CONSULTING CAREER IS IN STORE FOR MANY IN THE PR FIELD


A well-known saying in public relations is that PR execs do not retire or fade away - they become consultants. We all know friends and associates who move into the world of consulting when retirement calls. These people work part-time for one or two clients - one of which often is a former employer. With computers, telecommunications and the Internet makin it easier to set up home offices, this phase in the life cycle of a PR person no doubt will continue. Beyond this, the odds are increasing that more PR people will find themselves operating as independent consultants at earlier stages in their career. In their 1994 book, "The Best Home-based Businesses of the 90s," Paul and Sarah Edwards listed home-based PR firms as among the 95 hottest home businesses out there -and estimated that there were 25,000 such PR firms in the United States. While this number seems high, clearly there are many hundreds if not thousands of such professionals in the United States. Another indicator of the rising numbers of sole practitioners is the growth in "PR temp" services. A number of these are operating in major cities around the country: Cantor Concern Staffing Options in New York, Paladin in Chicago and New York, and Merlin Freelancers Inc. in San Francisco. All say that their business is good this year, and has been growing over the past several years - with demand coming from both corporations and agencies. Hundreds of independent professionals have listed themselves with these services. What's Driving the Move To Solo The jump in sole practitioner firms appears to be driven by two forces - the desire for independence, and downsizing. First, many people find that going out on their offers many advantages - such as having flexibility to juggle work and personal commitments or interests, or offering a way to satisfy the urge to be one's own boss. Others see it as a way to boost their income. For Katherine Hutt, starting her own firm in Vienna, Va., earlier this year answered her need for challenge after six years in the public affairs department of insurance industry group, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Washington, D.C. Receiving lots of encouragement from friends and colleagues about the amount of work out there for independent PR practitioners, she "jumped with no clients in hand." Just eight months after launching her firm, Nautilus Communications, she has enough work that she subcontracts out some of it. Then of course, there are those who are forced to hang out a shingle when they lose a job and don't find another quickly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is common for laid-off executives over age 50. At the Public Relations Society of America conference in St. Louis this month, I met a senior communications executive who had been laid off from his position with an international banking concern in New York. While he is looking for his next full-time job, he is passing out business cards, and was able to turn up leads on assignments at the conference. His hope is for the consulting to be a bridge to a full-time position with another corporation. Preparing To Go Solo What should people do to prepare for one day becoming a "lone ranger?" First, they should build up a network of PR colleagues - whom they can turn to for advice as well as leads on possible assignments. New entrepreneur Hutt says people should have "at least 300 names in their Rolodex." Next, they should assess their expertise, and decide on the type of services and counsel they'd like to provide. They should also be thinking about areas in which they are weak, and continually be studying or taking on assignments that will improve their skills or knowledge in this areas. As most career counselors advise today, becoming an independent consultant requires that you should have pretty good skills with computers - knowing application packages (word processing, spreadsheets, database packages) as well as having some operating system and trouble-shooting skills. Some Internet and online service proficiency also is a must. For some executives, the move to entrepreneurship may be temporary - by design, or because it didn't suit them. Clients, however, want some commitment that a counselor will be available at least long enough to complete a project - and maybe longer. Those expecting to be consultants only for an interim period need to be upfront with clients and prospective clients about their plans, while at the same time being persuasive about their commitment to serving clients. They also must be careful not to take on too much work. Several months ago, I spoke with an executive who head left a West Coast agency to seek a corporate job or an agency position in which he was in line to become a partner. He brought in so much work as a consultant that he had difficulty finding the time to devote to his job search! In today's dynamic and at times turbulent PR job market, people no longer should expect that their career will progress in a steady pattern, with steady gains in responsibility and status, and no interruptions between jobs. And with corporations, associations and agencies maintaining lean staffs but allotting health budgets for outside help, the long-term prospects for PR "Lone Rangers" are good. Chances are pretty good that, whatever your position today, at some point in your career, you'll be one of them.

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