writing a press release for $25. But if you know how to qualify clients, you can find much better pay, and I did. I routinely get $300 a press release.
Why PR won’t be outsourced
PR might sound great — but isn’t all the work going to cheap contractors overseas? No. Ain’t gonna happen, either.
Working as freelance PR writer requires sophisticated written and verbal skills to deal with media. So this isn’t the type of work that can be outsourced overseas. You have to communicate clearly, both verbally and in writing, plus needing to understand what gets reporters and editors excited to cover a story.
Freelance magazine writers and laid-off journalists have several of the skills needed to pitch editors, write contributed articles and research publications. To add PR to your writing services, all you have to do is learn PR 101 basics — such as how to write press releases the media loves — and understand what it takes to work with agencies and the media.
I’m now making more doing a lot less than I had to when I first started, and you can, too.