Beena Nadeem talks to Michelle Thomas about her career in PR and how going freelance honed her ability to adapt to fast-changing circumstances.
Michelle Thomas is a self-employed PR worker and a single mum. While being freelance came with risks during the pandemic, it has enabled her to be very agile and to look for industries that have not been as badly affected. Adapting to a change in the PR industry is a skill that has been honed over a decade of experience.
Michelle, 53, didn’t always have a clear career plan. After attending the University of Oxford, Michelle spent two years teaching English in Japan. “I wanted to extend university for a little bit longer,” she says. She returned to the UK in the early nineties to a recession. She went on to do various jobs at organisations from Oxfam to Pizza Hut before joining Birkbeck College in its marketing and PR department before moving to the London Business School.
She then took a different turn in PR work altogether when she went freelance. “In my parent’s generation – you did a job and that was it. My mum was a teacher and stayed a teacher,” she says. “The way we work now is flexible working and the gig economy and we all have to work until we die. Pensions are not generous enough to retire on, but Covid has shown us we don’t need to be tied down to one way of working,” she says.
Michelle has always worked in PR or marketing roles, but after education came some very different sectors such as games, film, and entertainment. When Covid hit she was working for an agency that was booking live events, such as comedians. Nearly all of the comedians’ work is corporate events and when they dried up due to Covid so did Michelle’s freelance work.
“Ninety percent of my work was gone. I was doing three to four days a week for them. I didn’t have to look for much additional work. It taught me not to put all my eggs in one basket,” she says.
Michelle also worked for the film and entertainments industry doing PR, but again Covid became a trick, but her contacts in the industry led her to be able to adapt and work in games PR. “It was a whole different kettle of fish – using a whole new skill set and a new kind of language,” she states.
Over her career, Michelle has faced various challenges. She has had to adapt to working in different-sized firms which faced different challenges, either bigger firms which represented blue-chip clients or middle-sized firms which struggled to pay staff and overheads. And she has also had to compete against freelancers who work from their spare room at super cheap rates.
In 2012 when she got pregnant, she could no longer afford her place in London and moved to Kent. “The agency I was working for was struggling and the market out there for freelancers was very fierce and competitive,” she says.
“Suddenly you’re paying a guy who’s sitting in his mum’s attic and doesn’t have any overheads. I’d been working solidly up to this point anyway, so thought it was time to leave London and spend time with my son.”
Once she had moved to Ramsgate, Michelle found it very difficult to find work as no one had the budget. “I managed to get some slightly longer contracts working for festivals and things,” she says. But essentially, she hit a brick wall. At the same time, her son was diagnosed with autism and the school couldn’t accommodate his needs. She spent nine months at home with him.
“That was hard. I looked for something different and had to build clients of my own. That’s where I’ve ended up. I’ve had to be adaptable,” she states. She has made the most of it and the adaptability has served her well during Covid. On the positive side, it’s never boring and there’s always a new angle.