Case studies: Be prepared for the worst case scenario

Our story concerns a keen but naïve young freelance. She’s broken into a new market, got a sweet commission with a great case study on board, but little does she know in a few short days the deal will turn sour, leaving her high and dry and out of pocket… When Good Case Studies Go Bad.

Our freelance has a good property story. The owners are happy to be featured. She approaches some possible markets. A seemingly innocent email arrives from the case study: ‘Will we get a fee?’She thinks it unlikely but asks some experienced colleagues who sound alarm bells.

‘Don’t touch this with a 10-ft pole,’advises one. ‘People should be happy to see their home in a colour spread. If they’re demanding money, back away now,’he says.

But our eager freelance is undaunted. She agrees a commission, and the case study consents.

Suddenly, the owners dig in their heels – they won’t proceed without payment. The commissioning editor confirms there’s no budget for case-study fees. Our journalist is frantic. She doesn’t want to lose the commission, but how should she proceed?

Should she wave two fingers at the case study and try to find replacements? Should she explain to the editor she has been thwarted and hope it won’t be held gainst her in future, or, should she offer the owners money from her fee to keep them on side, deliver the feature and retain a good relationship with the magazine? There’s everything to play for, but can our freelance prevail?

It’s not unusual, I’ve found, for case studies to change their minds and refuse to continue with a story, so here’s some tips to avoid getting stuck in a situation similar to our young freelance.

The advice from experienced freelances is to make sure you have a safety net.

With all case studies you should establish some ground rules before signing them up. For real-life stories, exclusivity is important. Make certain they haven’t talked about this before, and that they will not approach other journalists or magazines with the same story.

You need to know they will be happy to be named and photographed and to have their location mentioned, and that other involved parties are also happy to be featured. Check there are no unresolved legal issues, or that they are bound by a confidentiality agreement.

Ascertain if they will be happy with the fee offered, or that no fee won’t be an issue. You could approach the editor for any leeway in plugging a case study’s business or charity, or getting prints of any photos that are taken.

Check which magazines or newspapers they are happy to be featured in. If their story is emotional, ensure they will be happy to discuss it in depth. Some freelances use a contract with case studies.

If a magazine does not pay case studies, it may be an option to offer a percentage of your own fee, especially if a charity is involved. Many would consider this a last resort, although it is a justifiable expense.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a case study who is too demanding – sometimes calling their bluff will get them toeing the line. But the best back-up is to have a reserve case study, or an alternative the editor will love just as much. That way, you’re the one in control.

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