PR Stands for Pack Rat: The Highly Ineffective Habits of Storing Our Work

This is a guest post from Jenny Schmitt of CloudSpark.

With New Year’s Resolutions being quickly forgotten and with Tax Time still a few months ahead, I conducted a short survey of solo PR pros to see what our storage habits were when it our daily work – client communications and results.  Proper disclosure, I created the survey for two reasons: 1) to see if there is a norm in our industry for keeping materials and 2) to see if I fit the norm.

Why a survey? In six years as a solo PR pro, I’ve only had 2 potential clients ever ask for samples of my work. But looking at my office last Fall, you’d have thought I got 2 requests a day.

In December, some switch in my head flipped looking at the files, boxes, binders, cabinets full of past work filling my office. It triggered a massive sort, store, shred spree for me. No more 20 copies of creative, yet dated, press kits (I kept 1), no more copies of campaigns from 7 years ago, you know before social media, no more plan drafts and trade show launch plans, no more conference name tags (why was I keeping those and am I the only one who saves this many?), no more hard copy media lists, no more logs of client approvals saved in binders. I was almost maniacal for 10 whole days determined to get my office back. It was a whirlwind that produced 7 bags of shredded paper, 4 bags of trashed materials, and about 15 3-ring binders ready to donate to a local school. To be clear, I kept the big media hits like USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Good Morning America. I kept samples of good creative work (limit to 2 samples each). I kept the thank you card from my first client after I went solo. I kept the hard copy of the published study I co-authored for a major foundation. I kept things that mattered to me professionally, near everything else I tossed or recycled.  While I felt great, I wondered if I was all alone or part of the norm for solo PR pros.

With the help of SurveyMonkey I went about my unscientific, 5-question survey (to which 45 solo PR pros answered) to see just how long we keep the professional “stuff.” Here’s what I found: we’re pack rats.

Question 1: How long do you keep traditional media clips?

Would you believe that nearly 65.7% keep these indefinitely – it’s true.  Most offered that they now scan in clips and store electronically and a few ventured that they only keep big clips.  I fit the 25.7% who keep clips for 1-2 years. I’m not in the majority, but I have company.

Question 2: How long do you keep client communications? (E.g. emails)

This I found shocking – 42.9% keep them indefinitely – even after the project is over, after years go by, they’re still holding on to emails, faxes, and the like.  Now, I understand if you work in a legal area or by law are required to keep records for say, seven years, but indefinitely? Interestingly, the majority fell into two answers 1-2 years (25.7%) and until the project is completed (22.9%). For me, I keep things one year post-project. Unless it’s a rather lengthy explanation or witty retort, then it goes into a special folder in my email storage.

Question 3: How long do you keep notebooks or records of client meetings, calls, brainstorms, and the like?

This question showed a more even distribution among the options. It seems this one goes more to personal styles of organization.  While 30.4% keep notebooks, records indefinitely, 20% keep them until project completion and 20% keep them for 1-2 years.  Now I used to keep client notebooks for years, until this past December, when I realized I hadn’t looked at a single one in more than 3 years (and for those more recent, I simply hadn’t needed them). I do keep my brainstorm notebooks, my ideas folder indefinitely. I just never know when a great idea that didn’t fit Project A, might work well for Future Project B.

Question 4: After you’ve completed a project or campaign, how long do you keep all related materials?

Now here, 40% said 1-2 years which reassured me that I fit some norm and wasn’t about to regret throwing out my healthcare media list from 2004. But do you think that was the largest group though? No way, 57.9% said they keep it indefinitely. A few brave souls, 4 of them, actually said they keep those materials no longer than 6 months. Those 4 are now my mentors.

Question 5: How frequently do you review your storage and archives to determine what to keep and what to toss?

This was the question I wanted to lead with – but saved it for last. I wanted to know if my deep-purge was going to be a big mistake or if I was somehow going to be validated, supported, maybe even lauded for being able to throw things out.  But what do you think the results were? From all the ‘indefinite’ answers above I thought I would have a majority of folks who never throw anything out. I was wrong. Most folks do a purge of some sort every year, with some PR pros reviewing what’s in the office (and in the inbox) every 3 months.

Whew, at least some part of my sort, store, shred spree seemed perfectly normal. How about you, how often do you do a sort/purge of your office?

The Bigger Question I Didn’t Ask

While feeling somewhat reassured, this whole survey led to ask a bigger question: just why are we holding on to this stuff? Is it proof of our accomplishments? Is it comfort to see what we’ve produced? Is it validation that we have professional value? Or is it a basic concern legal coverage or for ‘having the backup just in case a client would come back in say, 5 years, and want to work on another project’?

For me, I think keeping hold of things was a way to validate what I did accomplish and proof that I could achieve great things for my clients. I realized I didn’t need the paperwork anymore; I didn’t need to clutter my space with past efforts.  I opened up space for new projects, new work, new efforts and I honestly feel the better for it. But for a lot of us, we may be harboring ineffective habits of storage for some unhealthy need.

Why do you think solo PR pros keep so much work-related materials at hand, even long-after the project is over and the market has changed?

Jenny Schmitt is a professional unstucker at CloudSpark, an award-winning communications strategy company based in Atlanta.  She can be found on Twitter (@cloudspark), on LinkedIn, or reached via email at jschmitt(at)cloudspark(dot)com.

  • Thanks for your guest post, Jenny. I'm a *huge* packrat, but I think this is more a function of my OCD than some kind of best practice. I have had occasions where I go back to super-old files/emails to find a contact name, or I reference an ancient plan to see how we handled something similar to a current situation. This has only reinforced my packrat ways!

    Sounds like you've established a great system, so perhaps there's hope for me yet. 🙂

  • This was a great article because it doesn't just apply to PR folks! I'm a business consultant and I can honestly say that sometimes I hold on to just too much stuff. It's not intentional but somedays I just look around my office and ask myself why I hold on to this material for so long. Great food for thought here and I will def have to go through all my http://www.financiallydigital…. stuff to see what can be chucked today – epsecially on a great snow day like this!

  • Great post, Jenny. When it comes to saving old e-mails, notebooks, to-do lists, etc. My theory is I'd rather be safe than sorry. I think part of the reason people hold on to old material is they never know if they will need it again. However, I think everyone should do a little yearly “spring cleaning” and make sure the stuff they are holding onto is actually relevant..

  • Nice idea to take advantage of unplanned downtime (snowday)!

  • I definitely suffer from the “what if I might need it” affliction. But an annual culling is a great idea.

  • Sue Horner

    Nice post! I admit to being a bit of a packrat. I usually get caught up doing the work, so I just file finished projects and keep going. It’s not until the papers start to pile up that I go through a round of purging. I am a little better about deleting emails within a few months of something I’ve written being published.