Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Why 9/11 Set The Tempo For My Freelance Writing Business

September 11, 2001.

I was three months into my freelance writing business, having left a solid job as the Business Editor at The Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, NC. I had just netted my first three regular paying clients and was settling into a routine of reporting and writing stories from home.

And we all know what happened that day -- the Towers fell.

But this was the irony for me personally:

I also happened to be newly married to an Army sergeant who was on his way to Manhattan to help with rescue efforts. And as I was sorting through the chaos of my own personal life and trying to make sense of what that would mean to my new marriage, my phone rang.

It was one of my former colleagues from the Observer, and she wanted to let me know that people at the paper were talking about me. At first, I thought she might be calling because they were concerned about the welfare of my groom. But my stomach plunged as she revealed that, in fact, I had become the butt of a newsroom joke.

She named names. She gave specific words and listed the digs.

See, the fellow reporters (and editors) were feeling a little gleeful -- and smug -- that while I'd left them in the dust for a freelance lifestyle ... apparently my timing for starting a business was terrible. The Towers had fallen. The world as we knew it was in shambles. The economy would tank. And they were having a wonderful laugh at the idea that within a few months of my exit from the paper, I would fall flat on my face in my solo venture.

They weren't concerned about my Army husband's welfare at all. They were laughing at us.

I hung up the phone, and I could feel my face burning. And in that one moment, I made a decision:

No matter what was happening in the world, no matter what was happening around me, no matter who was affected in my personal life ... I would always generate stories. I would always look forward. I would never (never!) allow circumstance to dictate my work output, unless I was comatose in a hospital or six feet under.

That moment set the tone for my entire business ethic.

Let's fast forward.

I'm approaching my 15-year anniversary of leaving that newspaper, in June 2016.

Throughout the years, I've stuck to my pledge.

And this is how, and I'm going to share this secret with you:

Whatever is happening in your circle is NOT necessarily happening to a prospective or current client. They are moving through their business day, expecting you to make their deadline and turn in a quality writing project, regardless of what is happening in your neck of the woods.

Today is a perfect example.

I woke to a pea soup foggy morning -- 6 a.m. -- and icy roads -- and closed schools. My child is playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game as we speak, still clad in his Star Wars PJs. Normally, of course, he'd be in a classroom while I work on my stories.

I'm doing three interviews for a story due on Thursday, setting up interviews for three other stories for two other clients ... and I'm also working on some marketing for new clients.

One client is on the other side of the state, and although she has a child the same age as mine and similar weather, they're at the office today. One client is in New Jersey. One client is in Georgia. Obviously, they don't have the same weather that I do. And obviously, they're not single moms, balancing the entertainment of a kid home from school with a day of reporting and writing.

Work does not stop just because we have an icy morning and a school closing.

A few months ago, work didn't stop just because there were terrorist attacks in Paris. I remember that weekend well -- do you? That weekend, it seemed like the world stood still as people followed the events in France much the same way they did after 9/11. But I didn't stop. I was on deadline, writing a story that was due that Monday. I kept an ear to the newscasts, but all the while, I was writing my piece.

Work does not stop for holidays, either.

During New Year's Eve this year, I was calling sources for a story that was due shortly after the holiday. Most people were getting ready for parties, but I have a child to feed, clothe and shelter. When the work comes in, I take the work and do the work by the deadline.

Work does not stop for illness.

In September, I was down for 30 days with pneumonia. I worked on five stories, interviewing people propped up on my pillows and writing through fever and weakness.

Work does not stop for a freelancer, if you mean business. This business isn't for the faint of heart. You are making your salary on 100 percent commission. It's incumbent on you to make deadlines, regardless of what is going on.

When I look back on 9/11, of course I remember the tragedy. But I also remember the valuable business lesson. I remember the words that were parroted to me -- words of others that might have meant discouragement or that would have psychologically derailed anyone less determined. But for me, those words proved to be the catalyst that drove my work ethic for nearly 15 years.

Those words set the entire tempo for my freelance business.

If you mean business about freelancing, then conduct business.

Work does not stop for everyone, just because your world stopped spinning. As long as you remember that, you'll make it as a freelancer.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Demystifying Military Ranks: A Primer for PR Pros

I was a war bride, married to an Army sergeant in 2001, and the only word to describe the first year of my former marriage was chaotic. My then-husband was at the scene of the WTC three days after the Towers fell and shortly after that, deployed to Afghanistan.

So I was thrust headlong into a military culture along with the rest of Fort Bragg, NC. I had to learn very quickly about the rank and file as I navigated how to get information about my spouse's welfare in the war against the Taliban.

I tell you this so you'll understand that I fully sympathize (and empathize), if you are  intimidated by representing a military outfit or service person to the media. Today, I am a freelance journalist for three military magazines, and the terminology, acronyms and the military's way of doing things are like breathing for me.

But it wasn't always that way.

In fact, I can remember one instance when I had to call my then-husband's unit one day when he was in Bagram. A gruff voice picked up the phone and shouted into my ear, "Hello-Sir-or-Ma'am-First-Sergeant-Smith-249th-Engineer-Battalion-Fort-Bragg-How-Can-I-Help-You!" The words tumbled from his mouth like the staccato machine gun blast.

I took a breath, "Hello Sergeant. This is Sergeant Rafferty's wife."


I paused. "No, I don't think you understand. He's not the first sergeant on duty today. He's in Afghanistan."

He groaned. Then he said again, "FIRST SERGEANT! I AM A FIRST SERGEANT!"

"Oh! I see, I'm sorry, you're the first sergeant there today, thank you. OK, Sergeant, I am looking for information for my --"

He interrupted again, "NO! I AM A FIRST SERGEANT!"

Now I was really confused, because I honestly had no idea why this person was yelling at me and how I could stop him from yelling at me, I just wanted to find out if he had word about my husband's whereabouts.

"Thank you," I continued, ignoring the loud angry breathing in the earpiece. I told him what I wanted to know, he gave me the information, and then as I hung up, I said, "You have been so helpful, Sergeant. Thank you."

I heard a growl, a loud click, and the line went dead.

This week, the memory of that happy conversation came tumbling back after I put out a query on Profnet, seeking military officers to interview for an upcoming feature story.

I became very exasperated (and sent out a snarky tweet, I admit it), when one PR person after another replied to the query with, "I have a great Sergeant!" or, "I have an Airman First Class!" or, "I have a Chief Petty Officer!" or, "I have a Green Beret!"

"Didn't these people read my query specs??? I said, 'Officer!'" I huffed to myself.

Then I started getting phone calls, and everyone was saying the same thing:

" I have a wonderful non-commissioned officer. Does a non-commissioned officer count as an officer?"

Suddenly the light dawned. Bless their hearts, they were as ignorant as I had been back in 2001.

So here is a little primer, for the uninitiated to the military, about how to understand the ranking system, and it won't take long for me to break this down for you. I'm focusing this blog entry primarily on Army ranks, because I'm most familiar with them and also because I write for a publication for the Army National Guard.

But bear with me while I walk you through this:


The military members (and this pertains to all branches) are divided into two tiers: Enlisted and Officers.

The enlisted people sign up for duty, or, "enlist." These are your lower ranks. Everyone in an enlisted rank reports to an officer.

To be an officer, you either have to complete ROTC in college or graduate from a military academy with a bachelor's degree. There is a second way to become an officer, too. An enlisted person can enter an officers' training school and earn the rank -- or become a "commissioned officer."


Most people get very confused about the term, "non-commissioned officer," or NCO.

Basically, these are the higher-enlisted ranks. Think of them in civilian terms as an employee that oversees a team of employees. They report to a manager in the management ranks. Does that make sense? So in the military world, you'd have an NCO over a team on a mission, and he or she would report to a lieutenant or a captain (a junior officer).

If you look at charts of military ranks, you will see these ranks divided by "E" and "O" (Enlisted and Officer) ... and you will also see numbers, from 1 to 9.

Everyone who is numbers 1-4 is of the lower rank, reporting to leaders. So E-1 to E-4, across all the branches, reports to non-commissioned officers, which are E-5 to E-9.

If you flip over to the Officer side, O-1 to O-4 are your junior officers, reporting to the officers that make the top decisions and are the top ranks -- O-5 to O-9. (We also have an O-10, but I'll explain that one later.)

The best way to sort this out is to take a look at one of my pins on Pinterest. You will see all of the branches listed. Each rank corresponds to the number. For example, an E-5 in the Army is a Sergeant, or the lowest of the non-commissioned officer ranks. An E-1 in the Army is a Private, the lowest of the ranks. An O-1 in the Army is a lieutenant, the lowest of the officer ranks, and an O-9 in the Army is a Five-Star General.

Are you confused yet? Don't worry ... It takes time. Just take a look at this Pinterest board, and take a deep breath:



Now I'm really going to throw a monkey wrench into this, because we also have "Chief Warrant Officers." I still get confused about these guys, to be honest, because they are a category all by themselves.

The best way to explain it is to quote the U.S. Army's definition:

"Warrant Officers are the technical experts in the Army. They have specific technical or tactical specialties (e.g., helicopter pilots), and manage and maintain many of the Army’s combat systems, vehicles and networks. Once they reach the rank of Chief Warrant Officer Two (CW2), the President of the United States gives them the same status as a Commissioned Officer."


Here's a little trick to remember the differences between General that my ex-husband taught me, and it's this.

Ready? You'll love it. It's so easy:


That's all you have to remember.

Now let's break this down:

B = Brigadier General (O-7)

M = Major General (O-8)

L= Lieutenant General (O-9)

G= General (O-10)

And then you have a "General of the Army," which is a Five-Star General. Think of Eisenhower. Top of the heap, and by the time you hit that rank, your next step is probably the White House.

I hope I didn't mangle these ranks too badly for you.

Don't feel intimidated by the military ranks. It takes a long time to understand them, but if you keep these basic guidelines in mind, you'll be able to weather any conversation with a journalist who covers the Pentagon.