'Dream job' requires professional experience, contacts

PR panel

Four Colorado entrepreneurs seeking lifestyle changes, a job that fitted her family's demands or a desire to work for specific types of clients described how they used their experiences working for public relations agencies to start their own successful businesses.

Lifestyle change was a driving force for Christine Turner. Working in a large agency with a variety of clients, she found that not all clients "resonated" with her.

Writing publicity is Turner's passion. She strives to become "the authentic voice" for her clients and a trusted source of industry information for the media. Trained as a journalist, she crafts an effective pitch to tell a reporter how her client's story fits their readership and visualizes selling her client's story "to a New York Times reporter in two lines of copy or 30 seconds on the phone."

Starting her own firm, Turner Public Relations, nearly 10 years ago at age 27, Turner credits a lifestyle coach for helping her keep her fears from blocking her goals. She learned how to leverage a small client base and expand her firm, with the original Denver office specializing in travel, real estate and hospitality. Her New York office handles fashion and consumer products clients.

With three children in school, Lisa Cutter's desire for a more flexible schedule prompted her to found her communications firm. Her business model is simple, and she limits the number of clients she takes.

An overly demanding client is worse than none, she told the audience. Cutter cultivated business relationships to get client referrals. "Sit down over coffee with other independent business owners," she advised. "Who would look for a public relations agency in the yellow pages?"

Lesley Dahlkemper's journalism background led to an interview and subsequent marriage proposal from a leading Colorado politician. After relocating to Denver, she got involved on a several educational commissions.

"I didn't know it at the time, but I was building my client base," she said. She founded Schoolhouse Communications, which focuses on strategic communication and public engagement.

Pointing out that the average business loses 15 percent of its clients each year, Dahlkemper advocates the "care and feeding" of clients. Listen and validate their problems. Learn how your client defines success, and help them set measurable goals. Never assume your view is the same as your client's. Dahlkemper also believes in connecting on a personal level. She sends clients handwritten thank you notes and remembers their special dates.

Gina M. Seamans founded Accent Public Relations in 1998. She advised creating a "virtual office," especially if you work at home. Get a business-only phone, a fax and high speed line for Internet access. Order professional looking checks and get a business credit card.

Discussing billing clients, Seamans recommended software like QuickBooks or hiring an accountant or billing agency. She also advised selecting and outsourcing your professional team early, but waiting until problems arise to find a lawyer, accountant or technical specialist.

Lisa Cutter Lesley Dahlkemper

Seamans said it's crucial to ask, "How much time am I willing to work and how much money do I need to make?" To come up with an hourly rate, divide the money you need to make by your billable hours. Keep in mind that as much as 30 percent of your time is probably not billable, she said.

When asked about their hourly rates, several panelists Gina Seamans Christine Turnersaid they charge $125 to $150 an hour. Another panelist requires an annual retainer, billed in monthly payments ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.

As the primary breadwinner, Seamans declares "if you do this for free, you're stealing from your family." After she had a stress attack that played havoc with her diet and sleep, she began taking time for herself. "Keep your perspective. Remember "it's just PR," she said.

— Susan Dods, Delaware Press Association