How to ask busy people for help - a guide

I work in PR. Though I love it, it's at times the most ungrateful job you could ever do. It's been great for me as it's forced me to stop taking things so personally, but still - sometimes it feels a bit like everyone hates you. Journos who won't get back to your emails/calls/tweets/etc, or clients who refuse to believe that their sheer existence isn't news worthy of headlines, or spokespeople who resent a young woman showing them why they should say what - I've worked with them all. Work isn't always like that (if so, I would've changed jobs), but often enough for me to realise pretty quickly that the easiest way to get what you want in the world of PR is to be nice to people.

That's perhaps why I've been so baffled by two random men who've recently contacted me out of *nowhere* in the truly strangest of ways. I used to bump into Man #1 at London house parties back in 2009(!), and Man #2 and I went on a date - as in, one (1) date - once. They both contacted me on the interwebz and it looked a bit like this (Man #1) and this (Man #2) - you could also call both those screenshots "How to not ask for help - a guide".

So, since I myself ask for a lot of people's help (I'm a one man team and whether it's introductions, or getting the right data, or brainstorming storyline ideas, I often reach out to others for help) and since I seem to get a lot of requests, I decided to write a guide on how to ask busy people for help. Here it is:

1. Don't be a dick
This one's easy (you'd think). If you know the person from before but haven't spoken to them in a while (in Man #1's case, it's 7ish years), perhaps start off by asking how the person has been. Even if you don't care, the person you're reaching out to clearly has something you want, so just some pleasantry to butter them up might help when you're reaching out. After all, you want them to think you're a pleasant person to deal with, because why else would they want to help you? Another important thing here is to give the helper the choice of how to help you. If it isn't for work, I'm a pretty messy writer, but I don't want to come across as messy - therefore I'll always prefer doing a Skype call or a quick coffee as opposed to having to write a long reply on something you want my help on. Other people might work differently, so simply asking whether they'd be able to do a quick Skype/coffee/whatever they prefer will probably increase your hit rate.

2. Do your homework
Before reaching out, think about how you can make it as easy as possible for the helper to help you out. You don't want to add a chore to their to-do list - unless you do, in which case, go back to point 1, or expect to get this blog post sent to you. Why are you asking the person you're asking? Tell them. Have you done any research on this yourself? Tell them, and give them something to comment on as opposed to "I've asked other people and no one knows anything about this super general thing that is the Swedish job market" (as was the case for both Man #1 and #2). 

3. What's in it for them?
A while back I reached out to an acquaintance of mine I hadn't spoken to in 2-3 years. I needed to get some insights into her field of work, so I messaged her and asked her if I could take her out for lunch somewhere close to her work and pick her brains. This required minimum commitment from her end - she just had to walk over to her chosen cafe, sit down over paid for lunch, and talk to me about what she does. In exchange, I bought her lunch (and coffee because I'm lavish like that) and hopefully she felt good about being able to chat about her area of expertise. I also said to her that if you ever need to chat PR, hit me up. If you're going to ask for busy people's time and help, you need to give back - or at least demonstrate a willingness to do so. Just saying "would love to take you out for a drink next time I'm in town" would suffice - which the helper can then turn down, but at least you're not a dick. 

Asking people for help is the best way I know to extend your network. It's an opportunity to make people feel good about themselves while essentially doing you a favour - an excellent win-win. Personally, I love helping people out. That said, I'm not a doormat.

Which is why I love the final option of

The value of knowing your worth

Perhaps the best bit of redundancy, or at least the most thrilling bit, is going through the compensation negotiation phase. I was made redundant twice last year (welcome to the life of a startup-loving PR), so I went through more pay negotiations in a single year than I think most people a generation ago did an entire lifetime.

At first it's pretty scary. After all, my generation grew up being told that "there are no jobs", "you better just take first best offer" and "Donald Trump will become president" (actually no one ever said that, but that turned out to be the truest of all three statements). If your starting point is that there are no jobs and you're used to living off student finance, asking for anything more than £25k is likely to feel cheeky beyond measure. After all, you don't need that money, do you? You've been just fine with student finance before so you'll be fine without, and also it'd be so uncomfortable asking.

Wrong. It's almost unbelievable how wrong that is, and what's even more unbelievable is that some of my closest friends, high achievers who've won awards(!) and shit, still seem to think this when they enter the negotiation room for a new position. So naturally, I decided to put down my key learnings from my numerous salary negotiations. 

1. You're not important
First of all, remove yourself from this entire equation. Whatever your personal take on a "reasonable salary", it's simply not important. I'm amazed at how non-scientific some people tend to get in these conversations - they take it all too personally, and not in a "I'm good at X and Y, so I should ask for Z"-sort of way, but rather "I've been living off way less money and I wouldn't even know what to spend the cash on?"- sort of way. Wrong, remove, delete. Your personal finances are not important (naturally, that goes the other way, too - you can't ask for a raise just because your rent went up by 10%).

2. Google first, as later
At my first ever internship I was told to "Google first, ask later". I now live by this, and although it obviously requires some critical thinking, Google is the absolute go-to place to figure out salary levels. Sweden is fortunate in that all salary data is public, so you can easily find hard facts on what you should ask for (though then add some more, for reasons I'll outline below). It's a bit trickier in the UK, but most industries will do surveys outlining current salary levels. Once you've googled, ask your peers. It might be uncomfortable (depends on relationship, industry, culture, country etc), but ask your mates and mentors how they went about negotiating their salary. Finding out how much my colleagues were making at one of my first jobs gave me a well-rounded understanding of what my sector and industry looked like, and what I could ask for when I moved on to my next gig.

Don't ask, don't get.

3. Don't ask, don't get
When you first leave uni it's pretty hard knowing what sort of money companies deal with. It was to me at least. I honestly couldn't believe it when I realised what my agency charged as my hourly rate (though obviously, that doesn't just cover my time - it also includes office rent, paid leave, benefits etc). The negotiating phase is the one time in at least a year(!) that you'll discuss your salary with your manager. Don't hold back - the company can afford it, otherwise they wouldn't be hiring. A grand here or there makes little difference to the company, but it'll make a significant difference to you and your pension scheme. Don't ask, don't get.

4. It's the economy, stupid
Putting your salary proposal at just average does no one any favours. First of all, you're likely to be pushed down regardless of what you ask for - the most I've been pushed down is £6k/year, and that was a job and offer I ended up happily accepting. But more importantly, if you accept a lower salary than statistics and facts indicate you should, you're pushing down the salary level at the company and for your peers. This becomes ever more important if you're a woman. There is no doubt in the entire universe that asking for the right salary is a feminist statement. We all bear the responsibility to close the pay gap - some more than others, but it starts with you. And don't forget that if you start low, it becomes difficult to increase your salary without changing jobs.

5. Hold yer ground
I'm just gonna go ahead here and assume you won't ask for an impossible package of Swarovski plated gadgets and a gazillion pound salary. In which case, if the employer or client comes back to your salary proposal and downsizes it by 20%, which happened to me once, do not fight the urge to laugh in their faces - I certainly didn't. Don't sell yourself short - it's not worth it. And don't be scared to reject an offer that feels ludicrous. The first offer I ever rejected came back to me with a £7k increase that I hadn't even asked for (I ended up taking the job, but not before I'd doubled my equity package). Also, if they can't afford to pay you a decent salary, you probably don't want to be there anyway.

All this said, you live and you learn. I once massively undercharged a client when I did a four-day freelance gig - and you only ever realise that you've undercharged when they happily accept your offer. Likewise, I've also had clients flat out reject my offer because they didn't think they could afford it, and I definitely prefer the latter to the former. Your time is valuable, and so are you. Selling yourself short isn't doing anyone any favours.

I was made redundant twice in six months. Here's what I learnt.

I take it I'm not the only one who at this point in the year starts to look both back and forth. 2016 was a pretty intense year, but then again that seems to be something I say every year. 2016 was intense for different reasons though, two of them being that I was made redundant, not once but twice. Yep. First time it happened there was no end to the betrayal I felt (lol, so cute) and the second time it happened I almost burst out laughing because it was so comical. Who gets made redundant twice in six months?! Someone who works in PR, that's who.

Nevertheless, I learnt a lot along the way. Here's the biggest lessons:

1. There's no better way to be unemployed
Think about it. For whatever reason, your boss is forced to pay you to leave. Depending on the terms of your contract, you're paid to look for another job for X months. And when people and potential employers ask you why you want to leave your current job you don't have to come up with some lame excuse, you can actually just tell the truth - they couldn't afford to keep you. And the person that had to make you redundant will, in my experience, do everything in their power to help you find another great job. For instance, the second founder to make me redundant spent two hours with me to help me brainstorm ideas for an interview I had coming up. I can't imagine any other situation where that would happen.

  Second redundancy in six months. Boss takes us out to the pub.

Second redundancy in six months. Boss takes us out to the pub.

2. Your network is bigger than you think - and it's about to grow even bigger
Everyone you know will have heard of someone being made redundant, and people love to help. I reached out to all kinds of people that were really quite far out in my network - simply put, I've never gone to more coffees in my life. I had about 3 meetings a day, with potential employers but also with people in my network who offered to share their experiences and their network with me. It was a brilliant way to network and meet new people and old - about a zillion times better than going to one of those "networking events" (barf).

3. Beggars can be choosers
Because you get a redundancy package and because you have no work to go to, you have all the time in the world to meet potential employers. Most importantly, you get given the opportunity to figure out what it is you really want. I was pretty lost in my first job and wasn't sure whether I wanted to specialise in PR or social, but once I was made redundant it became crystal clear that I wanted to do startup PR, preferably agency-side as I wanted exposure to a lot of different companies, and preferably with a boutique agency as I just can't face corporatism (soz). That said, I still met with corporate agencies and startups, and ended up with five offers from agencies and startups alike within four weeks after being made redundant.

4. As a creative, you'll never be more creative
So you have all this time and you meet with all these people. And most of them will ask for some sort of work sample before even considering hiring you. As a creative, I've never had a higher output of quantifiable creativity than in times of redundancy. And because of how recruitment processes work, you have to do it all at once. In one week, in-between interviews, I singlehandedly developed several different PR and social media strategies for everything from driving engagement to launching in new markets, while devising numerous press releases for products and clients I knew little about. If you're early on in your career, as I was, chances are you've never had to do this on your own before. Realising that you're capable of it is a massive confidence booster.

5. And finally, the only way is up
I took a big step up after both my redundancies, although in different ways. I felt excited and confident about both new beginnings and although it ultimately sucks being made redundant, it's pretty likely you wouldn't have wanted to stay at your former job anyway. When you're made to leave because of resourcing issues, it's likely budgets are tight so you can't do much, or you're overworked because they can't afford to take on more staff. You might want to hold on for dear life simply because of loyalty or commitment, but at the end of the day, you'll want to be at a place where you can thrive while being challenged and allowed to have a decent work/life balance. That's an equation that never works in the weeks or months ahed of facing a redundancy.

And finally, if I ever doubt my abilities, at least my brother was right when he offered this piece of poignant advice: "you're really good at getting paid for losing jobs".