Monday, June 11, 2012

Brainstorm's 8 Step Guide to Getting the Most Out of your Freelancer

Samantha Perry: (pictured above) is was the brains and the brawn behind a magazine called Brainstorm, I'm sure you haven't heard of it. She's also the secretary general of Projourn, South Africa's Professional Journalists' Association, so if there's anyone who knows how to treat journalists, or how journalists ought to be treated, Sam's your man.

In fact Perry has perfected the art of getting the maximum out of her freelancers.  Editors ought to pay attention - she sets a mean example for what can be done when you set yourself the task of extracting blood from stones (that's us).

I'll do my best to illustrate her surefire methods with concrete, real life examples.  Suffice it to say, Perry, in her wisdom, still has not paid for services rendered to one particular freelancer, an amount of just R6470 (due on May 15) for articles published in the May issue. Like this one.  The freelancer in question has laughably referred the case to the CCMA, and ITWEB are sticking to their guns, as they should.  In any event, the freelancer in question was clearly an independent contractor, so not only will his efforts to pursue payment for his work be in vain, but the CCMA are clearly the wrong port of call for the poor sod.

Now, back to the editorial side of fence.  How does one, indeed, get the most out of these hopeless saps?  Perry provides an 8-step guide to milking the freelancer for everything they've got, in order to serve your publication (and your interests) best.

1. In order to recruit a freelancer, one of the best ways is to place a job ad, and then cherry pick the top candidates who apply and try to convert these into making contributions as a sort of impromptu volunteer staff.

The beauty of the system, if you play it right, is you can get people at your disposal working for you and you don't have to pay them a cent in Unemployment Insurance, or pensions, or any other benefits. You can also send all applicants copies of your magazine, and turn them into subscribers.  A brilliant plan although when it comes down to it, 100 or so extra subscribers isn't much, but in the scheme of a modest 7000 or less print run you try to get whatever you can. As soon as your freelancer sends their storythey're subscribed to the magazine.

2.  Get the freelancer to do it all.  Perry has perfected the art in getting the freelancer to do all the work.  One scheme methodology involves providing 'templates' for stories and photobriefs (complete with contact numbers and even PA's contact numbers).  The template includes everything from blurbs, to captions, to filling in the category of your story - all designed so that the story doesn't need to be touched by a busy-enough staff; it can be sent straight to the printer with zero minimum editing from the editor.

The idea then is to get the freelancer to write, edit, configure, provide contact details (for Custom publishing - ie you source leads and business for them) in order to basically allow your company to do their jobs, which is not to publish content, but to see where they can make another content deal and go for long lunches (and spend Christmas in Mauritius).  Since the writing isn't really looked at very carefully, this sort of thing happens:
The text above and below the blue horizontal text in the left column is identical.

Here it is again, up close.

Publishing duplicate versions of entire paragraphs (see left column above and below the blue text) and never becoming wise to the fact because apparently there's no time to edit or read/review the magazine isn't good for business, but if no one knows, no one knows, right.

Perry's template business starts off fairly simple, but gradually they ask the freelancer to do more and more, until they start highlighting in red their additional ideas for you to do their work, with exclamation marks to emphasise just how fun and how new it all is!!!!!!!!!

In fact Perry's rule of thumb is if in doubt, send it back, or better yet, bin it.  When Perry does 'send it back' she does so via the sub editor, whose job is not to sub but simply to traffic her queries, and have the freelancer fix his own work. The easy way to teach a freelancer that his commissioned story needs work is to approve it and then simply ignore it.  That'll teach him.

3. Make sure the freelancer knows who is boss.  Perry (from her photo you can see she's a real sweetheart) has made this her personal passion.  As such, she'll gently steer the freelancer back onto the straight and narrow with gems like this:

4.  Tell the freelancer what you think of him, and don't mince words.  Sometimes it's not enough to make sure the freelancer know whose boss, sometimes more is required.  But why stop at telling the freelancer directly - tell EVERYONE.  On Twitter.  And since the freelancer is also on twitter, and online directly during your email tete a tete, it couldn't be more obvious.

5. Get the freelancer to do even more.  Since benefits and perks aren't wasted on a mere freelancer, the more you get him to do, the more the company saves.  So load on the work.  Get him to do Custom Publishing, and profiles, and photography. Try to forget that he is a freelancer, with other commitments to other publications, try to get him to come round to working exclusively, exhaustively for your company.  How you do that is you keep piling it on, and remember, get him to edit his own work.  Simply send it back. Remind him of onerous deadlines and make sure he is at your beck and call.  In short, make sure the freelancer depends on you for an income (albeit without any benefits), but at the same time keep yourself in a position where you can jump to any other freelancer at the first sign of trouble.

6. Play the field.  Even if you have a loyal freelancer, who might...say... offer to do work early to meet deadlines ahead of a trip, hedge yourself by accepting his offer to do advance work, but put an 'ad' up on the South African Freelancers Association forum for exactly his position (finance journalist with government contacts) just in case you need to ditch him.  (One word of advice, check beforehand whether your own freelancer is on the same forum, especially when there's a chance he might read your job ad within 10 minutes of your agreeing to his proposal.)

7. Save money by cutting him loose at just the right time.  A great way to leverage your finances (and maybe the company's too) is to cut your freelancer loose when the opportune moment arises.  A good scenario: when the company starts to owe a substantial amount, in the tens of thousands.  What you'll need to look out for is that rare moment when he becomes too cheeky.  If one of your staff sends a few harmlessly insulting emails, saying the sort of things you broadly support it might provoke him into asking for an apology. That's the moment - make sure you're cc'd  on all the vitriol sent to the freelancer, to make it obvious that you know about it and endorse it.  And what better time and opportunity to cancel all work (2 and half years of regular contributions, on spec, to deadline be damned).
Even better, have your Group Head promise a 'termination fee' which serves the purpose of enforcing both silence and good behaviour.  Obviously (this goes without saying) don't ever pay the termination fee.

 If anyone asks, you simply wash it as a freelancer insisting on his precious work being published, and no self-respecting editor can be expected to be dictated to by a somewhat unprofessional freelancer.

 8. Play the independent contractor card - it's a doozy.  If your freelancer fights back - and the odds are he won't, he doesn't want others in the industry to think he's a troublemaker (it's such a fickle business) - remember that there's no way he can afford a legal remedy so the odds are ever in your favour!
Even though the volume of work may be to such a degree and such regularity that a freelancer could claim tacit employment (especially for a proposal agreed to over email for an indeterminate number of contributions, such as this for example:)
the 'Independent Contractor' presumption is easy to defend.  And if there's any doubt,  hire expert legal council and toss his invoices at the commissioner or judge. Easy pickings. But don't pay him.  Go on a holiday at your freelancers expense - you deserve it!

Of course, on the off chance that your freelancer risks all, and sticks to his guns, you might find yourself with a bit of explaining to do.  There's an easy way around that, just leave (or say you're resigning in public, it sounds better).

Perry still has a month's notice to settle into new circumstances before she leaves Brainstorm for good at the end of June.  Notice is another thing that freelancers don't deserve, and why should they - they can be fired with "immediate effect".  As editor, you have a loaded gun, so you might as well use it.

Perry's choice is somewhat interesting: she has chosen to do something editors might find strange: become the freelancer you've loved to hate.  And if that's the case, just remember to update your social media status to make it official (don't mention the magazine you used to work for anywhere).  Now you're no longer "Editor" but "freelancer".  And be sure to keep that disclaimer up about whose opinions are out in force.
One final point.  Sometimes it turns out that the freelancer may have some sort of case, especially when the CCMA refers the dispute for arbitration.  Who knew?

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