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Freelancers Win Free Publicity

Photography: Axel V

Advertising pays, but it also costs. The days when you could place an ad on AdWords and win a front-page spot for five cents a click are long gone. For freelancers in particular, the Web’s most important advertising channel is now far from a budget option. Target the phrase “freelance Web designer,” for example, and you can expect to pay as much as $3.39 for a click. Writers have it slightly easier: “freelance writer” costs just $1.43 per click but “freelance” anything is $1.50. Publicity though is free, and a write-up in a newspaper — or even a website — delivers benefits that go beyond the name recognition and link that paid advertising brings. It also turns the professional mentioned into an expert, gives them a brand and makes them the first choice when a reader needs the service they’re offering. It’s just a lot harder to win than an advertising slot.

The method is the press release, usually a single page containing a headline, a story idea, a quote and contact information. And usually it fails. Press release distribution agencies like PRWeb don’t release figures that reveal the success rate of their submissions. That’s a good sign that the figures are low but a better indication that most releases miss may be the quality of the unreviewed releases placed on the site. Most of the press releases issued through PRWeb by freelancers appear to be pushing not services or even news about freelancing that can turn the freelancer into an expert, but products, especially ebooks, written by freelancers about freelancing. Those aren’t the sorts of announcements that the media tends to want unless they’re appearing on the advertising pages.

The Media Wants Your News

And the media does want press releases. According to Nick Davies, a former journalist and author of Flat Earth News, an exposé of the media, when the Columbia Journalism Review examined one edition of the Wall Street Journal, the publication found that more than half the news stories in the paper were based entirely on press releases. These, Davies says, “were printed ‘almost verbatim or in paraphrase.’”

Press releases then can work. They can put companies in the news. But they have to be done properly.

Rather than examine the press releases that failed, a better way to understand the stories that the press wants to write about freelancers is to look at the reports that journalists have actually written about them. Very few of these are about freelancing itself. Instead, they tend to focus on events that feature freelancers.

Charity stories are one example. Kris Dreessen, a freelance photographer and writer, won a profile on the Gannett-owned DemocratandChronicle.com that discussed not her writing nor her images but the charitable work she does while traveling: distributing cameras and anti-mosquito screens in South America. The article included the address of her website, sending visitors to her blog. Some of those visitors are likely be the kind of buyers interested in stories and images about exotic locations. They now know that Kris Dreessen likes to visit those areas and is experienced in traveling through them.

That piece of publicity then might not have been about Dressen’s work but the additional exposure could certainly have helped to give her some extra work. Writing a press release that’s about your charitable efforts can be one way of drumming up publicity that benefits both your cause and your business.

Win a Prize, Win Publicity

Personal achievements can be of interest to the press too but only when the glory can enjoyed by the reader as well as the freelancer. When the New Zealand publication The Marlborough Express wrote about an award won by freelance curator Jane Vial, freelance writer Joy Stephens and the  Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre director Stephanie Cottrill, the headline explained why they were covering the story. The article began:

Blenheim women honoured for museum

A story that starts like that isn’t about two women few people previously heard of winning a prize that even fewer people care about. It’s a story about the town being noticed and honored. The publication is sharing the award with its readers.

Winning a prize then is one good subject for a freelancer’s press release. But you increase your chances of winning publicity with that press release when you expand the prize to include the reader too. You can do that by focusing on location, as The Marlborough Express did by emphasizing the locality of the winners: “Local writer wins big.”  But you can also do it by niche, announcing to other cartoonists that a cartoonist has won the Pulitzer, for example.

Awards though usually depend on judges. That makes them unpredictable. One way to gain control over events like these to set your own challenge then aim to beat it. Freelance jockey Corey Brown, for example, picked up publicity in The Sydney Morning Herald as he prepared for a record-breaking ride.

The principle behind these kinds of stories is the same as those behind announcements of awards. The headline:

Brown spreads the group 1 joy far and wide

again emphasizes not the freelancer’s personal achievement but why that achievement is something that can be shared by others. A Web designer looking for publicity by creating the largest number of websites in an hour then could write a press release that began:

Local Web designer targets site-launching record

What all of these press stories have in common is that they all describe a freelancer but none of them is about a freelancer. Instead, they’re about the reader, and that’s what reporters are really looking for when they dole out the publicity.

Write a press release to announce that you’ve just designed a new site, landed a new client or brought out a new book, and few people are going to care. Tell readers that they have another reason to be proud of where they live or what they do and you’ll give them a reason to read the story. You’ll also give potential buyers an expert place to turn for services.

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