From the May 1997 issue of Startups

If you build it, they will come. This abstract concept worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. His character, an Iowa farmer, built his dream baseball field. Eventually, his vision turned into reality as the players came, followed by an audience. Hollywood makes it seem so easy! But if you want to attract employees and customers to your new business, you must publicize your field of dreams.

Trouble is, while you know that you must do more than fire up the old computer and hang out a shingle, you're not exactly sure what you should do. So you place an advertisement in your favorite magazine. Or, in a marketing frenzy, you try to promote your company on every level possible, which is as futile as trying to boil the ocean. As a result, you spend a lot of money and time, and garner very few results.

Owners of thriving ventures know that, just as they must start with a good business plan to launch their businesses, they must develop a solid public-relations plan to promote their enterprises.

If you have a good plan, and devote enough time and energy to carrying out that plan, you will obtain a great deal of positive publicity for your company--at very little cost.

What Is Public Relations?
Public relations--or PR--is, literally, the relationship your company has with its public. Your public includes your current customers, your future customers, and even potential customers. Your employees, if you have any, are a part of your public, as are your neighbors and the local press. All these people have an interest in your company--in the prices it sets, and in the products and services that it provides.

The relationship you create with these people will have a profound effect on the future of your business. The function of PR is to publicize your company to these people, and to create a positive image of your business which will translate into sales dollars. No one will know that your company exists if you don't tell them, but you must tell them in a systematic, planned manner. If you don't plan what you want to say, and how and when you will say it, your public will be left to develop their own opinions without any guidance from you.

It is important to remember that PR is not marketing, although it can play a key role in marketing your products and services. Defined literally, marketing is the use of pricing and distribution to sell a product. Certain PR practices can aid the marketing process, and as a new business owner, you can learn to use PR to enhance your marketing plan.

Do I Really Need a Plan?
Imagine yourself in a car, beginning a long road trip. You want to drive from New York City to Las Vegas. So you throw some clothes together, point your van southwest, and head off. You don't know how long the trip will take. You don't know what the weather will be like along the way. You don't have a road map.

You don't have a plan.

You may get there--eventually. But it will be much easier if you first research what you want to accomplish, and plan how you will achieve this feat.

Planning the publicity for your business is similar to planning a trip. It may require a little extra time, initially, but it will save you time--and money--in the long run. You may be successful without the plan, but you have a much better chance of arriving in Las Vegas if you have a map in the glove compartment and consult it regularly during your journey.

Craig S. Rice, former president of Royal Crown Cola Ltd. Canada, and author of Marketing Without a Marketing Budget, says planning should be an ongoing part of your day-to-day business operations. "When should you plan?" he asks. "All the time. You should always be thinking about next steps, just as a sports coach or combat commander is constantly evaluating tactics."

All good planning begins with research. Consider your road trip: In planning for this journey, you must first decide on your objective (in this case, Las Vegas). You should then consult a map, select the roads you would like to travel and the places you would like to visit along the way, and determine how long it will take to drive there. Once you've determined these basics, you can plan the best method for achieving your goal. You will plan when to leave, when you will stop along the way, and when you will finally reach your destination.

Similarly, in creating a PR plan, you must first do your research. What does your public know about your business, if anything? Who are your competitors? How do they publicize their businesses? Understanding your competition will help you rival them in the marketplace.

With this information in mind, determine your objectives. What do you wish to accomplish with your PR plan? Of course, you want to expand sales volume. However, what other things do you want to achieve? Perhaps you want to increase the number of repeat customers your company has. Maybe you want to introduce a new product or service. If your company is very new, your initial PR plan may include simply getting the word out about your business. Write down your objectives. Look them over. Rearrange them. Put them into a logical sequence. Naturally, you cannot increase sales volume before your potential customers know about you. Put your goals into an orderly list of achievable objectives.

How Do I Create a Plan of Action?

Now that you know what you want to accomplish, you must create a plan of action--a way in which you will achieve your objectives. Let's begin with a time chart.

Your time chart should be a weekly calendar of things that you will do to promote your business. Each promotional effort should be listed, with its start and completion dates indicated.

It is important to remember that the media, whether print or broadcast, all have lead times--the time between when they receive your promotional material and when it appears. For this reason, your promotional materials must be released well in advance. For example, suppose your new company is going to introduce a new product. Obviously, you want people to know about it. Once you send a press release to a publication, however, it can take from two to four months for that release to be printed. Therefore, your time chart for promoting your new product should begin four to six months prior to the release date, if you are to realize any benefit from your effort.

If you're running a one-person show, you must be realistic in your action planning. It's best to keep your initial plan simple, and expand it later, when you have more people and resources to assist you.

What Is a Press Release?
The press release is the most common communication tool used in PR efforts. It is an informational letter describing a newsworthy fact about your company. Written correctly, the press release can be very effective in promoting your business. Also, unlike advertising, which can be very expensive, magazines and newspapers do not charge for editorial coverage. That means you pay only for the cost of postage (and photography, if you choose to include a photograph).

Of course, editors receive many press releases, and there is no guarantee that yours will be printed. Therefore, you must try to make your release stand out from the crowd. How? Be professional. Remember these tips when issuing a press release:

1. Keep your target audience in mind. The worst thing you can do is to inundate all publications on your mailing list with the same press release. Research the publications first. Make sure you tailor your release to their respective markets.

2. Start with the most important information. Publications rarely run press releases word for word. Editors usually cut from the bottom up, so make certain you've included all the necessary facts in the opening paragraphs.

3. Keep it factual. The fastest way to diminish your credibility is to put gushing, biased copy in your press release. Editors want the facts, not your opinion.

4. Make sure it's news. Editors want to create publications that are interesting to their audiences. Find the angle. Is your company new, unique or unusual? Tell them how running your release can benefit their readers.

5. Photos help. Editors love photos. Supply a caption, identifying any individuals pictured, and type it on a separate sheet of paper. (Never write on the back of a photograph.) And make sure you have a digital copy at the ready to e-mail editors in need.

What Other Low-Cost Tools Can I Use to Promote My Business?

The ideas are as limitless as your imagination. Offer in-person demonstrations of your service or product. J. Patrick Borders, president of Neuton and Associates, a sales-training company in Mahwah, New Jersey, spends much of his time giving free consultations to companies that are considering using his services. "I find that visiting a potential customer in person is much more effective than mailing them a brochure," he says. "He can ask questions and get immediate answers. When I speak directly to a customer, I can sell my services much more easily than I possibly can with the written word." Giving away something for free, whether it's a product sample or your time, goes a long way in creating a positive company image.

Remember to communicate with past customers. Many may place new orders if you remind them that your company still exists. Remember the last time you canceled a magazine subscription? The publisher sent you a note every few months to say that he missed you. That subtle reminder of a company's existence gets many former customers to return to active status. Believe me, if it didn't work, companies wouldn't waste their time and money doing it!

Take advantage of free publicity. Never send anything out of your office without a promotional message attached to it. Even invoices should include some vehicle for reordering, or a promotional piece describing another product in which your customer may have some interest. If you can't include a separate flier, simply print your message on the invoice. Many department stores use this approach with their monthly credit-card invoices.

If a press release generates a major story in a newspaper or magazine, call the publication and request reprints of the article. Ask permission to use these reprints as promotional fliers for your business. How many times have you been in a restaurant and seen a framed review from the local paper? When you get someone else to say that your company is great, potential customers will notice!

If your budget permits, sponsor a local Little League team, or any local youth sports group. You'd be amazed at the goodwill business that will come your way when your company name is emblazoned on the front of the team jersey.

Getting involved in local organizations and institutions can greatly enhance your company's reputation. Why not sponsor a charity event? Giving away products or services as door prizes at activities conducted by your town's community center or senior citizen's center can reap double rewards: You'll generate goodwill by participating, and you'll also allow new customers to sample what you have to offer. A simple phone call to a local civic club or neighborhood organization will get you started.

Evaluating Your Results
Evaluating the results of your PR campaign will help you spend money more wisely.

Make a chart for tracking your results. List the press releases you sent out and the names of the magazines in which they appeared. As you get responses, keep track of how many came from which magazine, and the month in which they appeared. When your business grows and you consider advertising, you can use this information to begin developing that plan.

Catherine A. Reilly is a public-relations consultant and freelance writer who lives in Dumont, New Jersey.