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Freelance PR: An interview with Caroline Barnhill

December 7, 2012

Published here on January 30, 2013

What does it take to become a freelance PR professional? Hard work? An open mind? A love for the industry? All that and more.

What exactly does it mean to be a “freelancer?” Essentially it means you’re self-employed, and you contract yourself out to various organizations. An “independent contractor” is another way to describe it. Popular areas in which to form a freelance career are editing, computer programming, web development, writing, marketing, social media and public relations. Typically, a freelancer is given a project to work on, and after completing that project, they are evaluated by the organization on whether or not to continue work. The freelancer isn’t considered an employee of the company, but rather views the companies as “clients.” Freelance consulting allows for a lot of variety.

Caroline Barnhill, a 2005 N.C. State graduate is one such PR freelancer. She graciously agreed to be interviewed by PRSSA and shared what it was like balancing a freelance career with other commitments.

PRSSA thanks Caroline for her help. We also encourage you to look at atypical opportunities, such as freelancing, as a career.

Her Background

Caroline always knew that she wanted to work in business. Originally, she considered marketing as her career path, but the more she learned about public relations, the more appealing that became.

“I love public relations because it’s a great intersection of using an understanding of people to help build and promote businesses, products and services,” Caroline said.

Another appealing PR characteristic is the ability to help a company communicate what they stand for by using the written and spoken word. Caroline says that the industry has been “really interesting” since she started her PR career.

Caroline chose N.C. State because of its location and great reputation for excellent faculty and equipping students for fulfilling careers after graduation.

“N.C. State is a great university full of people who are committed to making our area and the world around us a better place,” Caroline said.

After graduating from N.C. State in 2005, Caroline went to work in a small PR department for an advertising agency. But working for a larger agency focused on PR was appealing.

So when Caroline had the opportunity to join Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world’s largest PR agencies with international offices as well as offices all across the U.S., she took it. She spent three years there, and her work was very varied. Clients came from the retail and healthcare industries, as well as others.

“It was challenging work, long hours but with great people,” Caroline said.

After Fleishman-Hillard, Caroline went to work for N.C. State in the news services office as a public communications specialist.

“I knew at some point I wanted to transition to work inside an organization and be 100 percent focused on them,” Caroline said. When referring to her switch to N.C. State, she described it as “one of the best career moves [she] made.”

Ultimately, this job would be put on hold after the birth of her son last year. Caroline had been slowly growing a freelance business on the side, and leaving N.C. State allowed her to turn her career-focus to this. It has been thriving ever since.

Her freelance work involves various clients – including N.C. State – for which she does services such as:

  • Public relations/communications outreach
  • Editing
  • Writing
  • Ad/Web Copy

“It’s truly been the best of both worlds,” Caroline said. “I can create my own work schedule that fits in with my family life while still keeping my foot in the working world. It has been an absolute blessing.”

Freelancing Public Relations:

Caroline says that freedom and flexibility are the greatest parts of working as a freelancer. Since she is essentially her own boss, she has the ability to choose to do whatever work interests her most.

“The greatest rewards, for me, are the flexibility to create my own schedule, accept business based on my interest in the company and also to choose to pursue the projects that interest me most,” Caroline said.

However, she also says it’s often difficult to say “no.” One of the challenges of freelancing is striking a balance. Caroline says that she wants to give her very best work to the organizations for which she works. This sometimes means turning down new work, which is not an easy task.

Another challenge is the lack of an office social life. Since freelancers work for themselves, there is no building to go to, and no company culture in which they can immerse themselves.

“I took for granted how nice it was to yell down the hall at a colleague if I was having trouble finding a word I was looking for, or to ask for a quick second read on an article I was writing,” Caroline said.

That’s not to say the life of a freelancer is a lonely one. Caroline combats her lack of an office life by visiting the offices of her clients so they can talk face-to-face. She also has been much more active on social media interacting with fellow public relations practitioners.

Freelancing also means that Caroline can spend much more time with her husband and son. She says that her family is her priority. Though she is still learning how to balance family and work, she enjoys the creativity that is sparked from spending time with her son running around in the backyard or going down the slide at a local park.

“In many ways, being a mom has opened up my creativity in a whole new way that has actually improved my communication abilities,” Caroline said.

Along these lines, she encourages students to change up their routine as a way to find inspiration. Going to an airport or the mall for some people watching can be a great break from studying in the library.

“Change of scenery is good for the brain,” Caroline said.

Advice for students:

While at N.C. State, Caroline was a member of PRSSA (which already makes her a PR pro!). She also interned with PR agencies and volunteered with nonprofits.

As a side note: Nonprofits are a great place to gain a large amount of experience. They typically don’t have the money to hire a full-time PR position, so they are more than willing to let volunteers help out as much as they can.

Caroline also made intentional connections with her professors, who helped guide her along in her career. She maintains contact with many of these professors today.

Her advice to students in the PR program? “Let me tell you that you’ve picked a heck of an industry to work in,” Caroline said. “You’ll get to meet all sorts of people from all sorts of industries that do all sorts of things. And you can learn something from all of them.

“Be humble,” Caroline said. “Be enthusiastic. Be smart. And for goodness sake, have fun while you’re doing it!”


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