Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Who’s in charge here?

by Georgina Guedes, freelance writer, editor and member of the South African Freelancers’ Association Executive Committee.

One of the scariest things that you have to confront about going freelance is that there’s no one in charge. When things start to go wrong, when you’ve been treated unfairly, when payment is late or when a relationship turns sour, you have no one to turn to but yourself.
There’s no rulebook, no governing body, no ten commandments and no HR manager. When you find yourself in a tricky situation, you have to find your own way out of it, with nothing to support you but your own experience and hopefully that of friends and colleagues who might be willing to share their ideas with you.

The sad fact of the matter is that as a freelancer, you are less valuable to a publication or client than its own employees. I’ve even found this to be true of companies that I used to work for, for whom I now do freelance work. It can be a subtle shift – in situations that were resolved in your favour in the past, you suddenly find that you’re no longer supported by management.

Even though you might have had a contract, a verbal agreement or a great relationship with a previous editor, you can easily find yourself in a situation where you have to stand up for your rights, but risk losing business.
For instance, I used to work at Company A. After I went solo, they asked me to do some project work for them. I put a lot of effort into the preliminary planning, after which they suddenly realised that they had the capacity to handle the job internally. They cut me loose, and weren’t willing to pay for the initial time I’d spent on the job. When I worked for them, they were great at acknowledging my overtime – and of course it hadn’t mattered to me as much because they were paying my salary at the end of the month.

At the same time, I was benefiting from the relationship and doing plenty of work for other departments at their organisation. Do I think the situation was fair? No. Was I going to have a huge fight with them about it? Also no. Sadly, they were far too valuable to me as an ongoing client for me to make too much of a fuss about one issue of non-payment. I kept the relationship sweet at the cost of a single paycheque.

The rules of relationship management
There are a couple of things to bear in mind when managing a freelance relationship.
1. Always be polite. You may be a journalist in good standing with years of experience, and you may be cleverer than the teenager who has just been appointed as editor, but he is your client.

2. Push your case, but not too hard. If you disagree with something that your client has done, from providing a bad brief to dodging payment, your initial response should still be polite. Alert them calmly to your reason for concern, raising it as a topic for discussion rather than as a direct challenge or criticism.

3. Once you’ve come up against a brick wall (which doesn’t always happen), you then have to make the decision about what to do next. Are you going to fight it out and risk damaging the relationship, or are you going to agree to disagree, and hopefully secure future work. It helps in this situation to weigh up whether this is the kind of disagreement that is likely to repeat, or is an isolated event.

4. Try to work out what measures you can put in place to stop the incident recurring. Ask for clearer briefs in future (in a polite way), mention that you prefer to be paid on delivery, request that they show you any changes that they make to your work before printing it with your byline.

5. Be very careful about involving others. As I mentioned earlier, company’s loyalties lie with their employees. If you really feel that you have been wronged in a way that reflects poorly on the professionalism of the publication and it needs to be brought to the attention of somebody more senior, by all means escalate it. Try to phrase it as a request for intervention or mediation rather than telling tales. And accept that while there’s the possibility that your transgressor will get a rap over the knuckles, there’s also a good chance that you’ll alienate everyone in the process.

6. Take clients out to lunch or coffee. Pay.

7. Drop occasional emails unrelated to work, but related to the relationship. “I remember you said you liked macramé. I saw this great site…”

8. Don’t get furious about missed payment deadlines if you always miss your copy deadline.

9. Don’t miss your copy deadline.

10. Accept that sometimes it is worth walking away. Even then, do so with good grace.
To try to head off any troubles before they arise, always:

• Sign a contract (even though you might not enforce the clauses later).

• Extract a clear brief and make sure you understand it.

• Deliver good work, that you have double checked, by deadline.

• Communicate any issues as they arise.

• Behave professionally at all times.

This all paints a pretty bleak picture of the client-freelancer relationship, and this is certainly not the case.

I have forged many fantastic professional relationships and even friendships in the three-and-a-half years that I have been a freelancer – some of them even in spite of the occasional quibble or spat. I wouldn’t change my freelancing situation for the world, but I am often confronted with hard choices, and have sometimes accepted a resolution that I see as unfair to preserve the greater relationship.

Oh, and join the South African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) – . The support and advice of a network of experienced professionals is worth its weight in membership fees.

Originally published on TheMediaOnline – 

South African Freelancers' Association Executive Committee -