The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) held its annual Writers Conference last week at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. The conference featured more than 80 sessions covering a wide variety of topics, from how to write a book proposal to how to break into magazines.
I was fortunate to attend the conference and have been recapping several of the sessions here over the last few days: Breaking into Women’s Markets, How to Look and Sound Great on Camera, Writing for the Health Market, Tricks of the Trade: Online Tools and Apps for Writers, and Writing for Association Publications.
While the sessions were targeted to freelance writers, the information is also helpful to PR professionals looking to get their clients in these publications. Not only does it give you an inside look into what the publications look for, but it also gives you an idea of what freelancers need in order to pitch these publications successfully.
Thinking like a potential corporate client can help you tap into a thriving income stream. In this session, panelists discussed how to understand the demands that drive your potential clients, and offered tips to find and market yourself to corporate clients.
The panelists were:
- Rod Thorn, director of communications at PepsiCo, is a frequent speaker at national conferences. An expert on the evolving uses of social media and storytelling, Thorn has held similar positions at Kodak, IBM and Ketchum/Stromberg Consulting.
- Barbara Krasner heads the Web content team for Reed Elsevier’s LexisNexis unit and is a former director of marketing for AT&T and Alcatel-Lucent. An award-winning copywriter, she has hired staff and freelance writers to create compelling content for direct marketing, sales collateral, customer websites, blogs and more.
- Joan Detz, author of “How to Write and Give a Speech,” writes speeches for major corporations around the world, coaches executives for speeches, prepares executives for media appearances, and teaches career workshops.
- Marian Calabro (moderator), founder and president of Corporate-History.net, a custom creator of history-themed books, videos and websites.
Following are highlights of the conversation:
Thorn likened communicating for corporations to storytelling, and said companies should act like media organizations instead of corporations.
“We have to take it upon ourselves to find the stories and tell them,” he said.
Thorn offered the following tips on writing for corporate markets:
Be patient. When reaching out to potential corporate clients, do not interpret their lack of response as a lack of interest. They are buried with work and competing interests, and the more you push, the harder they’ll resist. While you have to be a good writer, a lot of it comes down to timing, and you have no control over that.
Work quickly. Since corporate clients have no time, they are usually coming to you at the last minute. If you can turn around a quality project ahead of a deadline, you’ll be a lifesaver.
Work on retainer (after you’ve proven yourself). It’s easier for both parties if you don’t have to negotiate on each project. If a client knows they’re paying you a certain amount each month, they’ll use you. And if you deliver, they will feel comfortable just knowing you’re there for them. There may be months when you are swamped with work and others where you have nothing – but, in the long run, it will be more manageable for all.
Be flexible. The people Thorn keeps on retainer and works with regularly don’t look at themselves as writers – they look at themselves as business people and problem solvers.
“It’s so important for them to think that way and be flexible,” said Thorn.
Put the story at the center. Think of all the different ways you can merchandise that story. For example, if you’re tapped to write an op-ed, think of how you can make it a speech, a presentation, an internal email, a blog post, a video, and something that can be shared via social media. This will demonstrate that you are more than a “go-to” person; you are a strategic partner.
Proactively pitch story ideas. Just as you pitch magazines with stories you want to write, develop brief abstracts and pitch them to corporate communicators. You may think of something they haven’t thought of, and they’ll be grateful for it. They may take that idea and ask you to turn it into a speech, an article they can pitch to a publication, etc. – and that is all additional work for you.
Use social media. “If I see you promoting my company on social media, even if you have nothing to do with what you’re making people aware of,” said Thorn, “I will consider you an active advocate for my cause. I’ll think you are more of a strategic partner than a project person.”
“Midsized corporations are a gold mine” for freelancers, said Krasner, “because they don’t have the time or staff to do it themselves.”
Krasner offered the following tips for freelancers interested in writing for corporate markets:
Meet deadlines. This is the most important qualification for writers, said Krasner.
“Much like article writing, corporate writing must adhere to deadlines,” she explained. “Often there’s a project plan in place, and other tasks depend upon timely delivery of copy.”
If you can’t make a call or deadline, give your client ample notice.
Research the market. It’s important to understand the corporate environment. Because there are often many stakeholders involved in copy approval, it can take months to get paid. However, “when we find someone, we keep them,” she said.
Be comfortable with technology. Whether it’s Wordpress or some proprietary content management system, let it be your friend. Having the ability to upload content confidently can be a godsend for your client.
Develop your own samples if you need to. Draft a case study, white paper, press release or website – even if you don’t have a client – for your portfolio.
Also, because much of corporate writing is ghostwriting, try to get a testimonial when you’re done with the work, since you won’t have a byline.
Be more than just a good writer. Corporate writing involves more than just good writing; you also have to be a good interviewer and have good interpersonal skills.
The writers Krasner uses are typically hired to interview lawyers, and they have 30 minutes to get all the information they need. Because of the limited amount of time, they must be able to ask probing questions that get a lot of information. They also have to find a slant, an angle, with very little guidance.
Because corporate work can be done from anywhere, this opens up the field of places to write for, said Detz, who has been a freelance speechwriter and copywriter since 1985. The best way to break in is to get to know people who are already writing for corporate markets and network with them.
Detz offered the following tips for getting freelance corporate work:
Invest in yourself. “To succeed as a freelance corporate writer, you must be willing to invest in yourself, said Detz.”
Join and become active in organizations like ASJA, IABC and PRSA that serve corporate writers. Attend industry meetings related to your key clients. Sign up for workshops. Hire a career coach. Invest in technology. Upgrade your wardrobe. Take a class to improve your communication skills.
“The money you spend is worth it,” said Detz.
Run your business like a business. Focus on customer service, and always take care of clients and meet their deadlines.
“You are only going to keep clients with outstanding professional and social skills,” said Detz. “They will hire you 15, 20, 30 times.”
Improve your marketing materials. “You are not just a freelancer, you are your own business – and your marketing materials should reflect that,” said Detz.
Check to make sure your portfolio is in ready-to-send condition.
Don’t just have one résumé – have several and tailor them to what the editor you’re pitching is looking for.
Have multiple business cards, and use them for marketing. If you have a great testimonial, include it on the back of your business card.
Take advantage of social media, especially LinkedIn, to network.
Respond in kind. If your client sends you an email and prefers to communicate that way, don’t respond with phone calls, which consumer more time. On the other hand, if your client calls you and requests a return phone call, don’t try to save a few minutes by sending an email.
Keep current. Never attend a client meeting without first checking the organization’s website for any news updates and doing a search for the latest industry announcements.
Calabro offered these tips for working on corporate projects:
Be comfortable taking sides. Corporate work often calls for journalistic skills, but it isn’t journalism. Before pursuing a client or accepting a project, do a gut check. It’s vital to be fully comfortable with the public relations aspect and with the business your potential client is in.
Accept editing gracefully. Feedback may come from several people, and you may not agree with it. Discuss your concerns, but choose your battles carefully.
Work well on a team. In order to freelance for corporations, you need to work well on a team. “This matters as much as your writing talent and experience,” said Calabro.
Corporate projects almost always involve meetings, whether in person or via phone/Skype, and you have to be able to contribute and cooperate. Clients subconsciously think, “Is this someone I want to work with for however long this project takes?”
But, professional doesn’t mean cold. Make small talk when appropriate.
Also, before the first meeting, learn the corporate hierarchy.
Use online file-sharing tools. Never load up anyone’s email with massive files. Send a link from which they can access the files.
Q: How do you set budgets for a project?
Thorn: “Every company says, ‘We have no budget,’ yet somehow people get hired. Every company is different when it comes to corporate communications. The hardest part for you is knowing how much to charge; it seems like it’s changing all the time. The hardest part for me is knowing how much to pay, because it fluctuates so much.”
Krasner: “We follow the market rate for Web writing and SEO writing: $.50 a page. It’s best to get paid by the page than by the hour, because once you become experienced, you can crank the work out. While the rate might not sound great, there is tremendous volume.”
Detz: “Look at the budget from a business standpoint. Look at the big picture. Be flexible and be smart. A corporation will be glad to pay you a lot of money over a long time if you make their life easier… In corporate work, speechwriting is about the most lucrative in the market – in the $5,000-$15,000 range.”
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