Working for Free(lance) - Valerie Andrews

Guest Blogger: Valerie Andrews

Valerie is a former professor at Loyola University New Orleans and the former director of the Shawn M. Donnelley Center for Nonprofit Communications

Imagine going to your doctor, having a battery of tests run and then saying, “thanks for your advice. I’ve got it from here. Oh, and I can’t pay you, so maybe we can trade out on something.”

 You get professional services, but you don’t want to pay for them or think you can do the work yourself, now that you’ve gotten some foundational advice.

 No sane person does this. But people think nothing of asking self-employed/freelance communication professionals to do this. If you’re a photographer, writer, graphic artist, editor, website designer or other industry-related freelancer, you’re nodding your head because this has happened to you. A lot. 

Why would someone think this way? It’s because of a few popular myths…

MYTH 1:  You’ve got no expenses because, after all, you work for yourself. There’s no payroll to manage, and you probably work out of your house.

MYTH 2:  You don’t need years of training, education and experience in the field. Lots of people who never went to college or who did and majored in underwater basketry work in communication.  After all, to be in PR, you just have to like people, right?

MYTH 3:  If you’ve got a computer (or worse, a phone) you’re a “professional communicator.” Anybody can write, edit, design, take photos, manage social media.

How much truth is there in the myth?

TRUTH 1: Just as you wouldn’t expect your tax preparer to accurately file your taxes on time with the IRS for free, no one should expect a person to do PR, advertising, social media, photography or graphic design to give their work away either. Whether you’re doing this for a living or as a side gig, you’re doing it for money. Especially those who are self-employed must pay for groceries and utilities. Plus, most freelancers incur some expenses while working on any given project.

HOW TO HANDLE IT: If you’re approached for any type of work, get a contract or agreement for the work to be done. Spell out what needs to be done in as much detail as possible, quote a price, and stick to it! Don’t undervalue yourself or your work, and don’t be bullied into doing work for free for some “future payout.”

TRUTH 2:  Certainly there are those who are naturally gifted, but nobody wakes up one morning and knows how to diagnose hypertensive encephalopathy. In your own career, you don’t wake up one day and understand strategy, analysis, media law and ethics, deadlines, production requirements or lens exposures either. Professionals work to learn the field and continue to learn as their share their skills and knowledge with their clients.

HOW TO HANDLE IT: In any discussion with a potential client, emphasize that you do due diligence before starting any project. That usually involves research of some kind, identifying target audience characters, understanding media requirements and deadlines, keeping up with social media trends and analysis. Make sure your client knows that anybody can post on social media, but not everyone understands why, how or when.

TRUTH 3: A computer (or cell phone) in the wrong hands (i.e., untrained hands) can be almost as dangerous as a gun. While it may be physically possible to write, edit, design, take photos or manage social media without a solid knowledge base, you can wind up doing more harm than good. Professional communicators can keep you out of trouble or help you get out of it because they understand the situation and know what strategic tactics to employ and when.

HOW TO HANDLE IT: Make sure your client understands that you work ethically and legally and that you adhere to professional standards. Emphasize (again) your education and training, and make sure you state that you are working on their behalf and consider their reputation as well as your own throughout the project.

The bottom line is:

You would never ask a professional to work for free, nor should you expect it, even when dealing with friends.  Don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of doing freelance work for free. Remember, people value what they have to pay for.


Good luck!


James LambertComment