How a Crisis Contingency Plan Sparked an Independent Practice

January 1, 2015


Author’s Note: This is my first piece for “State of Independence,” a monthly column focusing on topics of interest to those considering a career as, or already working as, an independent PR practitioner. A quick comparison of the PRSA membership directory year to year reveals that this number is growing. The focus here is to provide insights and support to those who count themselves as independent communications practitioners.

As I sat at my desk in the newsroom, I watched the program director of the radio station where I worked walk into the on-air studio during a newscast. In less than five minutes, he told an unsuspecting DJ named Jim that his employment would be terminated at the end of his shift, which was just two hours away.

Not only did Jim impress me with his ability to open his mic and continue his show without even hinting to listeners what had just happened, but he also outdid himself the next day. He showed up at the station with freshly minted business cards and two new radio spots to record in our studio. In less than 24 hours, he went from being fired to being a self-employed advertising consultant with two clients.

Striking out on my own

I thought of Jim a few years later when I worked for Ketchum, where I handled a full range of corporate communications matters. This included the development of crisis plans. At one point, I thought it might be a good idea for me to have my own plan, in the event I encountered one of the worst crises I could think of: losing my job.

So I developed a plan for how I would start my own independent practice in the case that I was downsized. The good news is that it never happened. In fact, I received a series of promotions and other tremendous opportunities. Still, every now and then, I would revisit my contingency plan and tweak it.

Over time, that plan became a dream and then a strong desire, which evolved in my mind into an imperative. I knew at some point, I had to strike out on my own.

I did just that in 2001, providing corporate communications counsel and support to clients at the same level I had during my 10 years with the big firm, and in the same way I had managed the communications function at the publicly traded company I had just left to start my business.

By launch time, that contingency plan was a detailed business plan that allowed a sober view of what I had committed to undertake, and what I needed to do to best ensure my chances of success. 

Since then, I’ve been able to help others who are contemplating the same path. It’s been rewarding to see them find their niche and flourish. In this column, I will try to do the same. I will work to provide information and news that independent practitioners can use.

As we all know, the best place to start is at the beginning. For me, it is with a plan.  If 2015 is the year that you could start your own independent practice, or if you’re already on your own and feel the need for a renaissance of sorts, then I’d highly recommend giving the planning process its due.

A good plan is one rooted in identifying and addressing all of the challenges that you can anticipate in that first year in business. Why focus on the first year? Because once you start, each year is like starting all over again.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: Twitter: @OBrienPR.


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