This post is prompted by an email I received recently from a PR agency, on behalf of a very large and very famous commercial brand. As I described it on Facebook:

PR: ‘Can I send you this lovely Thing from this big successful company in return for you writing a review about it?’

Me: ‘Actually I am genuinely really interested in this Thing from that company, so yes do send it over.’

PR: ‘Did I mention that the client wants it back afterwards and they don’t pay anything at all and could you talk about it on all your social media channels?’

WTF?? Nuh-uh. Nope. Let’s break this down.

Big company has new product coming out and would like to expand public awareness by way of the online community – a very common approach these days, as brands are only too aware that direct recommendation is far more likely to encourage people to buy a product than a random sighting of an advert. Plus adverts are expensive. Why pay thousands of pounds for advertising in magazines and newspapers when you can cut that budget right down by putting out fewer ads and hooking people in via social networking instead? One Instagram post by someone with a good following is worth its weight in gold, and absolutely worth the free samples that are sent out in an attempt to convince people to pimp their product.

Like most bloggers who’ve been doing this stuff for a while, I sit somewhere in the middle of the readership range – couple of thousand Twitter followers, unique monthly blog readership that ranges from 3-10k a month, depending on how much I’ve written and whether I’ve managed to be amusing or not. Not top league by a long shot, but enough that companies do send me stuff on occasion in the hope that I’ll talk about it.

Mostly I ignore PR pitches, but occasionally I’ll accept samples from those that are offering a product that is either very relevant to what I do, or it’s something I’d have bought anyway because I already like the look of it, or it’s relevant to a paid article I’m working on elsewhere. Basically, whether it’s cold hard cash, a new gadget that I like but couldn’t have otherwise justified buying, or just handy for research, I get paid in some way, shape or form.

Of course, like most people I have had to work for nothing in the past. As a freelance writer, working without pay is often the only way into a saturated profession. But it’s really only acceptable at the very beginning, when no one knows who you are and you need to build up your CV. As soon as you’ve proved yourself you should expect to be paid, because you have value. If you continue to work for free, it won’t take long for people to conclude that your work can’t actually be worth much anyway, because why else would you do it? 

I wrote, for free, for the online arm of a national magazine when I was first starting out as a features writer. This gave me both the chance to prove myself on a large public platform and also the experience of writing to order with a bit less pressure because I wasn’t being paid for it. Once I knew I could do it, I started taking paying jobs only – because this is my job, it’s not a hobby.

Working for free also devalues others in your profession – why should anyone pay them when other people will do it for nothing? Ditto with undercutting – if there’s a generally accepted rate for what you do, then charge it and take your chances along with everyone else. Don’t be the asshole who gets the work initially, but then realises that no one actually likes them. You might think it’s worth being unpopular in order to guarantee the work, but you’re wrong – all that’s happening is that you’re getting paid less than the market rate and, yes, devaluing your brand. Way to go, dickwad.

As for the initial gripe in this post, this is the response I sent to the PR:

“Hi, I have a policy of not working for free. The company certainly doesn’t and I’m pretty sure you don’t, either. I have to pay the bills same as everyone else.”

Don’t work for free, except when it makes absolute sense. And even then, don’t do it for long. 

You have worth.