13 December 2001
3,585 words

ASJA panel:
PR pays $60 an hour and up in hard times
Journalists find transition isn't that bad
Ethical caveats, but needn't sell your soul

By Anthony Liversidge

NEW YORK -- Writers can still make good bucks by tapping the public relations market. The money's fair. You don't have to do as much research. You can make good writing contacts. And you don't have to jeopardize your status as a freelance writer.

That was the message of a panel of PR writers and the people who hire them, who discussed typical projects, fees, and how to get the work, at a meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) on 30 October at the Society of Illustrators building on E. 63rd St.

About 60 writers turned up for this event, hoping to survive the post-September 11 recession by turning to supplemental PR work, and the panel made it sound promising. Fees range from $50 to $80 an hour, but the high end can be $100 or even $200 an hour. One speechwriter got $175 an hour. A press kit might pay $3,000 to $6,000, they said.

One reason it's promising, the panelists said, is that PR agencies are laying off fulltime people, so freelancers will be used to replace them. Another reason is that the young hires at the agencies tend to be incompetent writers -- in fact, writing talent is not often seen at agencies, they asserted.

Youth vs. age

Your ability to identify a good news story and write a good lead is a valuable commodity, the panel said -- valuable enough to overcome age discrimination.

Though agencies are cutting back on staff at this time, that also means they are "desperate" for writers from outside, said April W. Klimley, a Manhattan business writer, editor, and editorial consultant who has worked for the Far East Economic Review and the BBC. She is the new editor of Visions, the monthly magazine of the Product Development and Management Association.

"All in all, PR is a wonderful adjunct to editorial services and writing, especially in this economy," said Klimley.

"There are a lot of young people out there who can't research, can't write, and don't know anything about PR," working in the agencies, said Klimley. "They can't do the work. It is skill that counts. There is no corporate ladder which narrows with age here."

Financial writer Bruce W. Fraser, who moderated the panel, urges all PR people to get some media training before they go into the business. "It boggles my mind that people can go into PR and make such big bucks and don't have any media background. They come out of sales or they come directly out of college, and that's why they have to hire freelancers," said Fraser, who spent 15 years as a newspaper reporter and is now teaching a course in business communications at Baruch College.

"Sell yourself as a good pitch person, with the ability to write and anticipate the news," said Philip J. Nourie, formerly an account executive with Rubenstein Public Relations. "They need you." The war is dominating the news right now, he says, but even so the stock market is moving forward, and there are many stories to be covered.

In the current climate all the big firms are downsizing, says Nourie, but this means they need "excellent writers, for there aren't too many of those in the agencies."

Typically in these firms "the CEO goes out and gets clients," said Nourie. "Then kids two years out of college get on the phone and start pitching stories. They make a lot of calls but not a lot of sense."

In this climate, "with boutiques, there's hope!" said Nourie. "I only started two weeks ago."

Avoiding conflicts of interest

"There are conflict-of-interest issues when you are a writer and also doing PR," said Alice Shane, a freelance business and medical writer in Summit, NJ. "The clients may believe you will contact the editors you work for," which you must never do, she said. You have to keep it entirely separate. "Do it with magazines you do not plan to write for."

"You should keep your PR areas distinct from your magazine coverage," said William K. Adler, Director of Corporate Communications for Reader's Digest Co. and former Corporate Communications Director of The New York Times. Adler occasionally uses freelancers, although after a recent announcement that he was looking for writers he was swamped with resumes.

One magazine writer, recalled Adler, started reporting on the same people and companies he was doing PR for. The editor called him in and asked him to choose. He chose PR.

"If you are nervous about crossover, go into a completely opposite field," such as medical, said Fraser. When he pitches clients as a PR person, he writes at the bottom of his e-mail that he is a writer retained by the client and paid by the client, just to make it clear. He doesn't believe in getting paid by both the client for the placement and by the magazine for the story, as some writers do.

They also gave tips on their craft. Adler's strategy for dealing with bad news was to be frank with the press -- which goes against the client's instinct of concealing it. A lot of PR skill involves educating the client about how the media works and why short is better than long. They gave tips on web sites and directories that list potential clients, but it's always best to meet them in person through your networking.

Aggressive marketing

Shane advised going to O'Dwyer's PR Daily News site for a list of PR firms that hire freelancers. Many people say that networking and referrals are the best-trodden paths to clients, but she has found her best clients from aggressive marketing.

"PR can be a crazy business," says Shane. "All the most insignificant companies want to get into the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I never promise them anything. In fact, I tell them it takes a really long time to get major placements. I always do get them, though."

"Clients screw things up, too," said Shane. "I spent many months getting a four-hour interview with Fortune for one client, who told them he couldn't tell them his major customers," she recalled. "CEOs have major egos and don't believe they need PR at all, and think that you will constantly get them into major media."

Fees were in the ballpark of $75 to $80 an hour until September 11, said Shane, but now in the recession they are offering $60 an hour to start. For press releases and backgrounders, $75 to $80 an hour is pretty safe territory. These are payment from agencies -- if you have your own clients directly, you can charge $100 an hour. You may even get $200 an hour, she said. You need some sense of what the client is willing to pay.

"They may offer a retainer," said Shane, "which is the most desirable basis for payment." A PR firm may pay $4,500 to $5,000 a month, "but that may become a full time job, as it did for me," she said. A client may pay a direct retainer of $2,500 to $6,000, $7,000 or $8,000.

Magazine writing and PR

Klimley, a tall blonde woman in a red suit, is a veteran of banking PR.

"I like editorial services better than PR," says Klimley, "but public relations is a good way to supplement your feelance writing." In 1982 April started her own firm, providing financial communications and PR strategy for community banks.

A few years later she expanded into insurance, employee benefits and writing special advertising sections. At times, she hires people herself. (She advertised for a proofreader in the Editorial Freelancers Association job list.)

"I always do some PR to keep my hand in, and supplement the editorial services I offer," said Klimley.

Find out from agencies what editorial services they might use, said Klimley. Brochures are lucrative, though it can be a problem not to be in direct contact with the client, since it is then hard to know exactly what they need.

Magazine work can lead to PR projects occasionally, for example, writing for supplements with good news content. Goldman Sachs hired Klimley after seeing a pension piece she did for Barron's. "I am careful not to solicit other kinds of work while doing special sections," she said, "but it is possible to follow up afterwards."

PR can help expand your existing network of contacts for magazine work, too, said Klimley.

"In 1999 and 2000 I had a gap in my business and needed more work so I did media placement for a small PR agency," said Klimley. "For a magazine writer this is like falling off a log. Small agencies look for people to do placement off-site. It can be a nice, regular income, though I don't like the fact it clogs up your phone with press calls."

If you want to pursue work in media relations, said Klimley, use the "rabbis" in your life -- those people who love to get together with you and help you out.

Klimley suggests identifying companies who seem in need of PR help to improve their existing product. For example, she pursued regional banks in Syracuse and upstate New York whose annual reports were "terrible."

"I got lots of work that way," said Klimley. "If a company does not look good in the press, you can strike it rich getting them better publicity. You can sometimes even get this business by cold calling."

That is one way you can collect clips and contacts, said Klimley.

Two associations that can help expand contacts are Human Resources NY and the Women Financial Writers Association, said Klimley. But if you join, you must attend the meetings. She quoted Woody Allen's famous saying that "Showing up is 90 percent of life."

"Even though I am a one woman shop," said Klimley, "I still advertise in places like the IABC Bulletin and in Jack O'Dwyer's newsletter."

Small client niche

Nourie just left to start his own shop, Nourie Public Relations, after being "rainmaker," or Director of New Business Development, at Shea Communications, and before that, dealing with the stars at Rubenstein.

"I have just started out on my own because I saw that the big agencies cannot afford to take on clients for less than $10,000 a month, and boutiques can," said Nourie. "So I intend to serve that market."

Tall, in a dark suit, Nourie is a lively, joking personality. "I know," he said to the assembled journalists, "you have to hate me because I am a PR guy!"

Nourie has two major clients, one in information technology consulting, another in e-solutions. "I focus on financial and real estate," he said. "Real estate is going to be a very interesting sector in the next couple of quarters."

Nourie expects to subcontract at perhaps $50 an hour, depending on his own contract. At Rubenstein he handled Citibank, and a lot of different products. As PR firms downsize, banks are taking their PR in-house. They need freelancers for their promotions of new services, talented financial writers familiar with the new markets and instruments.

The need for subject expertise depends on the project, said Nourie. "If you are doing PR for Sotheby's you need to know what Auction Week is."

"We need specialists knowledgeable in corporate communications and financial work," said Adler. "But good writers are desperately needed.

Nourie's suggested phone pitch is, "I have been reading about ADR and the new services and maybe there is an opportunity here to educate the public about them."

"You should network with media specialists," said Nourie. The Counselors Academy of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) lists PR "counselors" in different industries and sectors, "from high tech to sports." Check the PRSA Red Book, available at any library.

"How do you get at Ruder and Finn?" asked one woman in the audience. "Don't call and ask for the guy in charge of editorial services or an account supervisor you never met," said Nourie. "Call someone you met."

Selling your soul?

Adler has been in corporate communications and PR for twenty years, after five years as a reporter, editor and photographer for UPI.

"I used to be like John Cusack in 'Say Anything,'" says Adler, apparently meaning, wary of taking business too seriously.

"My favorite book," said Adler, is "Revolutionary Road" (1955) by Richard Yates, where the hero is forced to resort to taking a job in PR. Yates' books are about "compromise and lost dreams." Instead of competing for the Pulitzer, the protagonist ends up writing press releases, and spends half the book writing a booklet titled "Speaking of Industrial Controls."

"But a wise older executive at UPI told me that you don't have to sell your soul or sell people what they don't want," said Adler. "You just use your writing skills to allow people to weigh the situation for themselves. You just have to give them the information -- you don't have to go all the way and pitch or twist arms."

4 levels of immersion

Journalists can go to PR and back again, said Adler. He gave the example of Bill Moyers who crossed the line from journalism to PR, wrote speeches for Lyndon Johnson, and went back to PBS.

So how to approach PR opportunities in the war economy? Adler gave 4 different levels of "increasing immersion":

  1. Below the radar: Without publicly identifying yourself, you can write and edit. Your skills may be "hugely" ahead of those in the agencies.

  2. Below the horizon: Ghost writing and white papers.

  3. Flying in formation: Writing speeches and press releases, the chairman's letter in the annual report.

  4. In the line of fire: Dealing with the press, pitching.

"It's up to you how involved you get," said Adler.

3 degrees of involvement

Adler also has an ABC for the different "levels of involvement" in PR according to what you acknowledge:

  1. Stay out of range, copy editing and ghost writing.

  2. You do it but you keep it simple, cleanly separated from your writer persona.

  3. You are doing PR. If they don't like it, tough.

$32 an hour to $1,500 a day

Three of Adler's freelancers vary "hugely" in what they charge.

"One is a brilliant copy editor, the kind of person who sits down and circles typos on menus before even choosing his meal," said Adler. He bills at $32 an hour, "and I add hours without telling him," he said. "He works very hard, and he catches errors which would have embarrassed us badly. He works on our annual report."

Another writes speeches for the chairman at $175 an hour. "That, by the way, is not as highly paid as some," said Adler. "But he comes in at a very experienced level, good to go."

"A third is a high-flying creative type who charges $1,500 a day," said Adler. "He is a pundit with an image who speaks directly to the chairman and maybe even makes me leave the room!" John Motavalli is an example of this kind of star, who was with Ad Week for years and now gives media advice to chairmen.

Writers might ask for samples of what the agency needs, said Adler. Do pro bono work, he advised -- clips are critical, and that is a good way to get them.

"I do pro bono work sometimes," said Adler, and sometimes he does more work on the pro bono projects than on his day job. "It is a labor of love."

In deciding to embark of PR work, "you just have to decide how the role fits you, how it feels for you," said Adler. "I went to a Celtic music festival two years ago in Britain and got a gig with the Boston Globe to report on it, but as soon as I started interviewing the principals in the tent behind the stage, I was down on all fours helping them plan how to draw a bigger audience next year.

"I realized then," said Adler, "I was an advocate by nature."

$3-6,000 for a press kit

The fee for a press kit depends on the industry, said Shane. You might get $3,000, or more if it is in finance or fashion. "A good financial assignment might mean $6,000," she said. "Always check around and see what others charge.

Being a member of the New York Financial Writers organization is a good way to get work writing press kits, Shane added.

A press kit can take up to two weeks, said Nourie. "The big problem is getting hold of the executives on the run," he said. "You should get a fact sheet and their bios, and the relevant releases."

"It could become a bigger project if it is viewed as a key to the launch of a new product, or a key to their corporate identity," said Adler. "Such a project can be charged an hourly fee. If you have done two or three already for the client it is a chance to get some serious margin. You must take an honest inventory of what the client wants. Be sure to ask."

Other genres for freelancing

Magazines produce ad sections, said Klimley. Call the publications and find out who is in charge.

Law firms also use freelancers, added Klimley, who suggested going through their PR agencies. "Try asking the managing partner who the firm uses for PR," added Shane. "It is a growing area."

Companies often use bylined articles, where they ask you to put your name on the PR as if it were your article.

"CEO's may often byline your articles," said Shane. "It happens in medicine a lot. You write and the doctor's name appears as author."

"It is often a useful tool for a quick fix reprint, say in banking in other states," said Nourie. "The branches may want a specific piece on the head of their branch."

"Forewords in books are often ghost written nowadays," said Nourie. "The star gets a huge amount of money and you get a small amount."

"There is a market for ghost writing Op-Ed pieces too," said Fraser.

Marketing approaches

Adler described how a woman got through to him on a cold call the other day, though he was "ridiculously busy." She said she was a freelancer and happened to be in the area visiting her parents, and could she have five minutes? "I gave her my time because it was such a good spiel," he said.

That's why networking is so important. "The ideal is to have a referral," said Klimley.

Writing style

There is still such a gap between the style of writing for magazines and press releases, commented one member of the audience. "Why don't they use the same technique of leads which grab you and easy story exposition?" he asked.

"They have got better in the last few years owing to the influence of the Web," said Adler. Now press releases are carried on the PR Newswire and go to 3,000 Web sites. "That puts pressure on them for a more coherent and journalistic style as they go into the collective ether. Investors can now read them without the disintermediation of reporters and columnists."

"The hardest part of the job is the client's urge to write the whole story and add in seven pages of boiler plate," said Nourie. "A writer must be able to advise that we don't want a three page fax on this news. The paper mill era is over. If you send out 15 press releases a week these days, they think your company is doing nothing. I tell clients it has to be news."

"I tell my students at Baruch that press releases should be no longer than a page and a half," commented Fraser.

It's a calling

"I don't like to be a hack or twist arms," said Adler, who is shorter, cheerful, and rosy cheeked, wearing a natty blue blazer. "I like to explain connections, write something I genuinely believe in, that is noble enough to be part of the world of communications."

"I wrote most of the Reader's Digest Annual Report," said Adler. "I try not to condescend or turn hyperbolic in writing the chairman's letter. I use simple, declarative sentences. Not selling anything, but rather, explain enthusiastically and with genuine conviction."

"I think overpromotional writing is bad PR," said Adler. "Stretching the truth, embellishing and reaching beyond the story makes enemies among investors who feel they are being sold a bill of goods. They want predictability -- they want the trust extended."

Handling bad news

"What if the company is falling apart, though?" he was asked.

"I have been there," said Adler. "Every piece of news was bad at UPI at one point. I developed a strategy of disarmingly frank bounceback from reporters who, smelling blood, came to us and asked what was happening. You need to keep the information coming, for if you are forthcoming with bad information there is a slight sympathy bounceback. The CEO's instinct is to conceal everything!"

"I would call the New York Times and tell them about a rival trying to take us down with a court case, for example, that they were filing in Delaware," recalled Adler. "The reporter says, 'Oh thank you Adler,' and asks what will happen next."


Related Upcoming Events

The PRSA also holds a regularly scheduled event, PR Tuesday Cocktail Reception, on the last Tuesday of each month, at 6-8pm. Location: Park Ave. Country Club, 381 Park Ave. S. (27th St.), (212) 685-3636. Anyone involved in PR is welcome. Bring business card for drawing. Cost: Whatever you drink. No RSVP. Info: PRSA-NY (212) 228-7228 or Emmanuel Tchividjian, Ruder Finn, (212) 583-2782 .