The role and impact of solo PR agencies today (featuring Karen Swim)

It's easier than ever for communicators to go solo, but how is that changing the industry?

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Karen Swim is a tireless advocate for solo agency owners. She is the president of the membership organization Solo PR Pro, founder of the PR and marketing agency Words For Hire, and co host of That Solo Life podcast.

On this episode of Chats with Chip, Karen breaks down how changes to the workforce and agency culture have allowed independents and micro agencies more freedom and flexibility than ever before. She also advises how having a financial plan and advances in technology can help smooth the path for solo agency owners.

Quotes

  • Chip: “And a lot of multi employee agencies are supplementing their workforce with freelancers, contractors, etc, as well. So it’s not just solos that are turning to contract labor in order to expand their reach or capabilities, it’s really across the board.”
  • Karen: “With Solo PR Pros, because you are in charge, you really are able to see business from a much wider lens. And with that perspective, I think that we have driven a lot of the changes that have come and happened for our industry as a whole.”
  • Chip: “This mirrors a lot of what’s going on in society as a whole. Because the whole gig economy concept is really revolutionizing a lot of different sectors. In PR, solos have been commonplace, if you will, for a long time. But I think they’re being perceived differently.”
  • Karen: “But the thing that I love now is that being a solo doesn’t even have to be a forever choice. The younger generation sees work in a different way that we do, and they see that you can progress your career, and you take those steps up the ladder, or sideways across the ladder, however you want to, with a mixture of traditional or self employment. And so what we see now is people moving in and out of solo and employment.”

About Karen Swim

Karen has more than two decades of experience in public relations and marketing communications, sales management, and strategic marketing. She uses integrative problem-solving to customize marketing and content solutions for clients. An award-winning sales and marketing professional with a depth of business expertise, clients value Karen’s broad-ranging knowledge, and commitment to helping them reach their goals. (more)

Resources

Transcript

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I am your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Karen Swim. She is the president of Solo PR Pro, founder of Words For Hire, and co host of That Solo Life podcast. Welcome to the show, Karen.

KAREN: Why, thank you, Chip, thank you so much for having me.

CHIP: So that’s, that’s a lot of titles there. So let’s let’s break them down. Because I think it’s good background for listeners before we jump into the topic at hand. Obviously, for this particular discussion, a key part of that is that you are the president of Solo PR Pro, what is Solo PR pro?

KAREN: Yes, Solo PR Pro is a professional membership organization for communicators that are independent or run micro agencies. So people in public relations, social media, digital marketing, and obviously PR.

CHIP: And this is obviously something that you have great familiarity with, in your role as the founder of Words For Hire.

KAREN: I do. I have been at this for 14 years running my own agency. So it’s a topic that I live and not just teach or support and advocate, but I’ve been doing it for almost 15 years now.

CHIP: Fantastic. And can you tell listeners a little bit about Words For Hire and what your focus is?

KAREN: Absolutely. So in spite of the name, Words For Hire actually is a public relations and marketing agency. And I actually offer both disciplines to clients. And so I work with primarily clients in b2b, technology, and some nonprofits.

CHIP: Excellent. And then finally, you’ve recently started a podcast.

KAREN: I have, I’m following your lead, Chip and learning from you. We have a brand new podcast called That Solo Life. And I co host that with another solo. Michelle Kane of Voice Matters.

CHIP: Fantastic. Well, I would obviously encourage folks to give that a listen, if you’re listening to this podcast, I think that’s probably something that many of you, particularly those who are solos would appreciate. But my guess is you have lots of content on there, that would be helpful, even if someone is not a solo practitioner.

KAREN: Absolutely, we try to – really the business topics that we cover so far, we’ve heard from people that are in traditional employment as well that find the tips useful. And I think that’s something that you know, as well as that so often, there are things that are unique to us as solos, but really, the broader spectrum of business, there’s a lot of crossover and a lot of the same interest and a lot of the same challenges, we just may have different ways to solve those things.

CHIP: Well, I think and that’s actually a good segue into the topic today, because there’s really a blurring of the lines between multi person agencies and solo agencies or solo practitioners or solopreneurs, whatever term someone applies to themselves, it’s really not like it was, you know, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, where an independent was thought of more as a freelancer, you really can provide a lot of the same agency experience even as a solo,

KAREN: That is absolutely true. And I think a lot of that has to do with the technological advances that we’ve made. And then just a sophistication being out on your own, you have access to all of the same tools and resources, and many solos are actually not just on their own anymore, they may have a virtual team of people, they may team up with other colleagues, have, you know, partnerships. And so they actually do look very much like any other agency.

CHIP: And a lot of multi employee agencies are supplementing their workforce with freelancers, contractors, etc, as well. So it’s, it’s not just solos that are turning to contract labor in order to expand their reach or capabilities, it’s really across the board.

KAREN: Absolutely. And, you know, I’m glad that you brought that up. In my own experience, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with a lot of large global PR agencies. And like every other business model, what they find is that it sometimes can be more efficient to hire support in specific areas and keep your own team focused on core capabilities. And so it’s not an either or decision for an agency or for an organization to have in house or external. But it makes sense to look at your resources and apply them where they make the most sense. And so sometimes bringing in someone from the outside allows you to hire that expertise that you need for specific accounts or projects, without taking away from the things that your team needs to stay focused on.

CHIP: And now you recently had an article in PRSA, the Public Relations Society of America, Strategies and Tactics publication, where you talked about how independent professionals are revolutionising the PR business. What exactly do you mean?

KAREN: What I mean by that is that by being an independent public relations professional, one of the things that’s revolutionary is that the agility and the broad base of knowledge that they have to offer. And so in many ways, I believe that they’ve moved the industry forward by not viewing the, the public relations through such a narrow lens. So oftentimes, within an agency model, or the traditional agency model, you have people that are very specific and focused in on very narrow tactics. So you may have someone and they do Media Relations, and that’s all but they’re missing the broader spectrum of the entire business. And so maybe either they’ve never been exposed to analytics, and they don’t understand how media relations impacts bottom line growth for their clients. With Solo PR Pros, because you are in charge, you really are able to see business from a much wider lens. And with that perspective, I think that we have driven a lot of the changes that have come and happened for our industry as a whole.

CHIP: Well this I think mirrors a lot of what’s going on in society as a whole, right. Because the whole gig economy concept is really revolutionising a lot of different sectors. In PR, solos have been commonplace, if you will, for a long time. But I think they’re being perceived differently. And I think that’s part of what you’re saying, right?

KAREN: Absolutely. And you’re and you know, that’s a good point about the gig economy. And I’ve talked about that as well, the gig economy and the way that they’ve approached work and the way that they’ve approached looking at work, that perspective has absolutely changed how we as a culture, view, the workplace and the workforce at large and how we think about how work happens and where it needs to happen, and how we break down work and how we deliver it. So you’re absolutely correct.

CHIP: And I think there’s a, there’s a changing mindset of people as well who are choosing to go solo, for reasons that they might not have years ago. So when I was first getting started 25 years ago, a lot of the solos were, they might have been people more advanced in their careers and looking to hang out a shingle and really control their own destiny a little bit more, or they might have been people who, you know, were out of the workforce. I know, when I first became a solo, it was because I was unemployed, it sounded a whole lot better to call myself a solo consultant instead. And you know, it’s very common, you know, but today, I see more younger people who simply choose to live this solo existence, because it gives them flexibility elsewhere in their life, or professional careers.

KAREN: You know, one of the things that I really love and that I’ve noticed even in in the past decade, that has really changed. And you’re right, you know, I came up in the business world in an era where a consultant was somebody who had been downsized, been, you know, and so they were doing this as a filler in between, sometimes they continued to do it, because they found that they loved it. But maybe they ended up being a consultant with larger companies. And so that was their role. But the thing that I love now is that being a solo doesn’t even have to be a forever choice. And so the younger generation sees work in a different way that we do, and they see that you can progress your career, and you take those steps up the ladder, or sideways across the ladder, however you want to, with a mixture of traditional or self employment. And so what we see now is people moving in and out of solo and employment. And I think that that is a significant change. Because in the past, you know, sometimes traditional employers also viewed you being on your own as a, you know, as a disadvantage, because they felt that, once you’ve done that, there was no way that you could come back into an employment environment and be valuable. But now that’s completely changing. So you have the younger generation saying, you know, at this point in my career, I want to learn something new. And so the next step for me is self employment. And then maybe five years later, an opportunity comes that allows them to grow and to progress their career, so they go back into an employment. So I love that. And I think that that’s a very positive change for everyone.

CHIP: Yeah, there’s, there’s a lot of flexibility for solos today, they can choose, as you say, to go back to a traditional employment situation or a hybrid situation, they can choose to remain solo, or they can scale up. And I think a lot of the changes in the workforce, and the advances in technology have really made it much more practical for people to make the choices that are right for them rather than feeling like they’re boxed in.

KAREN: Absolutely, absolutely. And at different seasons in your life. It you know, you can do whatever works for you in that season. Sometimes people choose to go back into employment, because they have kids approaching college age, and sometimes they step out of the workforce, and they’re on their own because they have children that are small, or maybe they have parents that are getting older, and they need greater flexibility within their schedules. I have to say the one thing that hasn’t happened for solos, or for people that are traditionally employed as unfortunately, all the flexibility and agility hasn’t led us to achieve that ever elusive, perfect work life balance. And the same technology that allows us to work from anywhere is the same technology that allows us to work from anywhere. So I’m hoping that we’ll see some changes in that in the United States, at least over the next couple of years.

CHIP: Well, that’s a good point too, you know, because the you know, I remember back when I was a solo, and if I wanted to take a vacation, it meant basically, you know, shutting everything down for my clients other than perhaps being available by a cell phone or something like that. I recall one particular vacation I took about 20 years ago, my wife and I went to Ireland for a week, and I had to rent a cell phone so that I had something over there with me, so that you know, in case of emergency break glass type thing. You know, nowadays, you don’t need that because most cell phones can function anywhere, you can get online and check into things. So it certainly in some ways gives you that freedom to travel and do things at the same time, as you’re pointing out it also, it means you’re tethered to your job seven days a week, no matter where you are at times.

KAREN: Absolutely. And so you really have to be quite intentional about fully disconnecting and some are better at it than others. But it is not our cultural norm. And we do see other countries that are able to do that when they go on holiday. They’re really gone. They’re not checking email. They’re not doing meetings, it that – we haven’t quite progressed to that level in the US yet, but there’s hope for us. I have hope for us.

CHIP: I know I’ve done a lot of international work, particularly in recent years. And it is, it was an adjustment for me working with colleagues and and partners who would, you know, just disappear for two weeks in the summer and not think anything of not checking email or anything like that. I, as an American entrepreneur, I have a really difficult time wrapping my mind around it. But there’s certainly something healthy. There’s something healthy about it, even though it’s difficult to contemplate.

KAREN: Yeah, we’ve been… we definitely, our culture has not encouraged that, let’s say And so yeah, I work with international clients as well. And they take holidays, you know, three, four weeks, they may, you know, take a real summer vacation. And it’s weird to me. But you know, I’m also slightly jealous of that, because I can’t see myself being completely disconnected for four weeks.

CHIP: Yeah, that would be – I mean, honestly, I’m not sure I would want to be, and I confess to being a bit of a workaholic, and I get energy from doing work. So for me, completely shutting down for four weeks would probably be miserable. I haven’t tried it. I can’t tell you for sure. But that would be my guess. You know, there’s probably some healthy middle ground in there that we all should be trying to achieve. Yes, exactly. So you know, one of the things that I think modern technology does enable those, and something I’ve seen amongst my clients and others is that there’s more collaboration between solos, particularly for you know, whether that’s, you know, working on on projects. So a lot of times you may have solos with complementary expertise, and so they can join together to work on particular client projects. And you can also use it in some cases as backup coverage so that you can actually take a week’s holiday, your client is still getting full level of service. So they don’t feel cheated in any way. But you’re also getting the chance to disconnect.

KAREN: Absolutely. And the technology that allows people to collaborate is really beautiful. And it’s why we are seeing, really more solos are more like micro agencies. And so not everyone wants to build their traditional agency with employees and branches all over the world. But you do have many solos that are running agencies of their own, with people that are distributed across the US. And sometimes they work internationally as well. Exactly because of what you said, because the technology allows them to collaborate, you have cloud storage, so that everyone can access files, you have all of these collaboration tools, and you have your CRM, and you can share things and you can trade information quite easily. So it makes it very easy. And solos just like any other organization that allows them to also efficiently use their resources. And so you can customize your account teams, if you’re bringing on an account that requires expertise in a different area than you possess, you can always tap into another solo and bring that talent onto your team. So it doesn’t require you to learn something new unless you choose to do that or do something that’s really outside of your sweet spot. And I think, you know, again, that is the wonderful thing that we have available today that wasn’t available to us, you know, 20 years ago,

CHIP: And not only is it available, but it’s also affordable. And that I think is the real kicker, you know, you can have access to all of this big company style technology, even if you’re a solo or a small agency.

KAREN: Absolutely, absolutely. And we really appreciate those companies that make those tools affordable for smaller business budgets. I would say the one area that still needs a little work are media databases, but in the big scheme of things, you know, it’s a cost of doing business. But sometimes those services are priced, much higher than make sense for a smaller business. But hopefully they’ll get there one day as well.

CHIP: Now, one of the things that I’ve noticed over the years, and I’m curious what you’re seeing today is…it used to be that there was a real tension, there were some solos who would try to hide the fact that they were solo, they would sort of put a front up that they were a quote unquote real agency. There were others who said, Gosh, I can’t call myself an agency, because I’m only a solo. So that’s, that’s not really an agency. You know, what, what trends have you seen recently? Is there a shift taking place? Or is it that same tension that’s always existed?

KAREN: I believe that that tension definitely has eroded and we see more solos just stepping up and saying you know that they’re a solo and that they’re running their own company, and that they sometimes work with partners. And some don’t, you know, some, like that idea of letting clients know that you’re working directly with a senior level professional. And so you will get that attention, you’re not going to have to work with interns or junior level employees. And there is still a tendency for some organizations to want much, much larger agencies. But I don’t think that there is quite the prejudice that existed before where solos are discounted simply because of their size.

CHIP: I think a lot of it comes down to the individual understanding what it is that they want to do. And you know, one of the things that I’ve done with some of the larger agencies in my agency consulting businesses, I’ve put together a framework called AIM-GET, which allows them to figure out how to organize their business. But it starts with the A, which is ambition. In other words, what do you want to achieve with your agency and solos need to think the same way because some want to be effectively freelancers, some want to be a mini agency, some are looking for something else entirely, but you really need to start with, What is it that you want out of your business?

KAREN: Absolutely, absolutely. And, and whatever that is for you, that’s fine. There’s not one way or one model that you have to stay, you know, a part of and you can actually evolve that, you know, there are some that started out and they only, you know, they wanted to keep it small, they wanted to work with very specific clients. And then, you know, a few years later, they wanted to make that pivot. And they did want to build, you know, that larger agency, and all of that is perfectly okay.

CHIP: That’s a critical point, that it’s so important for solos to understand that there is no wrong answer, it is something where they need to think about what is right for them. And in some cases, that may be you know, they may choose to go solo, because they wanted some freedom and independence, they may have chosen to do it because they could see a path to making more money than they might as an employee somewhere, some are doing it because it provides the ability to have more flexible hours or things like that. There are all sorts of reasons that people become solos, and they just need to be true to themselves and build the business around that idea.

KAREN: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you say that, because freedom and choice is really, I think, the key driving – the key driver for everyone who becomes a solo, a recent – FreshBooks does this independent market survey and in their third annual report, you know, they said that, you know, that people aspire to work for themselves. 65% because they want to choose when to work, 56% because they want to choose how hard they work. 47% want control over where they work. So you know that freedom, again, is really what drives everyone. And and those choices may be different for everyone. But it really all boils down to freedom, flexibility and control.

CHIP: How have you seen things like social networks affect the solo business? I think in particular of when I first started out as a solo, one of the things I missed was sort of water cooler conversations that you would have with your colleagues in an office. Social can obviously take a piece of that there are a lot of Slack or Facebook communities for solos. But how have you seen that evolve? And how do you see that continuing to change?

KAREN: Well, you know, Solo PR Pro, that’s one of the reasons that we were the organization was created. And it’s, you know, really the core of why we exist, is because being a solo doesn’t mean that you have to do it on your own. So we have a community of people that really function as colleagues and it takes the place of that water cooler, it takes the place of, you know, being able to walk down to someone else’s office and brainstorm through a challenge or ask a question and get help when you need it. But social media in general, where I see the biggest benefit, and the change that that’s brought to the solo community is really being able to have a direct connection to not only your peers, your colleagues, but to organizations, media and your audience. So in the past, it was a lot more difficult and a lot more complex to get at, you know, what were people thinking? What does your audience want, what resonates, what doesn’t resonate? And now we have these social tools that are so powerful for listening, learning and research. And so that is where I really see the biggest impact with social media.

CHIP: Well, we’re creeping up on the the end of the time we have available but if I’m listening to this podcast, and let’s say that I’m working in an agency or in house somewhere, and I’m thinking about maybe going solo, or maybe I’ve been out of the workforce for a little bit and thinking about coming back in as a solo, what advice would you have for someone just getting started down that path?

KAREN: The advice that I would have is take some time to talk to people who have been doing it, have a plan. That means a financial plan, because you should plan your income in advance, have a plan for who you want to serve, and the areas that you want to serve. Don’t just take the leap without really knowing what you’re going to do. And realize that one of the most important things that you can learn if you’re going to spend some time, you know, trying to prepare for that move is to learn the business side. Because doing the work is the easiest thing about running your own business. It’s all of the other things that go into that. It’s the business development piece – without clients, you don’t have a business. Understanding, you know, what a profit margin actually is. Because you have to be able to price accordingly. Understanding how to identify your audience. And then you know, don’t spend so much time planning that you suffer from analysis paralysis, if it’s something that you really are feeling like, you know what, I really want to do this, take the leap, I promise you won’t regret it.

CHIP: Well, I think you’ve made a fantastic point to end on there, which is that if you’re a solo, you are running a business. And the place where I’ve seen most solos get tripped up over the years, the ones who get frustrated, it’s because they didn’t think of what they were doing as a business. They didn’t, you know, they didn’t run it where they were clearly tracking, profit and loss on a project level, on a business level, and really understanding all of those business basics. And I think if you understand those, and if you understand what you’re trying to accomplish, you can be quite successful as a solo, but if you ignore those things, it’s going to be a real challenge.

KAREN: I agree.

CHIP: Well, on that note of agreement, if someone is interested in learning more about you or Solo PR Pro, where should they go?

KAREN: You can find me at Karenswim.com or soloprpro.com and I’m on all of the social networks as Karen Swim and welcome anyone to follow me there because I love chatting with new people and would love to, you know, answer any questions or be a support system for you.

CHIP: Excellent. We’ll include links to all of those in the show notes as well as a link to That Solo Life podcast so that if you’re listening to this while you’re on the treadmill, out jogging, or in your car, you don’t have to stop and make a note now we’ll have that all for you. So just check out the show notes. Again, my guest today has been Karen Swim of Solo PR Pro, Words For Hire, and That Solo Life podcast. Thanks for joining me.