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The future of PR freelancing: Experts, entrepreneurs and flexibly

Nearly half of the global workforce is freelancing. In the UK, ONS data shows self-employment reached a peak of 5 million at the end of 2019 (15.3% of total employment).

Growth in self-employment compensated for the loss of ‘payroll’ jobs after the global economic crash but was impacted by the pandemic and recent cost-of-living crisis. This shows how people flow into and out of periods of self-employment – from necessity if not choice.

IPSE, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, reports the number of solo self-employed people working in professional occupations rose by 15% in 2023, with those in associate professional and technical occupations increasing by 10%. It notes a long-term trend for women to become self-employed (63% growth since 2008). Similarly, more people with disabilities are moving into self-employment.

New story of freelancing

A new story about freelancing has emerged – driven by technical developments and enterprising younger workers. The 2023 Unconventional Jobs Survey found almost two-thirds of 18-34 year olds in the US either take on freelance work or expect to do so.

Described by author, Sue Ellson, as digitally competent, adaptable challenge seeking ‘gigsters’, these freelancers are motivated by the prospects of exploiting side hustles, a ‘gig-to-gig’ lifestyle, and crafting an original type of career that provides meaning, purpose, and financial reward.

A future of fulfilling freelance work is not the preserve of those in the early years of a career. IPSE research suggests almost a quarter of employees aged 45-54 are preparing for freelance work in their career trajectory.

Although there is limited data regarding freelance work in PR, one in ten respondents in industry research reports typically indicate their employment as freelance. The CIPR PR Population Report indicates one in 12 practitioners are self-employed, including those running a small business (data based on the 2021 Census for England and Wales).

We do know that most PR practitioners’ careers are nomadic – with frequent moves between employers and around the industry (see The persistent problem of PR churn).

Expertise, entrepreneurship, and flexible employment

A normalised pattern of ‘job hopping’ in PR relies on opportunism, agency, resilience, and flexibility as career strategies. Likewise, employers are engaged in a continuous ‘talent hunt’.

Flexible employment offers a freelance alternative, with types of employment contracts covering projects, hours worked, periods of time, or casual engagement. Additionally, freelancers may take on interim contracts when a permanent role is not needed, or to cover for maternity leave, periods of sickness/absence, or until a vacancy is filled.

Fractional employment is a future-oriented freelance option provided by those with specialist knowledge or skills for a fixed number of hours (commonly on a retained contract). This fractional resource is integrated into an organisation, taking on responsibilities, working autonomously, and/or contributing at a strategic level. For experienced freelancers, a suite of ‘mini jobs’ and multiple clients utilises and develops their portfolio of capabilities, offers operational breadth and depth, and builds a track record of impactful work. For employers, high-level services and specialist insight are available from a known individual and deployed exclusively to address critical needs.

Matt Widdoes predicts ‘fractional hiring’ is at an early adopter stage, ‘ahead of the curve for the next age of business’. It makes sense as a model for PR consultancies looking to accelerate growth.

The future of freelancing will offer new flexible employment opportunities for PR practitioners enabling organisations to be more agile and retain the services of valued employees as freelancers.

Organisations will also offer intrapreneurial opportunities as freelance contracts. Working as a self-employed PR intrapreneur involves establishing new initiatives for clients with access to internal resources and support services.

Some PR practitioners become freelance to start a business. They may work independently as a solopreneur or pursue entrepreneurial ambitions to establish a consultancy and employ people.

The future of freelancing will enable a greater number and variety of PR practitioners to establish business initiatives inside and outside of existing organisations. These engage networks of freelance solopreneurs rather than follow the established ‘PR consultancy’ model.

Further disruption of today’s world of work is expected from AI and other forms of technology, as well as demographic and sociocultural changes. The unpredictability of economic and political forces will require greater flexibility from organisations and expertise from freelance workers.

Jon Younger, who writes about the ‘freelance revolution’, observes how large organisations are establishing proprietary (‘prop’) talent marketplaces to directly source freelance workers, alongside trusted public platform partners. Freelancers with experience and an established reputation are well suited to capitalise on this demand for highly skilled, self-managing professionals. According to Younger, freelancers will demand more from marketplace platforms.

Arguably, such experts don’t need to advertise or respond to ‘job’ adverts. Their calibre is already acknowledged, their specialist offering is valued, and their contribution is respected. In turn, they are highly remunerated and thrive on complex and challenging assignments.

The expert freelancer produces quality work to their own high standards, selects which clients they are willing to work with, draws on evidence and accumulated wisdom, maintains up-to-date capabilities, and uses technology to work effectively in achieving their professional commitments.

The future of freelancing will see elite PR freelancers develop a recognisable collaborative studio approach. They’ll work with other independent experts and new talent, much as top film directors bring together a creative team for all their projects.

Freelancing will play a vital role in PR’s future – where expertise, entrepreneurship and flexibility of employment are established as valuable assets.

Author: Heather Yaxley. PhD. FCIPR

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