Gini Dietrich

Advice to Those Who Want to Build a PR Firm

By: Gini Dietrich | September 16, 2014 | 
58

PR FirmBy Gini Dietrich

I’m going to admit something out loud: I never intended to build a PR firm.

It was never on my to-do list.

I was most certainly on the partner track. I wanted my new business commission and my year-end bonus and my BMW.

It never occurred to me to do those things for myself.

About 12 years ago, during a dinner with a client, the topic of starting a PR firm came up.

I was adamant I would never do that. I liked the security of a consistent paycheck. I liked the full benefits. I liked knowing exactly how—and when—I would make partner.

But that conversation kept circulating in my head and, one day, an opportunity presented itself. I took the leap.

(The saying “never say never” is so true with me.)

I didn’t go full-force into building a PR firm, though. I freelanced for a while. I joined a virtual team of other experienced professionals. I tested different ideas and theories.

I always expected the other shoe to drop and, when it did, I’d go back to my cushy partner track at a big agency.

But when the other shoe didn’t drop during the down economy, I decided I should take this growing a PR firm thing seriously.

That was three years ago…and we continue to work toward a large vision.

Is it a Coinky Dink?

That’s why I’m always surprised when young professionals know exactly how their career paths are going to go.

They are going to get experience, learn everything they can on someone else’s dime, learn how not to do things, and then go out on their own.

They also have the sense to find mentors who have done what they want to do and aren’t shy about asking for advice, counsel, or help.

Things that never would have occurred to me. If I couldn’t figure it out on my own, why on earth would anyone want to help me?

Clearly young professionals have a thing or two to teach me.

Two weeks ago, I had three young women email me and ask for advice.

The first time I was surprised. The second time I wondered what was going on. By the third, it seemed like a PR professor somewhere along the line had put a bug in an entire class’s ears.

I still don’t know if any of these young women have any affiliation, but the coincidence (or coinky dink, as my Poppy would have said) was pretty funny…and strange.

How to Ask for Advice

I’ll give you the sense of the type of email each of them sent:

I am a new public relations professional. I’m reaching out to you because I recently read your feature on Social Media Today about starting your own PR firm. I’m also a huge fan of your blog, Spin Sucks.

Just like many young and ambitious PR pros, I’m eager to launch a public relations firm in my career. I realize many young PR pros have this dream, but this is a goal I am truly passionate about. I was wondering if you have time for a few questions about freelancing as a PR professional and any tips you might have for starting out.

I realize you are very busy, but your advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you for your time!

They all were similar.

Here’s what I appreciate about each of them:

  • They each made it very clear they’ve spent some time on this blog;
  • They each asked before they sent me their need;
  • They each were very clear about how I could help; and
  • They each were respectful of how I could provide them advice (in all cases, via email instead of suggesting an hour-long call).

Want to Build a PR Firm?

Here is what I told all three of them:

I went out on my own before I was 30 and that was a big mistake, in hindsight. I wish I had taken more time in the PR firm world to really understand how one works, how they bill clients, what the new business process is like, and how they report their financials to a board and a bank. These are the things you have to learn on the fly, if you don’t get the experience on the job, and it’s a very, very painful—and very expensive—lesson.

If I were to do it again, I would have kept the same journey, but I would have taken one more step and gone to an agency where I could have learned the financial side of things and been responsible for growth…on someone else’s dime. I probably would have opened my firm just two years later, had I done that, but it would have saved me about five years of mistakes.

You are going to prove yourself for a verrrrrrry long time. I’m still proving myself. I walk in the room and people think, “Pretty girl” before I open my mouth. And that always comes with a perception (pretty must mean dumb). It takes a lot of work to show people you aren’t dumb.

As a young woman, you’re going to face having to prove yourself most of your career. Women have come a long way, but we’re not there yet. If you’re inexperienced (just because of your age) and people have that perception, you’ll be fighting another uphill battle. It’s not fair, but it happens every day.

Take ownership of things. Don’t wait to be told to do something. Read a ton. Keep yourself educated and sharp. Go to meetings (both internal and with clients) with new and fresh ideas. Some will work and some will bomb, but don’t be afraid to speak up. That is the kind of person I promote because I can tell that person is as invested in the success of my business as I am. That’s also the kind of person you’ll want to work with when you start out on your own.

Get experience. Learn everything you can where you are. Get promoted as quickly as possible (once a year is great; twice a year is better). Learn how to lead—not manage. Learn the financial side of things. Learn how to do new business.

We all want instant gratification and we want have a big affect on the PR industry, but to do that, experience can’t be beat.

It’s a lot easier to sit here at 40 than at 27 and dole out this advice.

But that’s my advice: Get experience. Learn as much as you can about all aspects of building a PR firm. Learn how to interview, hire, and lead a team. Make friends with the accounting department. Go on new business pitches. Network and bring in prospects. Learn how to close a piece of new business.

You might be very, very good at your job. That’s not enough to build a PR firm. You have to also be very, very good at business. Use your experience to learn how to do that.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Good advice. I often wonder how many businesses of any type, including PR, start very similar to the way yours did, sort of unintentionally or unexpected?

  • Thanks for sharing this with us young pups, Gini! It’s always interesting to learn how a professional we all admire got where they are today. 
    And the interesting theme I notice amongst all admirable professionals is exactly this — they never planned or dreamed of it to happen.

  • ElissaFreeman

    De rigeur reading for anyone studying, starting out or mid-career in PR.

  • Good advice. Thanks for sharing your experience with us Gini. It must have been hard during those 5 years, but I think it paid off.

  • ClayMorgan It’s funny. I always feel like people very carefully plan this kind of stuff out, which would be very characteristic of me. The fact that I was so … lazy about it is so unlike me.

  • JRHalloran That’s so funny because I feel like everyone I know carefully planned it all. Maybe it didn’t go like they expected, but they knew they were meant to be entrepreneurs.

  • corinamanea Well, it’s still yet to be seen… but we’ll see!

  • ElissaFreeman I’m curious why so many young pros are reaching out for this kind of advice. When I graduated from college, I was just grateful for a paycheck and to be learning.

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  • AndreaKempfer

    Thanks for sharing your advice, Gini. I’m all ears when it comes to learning about others’ journeys and paths to success, especially from the people I respect and admire. Thank you!

  • I think the “starting before 30 was a mistake” portion is particularly interesting, and I wonder if it was hard for them to hear. Because 30 seems SO far off when you’re just starting out. But once you’re past it, you really do realize that how much you really learn in your 20s. I know it’s frustrating to hear when you’re young and sharp, but there’s just no match for the experience you pick up in your first decade in the working world.

  • True story – I never EVER planned anything in relation to my career. It just “happened”. Now, don’t get me wrong, it happened because I was hungry, aspired to do more, worked my tail off, met the right people, and networked like crazy. But, the paths my work life took – including ending up HERE with you ginidietrich two years ago – kind of created themselves. And in most cases that’s how it works. Because of everything you advised above. The experience you gain. The hard work you do. The connections you make. The many long hours of self-reflection and self-discovery you go through. Even the opportunities you passed on. All of those things will eventually add up to take you where you want to be. I 100% believe that. Oh, and to Ellie’s point below? You can’t get all of that experience and learn those life lessons until you have lived a little. I was 40 when I turned my whole life upside down. Many people will be younger than that. But years of experience are what made it WORK!! And allowed me to be successful.

  • This reminds me of something a wise friend told me years ago, it was about having kids but it still applies. You are never ready. That said I think it’s good to get advice from people who’ve walked down that path. Anything is possible.

  • belllindsay I actually thought of you when I wrote that comment – I was thinking you might counter with something along the lines of “you think you’re smarter when you’re 30, kid? Wait until 40!”

  • ginidietrich  Maybe? I think a lot of young pups like me look up to someone of your stature and think you got where you are cause you did plan it all, and we’re just trying to learn from you. 
    But I’ve read and heard lots of stories about entrepreneurs who never thought they would end up being the face of the industry they’re in now. So, you’re not alone.

  • I am always amazed when I bring up this blog and you with PR Pros and they don’t know who you are. I mean not knowing who Edelman is I can understand. 

    The best advice ever given to me was by the one sales rep I hated working with when I was a Key Accounts Rep wanting to get back into outside sales. 
    He said ‘Observe the people who feel are successful in the way you hope to be….and mimic the things you find give them an edge. Observe the people you feel are unsuccessful and make sure you don’t mimic the things they are doing that you feel hinder their success.
    The problem with this is simple. For all three of those young professionals. How can they succeed when they can’t hire belllindsay like you did. At least not yet……

  • tacerbi

    lisabuyer ginidietrich a nice one and “really sacrosanct words” 🙂

  • belllindsay  I want to hear about this story of yours. Maybe a future blog post?  🙂

  • hackmanj BABY I WAS BORN READY! 

    Well actually the time I was cajoled into doing 12 beer bongs, 16 shots of tequila, and consume a whole binky of heroin while I was driving a School Bus full of 5th graders…I maybe was not ready for that. I could of used some practice. We wound up in Vegas instead of the La Brea Tar Pits and I swear little Joey broke the bank there betting all the kids lunch money on Red 17. I just can’t remember.

  • Eleanor Pierce belllindsay I agree I totally did not follow the path expected. Sadly when I was in college Superstar DJ was not a viable career path like it is today.

  • Eleanor Pierce when I was 18 I felt like I was finally an adult. When I turned 21 I thought the same and said ‘I totally was still a kid when I was 18’ When I turned 30 I realized that was when I finally felt I was a true adult and that at age 21-29 I was still a kid.

    The fact is in the business world you have a really hard time with credibility with people older than 40 when you are in your 20’s. You are too risky in your 20’s. You often are still single and also often still party too hard. You haven’t been around long enough to have built a career you are concerned about ruining with bad choices. But at 30 they say ‘Wow you made it and you aren’t in jail and you aren’t dead…welcome to adulthood’.

  • ginidietrich JRHalloran you forget Gini got into PR only because her try out for the Spice Girls didn’t go well.

  • Howie Goldfarb Yes! I’ve finally made it! (If for no other reason than that I just can’t drink like I used to.)

  • Gert- you are a font… a literal font.
    True story everyone:
    Gert gave me the time of day when few others would. But that’s how good she is.
    What I love most about your forthcomingness Gert, is that you share what you learn as a business person (which is a skill for anyone going into any business). You can’t just be a baker and start a bakery… you can’t just be a Gert and start a Gertery either…

  • Todd Lyden LOL! And you still call me Gert. But then, you’ll always be FayBiz to me.

  • Howie Goldfarb Someday every PR pro in the world will know this blog. It’s our mission!

  • hackmanj No, you never are ready. And even when you’re in the middle of it, you’re still not ready.

  • Howie Goldfarb hackmanj OMG

  • Eleanor Pierce It was hard for them to hear. All three of them pushed back. And I would have pushed back in my 20s, too. But there is no match for the experience you pick up…you’re right.

  • belllindsay Experience creates perspective. Nothing can change that.

  • AndreaKempfer You are very welcome!

  • ginidietrich Todd Lyden that’s ok, you officially work in a Gertery…

  • ginidietrich

    HelenKitchen_PR Thanks!

  • Howie Goldfarb I’m easy but not cheap…. 😉

  • Howie Goldfarb hackmanj BAHAHAHAHA!!! Howieeeee!!!

  • Howie Goldfarb Hey boys, hey girls….here we go! Eleanor Pierce

  • SpinSucks

    Shanea_Phillips Glad you found it helpful Shanea! ^ep

  • JRHalloran I’m pretty sure i’ve written about it already….. 😉

  • Howie Goldfarb hackmanj WTH.

  • It is great that you take the time to provide these insights to people who want to follow in your footsteps. I benefitted tremendously from your perspective when I asked you a similar question about a year ago. It says a lot about yourself that you take the time to respond to these random questions from strangers. Thanks for paying it forward! Now that you have a blog post written, hopefully you can save a bit of time on this and just send folks a link 🙂

  • jamie9millar

    ginidietrich but he’s an awfully happy snowman! I agree, though, the business, financials, growth, reporting aspects all tough at first.

  • bobledrew

    Great post, Gini. Many of those lessons also apply to solopreneurs too. Will be copying and pasting liberally.

  • WHAT! I’ve known you since pre-AD, the narrative I had in my head was that super-driven you always had a fast-track plan. FWIW: I WAS 40 when I started my company, and still had a steep learning curve (what a blast, though!). I second your advice re: management and HR — If you want to practice your craft rather than manage those who do, then “owner” is probably not the title for you.

  • ginidietrich

    kevinanselmo Yay!

  • ginidietrich

    jamie9millar He IS a happy snowman!

  • jamie9millar

    ginidietrich “Put me in summer and I’ll be a…” http://twitter.com/jamie9millar/status/512063212896784384/photo/1

  • ginidietrich

    jamie9millar Happy snowman!

  • Gini, great advice. I think most of us communications people are doing what we’re doing because we’re not great at math, so accounting, uuuugh. The hardest part for me as a freelancer is going to get the new business, and the lack of security of a consistent paycheck. I would love to know more about your experience on those topics at some point in the future and how you tackle them. 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your struggles and triumphs, Gini. I’ve recently been reading how the most successful people don’t plan their careers/lives, they are just open to the possibilities that come their way. With my Type A personality, that’s hard for me, but taking a huge leap of faith in the past three years, I can certainly see the rewards in it.
    I also feel that I may have jumped too early into entrepreneurship, but I’ve learned so much from it. These are lessons I don’t believe I would have ever learned if I continued on in my public sector career plans. It’s really comforting to hear that someone else, especially one I admire, also took that leap and it’s working for them.  
    You hit the nail on the head for me about learning all you can about the business side of the house. It’s certainly not enough just to be good at your job, but you really need to understand how it all works together.

  • KateNolan

    So, to (greatly) simplify it: Plan or don’t plan, but keep your head down, work hard, pay attention to, and take advantage of, opportunities that come your way.

  • Not sure what it is but when you share these kind of stories, I feel the uncontrollable urge to confess all. So without further ado:

    – I too started at 30, not because I wanted to but b/c I had to as I’d been fired (skips rant) and I couldn’t find a job. Knowing what I know now, I would have done anything, everything else to keep looking and find more work.
    – I didn’t have a plan or rather, didn’t work the plan cc belllindsay. It never occurred to me until it was too late, all the non-work work that goes into building a career, be it corporate or in business for yourself. Too busy with work and school and getting by to invest the time in networking, all the other things you need to succeed.
    – As a not so pretty female, I was overlooked. It’s an ugly truth, the double standards regarding women and their appearance; pretty you get dismissed, but then the cute, thin blondes were the ones I saw getting ahead. Vs. me.. if you’re overweight and not so pretty, you’re dismissed as lazy and less organized.. less ‘attractive’ in bad for business. /end rant
    – I’ve read, I’ve networked, I’ve learned – and realized, the business-running is not for me. I’ve confused a lifestyle and work style w/ thinking it meant my own firm. Times have evolved and I think I’ve reached that point where I’m ready to 1) admit my mistakes, accept failure and move on and 2) business has changed that via technology, I can work the way I work best.

    So that’s that, I need a new evil plan – and my advice to anyone looking to do anything. Plan. Plan. Think about what and how and where you really want to work, what you like to do, what you’re actually good at. Then match that vs. what you can do really well, what people will pay you to do. Plan the work, work the plan.. and enjoy the ride? 😉 FWIW.

  • TaraFriedlundGeissinger

    I got a job at an ad agency in downtown Orlando when I was fresh out of college. I was 18 and I took a salaried position answering the phones. I am sure my parents were so proud that their college-educated daughter was answering phones! LOL It didn’t take having my foot in the door long, however, before I was promoted several times and found myself as an Account Executive managing million dollar accounts. I was 21. There was a policy that if a client were to ask my age, I was to lie. 

    After quitting work for a while to live overseas in Korea for a few years, I returned to the advertising world before having triplets. Yeah. Talk about sidelining a career! 🙂 I stayed off the grid for a good 3-4 years before jumping into online marketing. I met my business partner online and we launched and co-managed an online copywriting business for over a year before we ever met in person. Fast forward EIGHT years and we are still in business, still growing and still amazed every day at where life has taken us. 

    I didn’t have a plan, but I wouldn’t change a thing and I can’t wait to see what life has in store next!

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