From the July 1998 issue of Startups

Have you recently started a new business, invented a new product, or created a service that helps people in a unique way? Then chances are, you've got a story to tell. Public relations is a highly credible, low-cost way to build sales for your new company. To get the coverage you need, here are eight time-tested rules for creating press releases that get noticed.

1. Select the right media for your particular story. Always begin by creating a "press list." This is a list of media that reach large numbers of your target audience and are looked to as reputable sources of information. Then select different media from your press list to receive various types of stories.

Before you decide what type of information to send, get copies of each publication to learn what kind of information will be most relevant to that publication's readers. For example, if your firm wins a local award, your release may be of interest to your hometown newspaper, but if you invent a breakthrough medical product, you should target general-business, consumer and medical trade press with your story.

2. Send your press release to a specific person. Major media outlets receive hundreds or even thousands of press releases daily. To keep yours from being lost in the shuffle, take the time to research the name of a specific editor, news director or journalist to receive it. If you've followed Rule No. 1 and become familiar with the newspapers, magazines and broadcast news stations you're targeting, it will be easy to identify the individuals who typically handle stories like yours.

Press releases may be distributed by mail, fax or e-mail. You'll find that journalists at technology publications, among others, typically prefer releases via e-mail. In general, faxing conveys an immediacy that traditional mail does not. However, many journalists still prefer to receive releases via traditional mail, so it's always a good idea to ask what the preferred method is.

3. Spotlight a newsworthy angle. The majority of press releases sent to the news media don't turn into stories. Those that do have one thing in common: They meet the specific needs of a publication or broadcast outlet's readers, viewers or listeners. To be newsworthy, your release has to contain beneficial information, identify a trend, shed new light on a timely or relevant issue, or contain information about an upcoming event.

4. Write a headline that states a benefit. The media will evaluate your press release with one thing in mind: how the information it contains will benefit or interest their readers or viewers. In order for your release to stand out, your headline must instantly communicate why your information is relevant.

If the headline benefit is quantifiable, so much the better. For example, "New Tax-Checking Software Reduces Errors by 10 Percent" is a better headline than "Herr Technology Introduces New Tax-Checking Software."

5. Make sure the copy doesn't sound like an ad. Too many press releases read like thinly disguised advertisements. To be effective, your release must stick to the facts, avoiding broad claims and hyperbole. Tone down the sales language in your release, and focus on clear communication. Use testimonials, expert quotes and statistics to give weight to your claims.

6. Keep your layout simple. A straightforward presentation is best. Avoid the temptation to "dress up" your layout with artful typefaces that can make your release look like an advertising flier. Stay away from headlines or text in all capital letters, which slows the reader down. Instead, make your release clean and easy to read.

7. Give the media an incentive to respond. If your public relations arsenal includes studies, booklets or product samples, don't send them along with your initial release. Mention the tools in your release; then send them later to journalists who contact you for more information. This helps you build a better-qualified press list and reduces your costs.

8. Always follow up by telephone. While most journalists say they hate follow-up phone calls, these calls are a necessary element in a successful public relations program. With the crush of releases sent to every outlet, telephone follow-up ensures your information gets into the right hands. Phone contact also allows you to elaborate on how your story will benefit the journalist's readers or viewers.

Building relationships with the media takes patience. Each time you contact a member of the media, ask if you've called at a good time. Be sensitive to deadline pressures and note the best times to call back.

Regularly send appropriate stories to each medium and be sure to follow these eight rules to make your releases stand out from the crowd. Soon, you'll find your business getting the kind of publicity you've only dreamed of.

Voice Lessons

"Businesspeople get a lot of voice-mail messages, and if yours is blah, you're going to get zapped." That's a warning from Nancy Friedman, president of Telephone "Doctor" Customer Service Training in St. Louis and author of Telephone Skills From A to Z (Crisp Publications, $10.95, 650-323-6100).

Used correctly, voice mail can be a strong ally in your sales effort. With a little practice, you can become skilled at leaving messages that get prospects' and customers' attention.

Consider an encounter with voice mail as a 30-second selling opportunity to leave what Friedman calls "an electronic business card." The content of your message is important. Friedman advises you to write down exactly what you're going to say; then throw away your script. Your message should sound spontaneous, unrehearsed and upbeat.

"Tell them who you are and why you're calling--including a benefit--and leave your phone number twice . . . slowly," Friedman says.

If your call is based on a referral, be sure to mention the name of the person who referred you at the outset. This helps ensure your message gets listened to.

We should all expect to encounter voice mail. "Only 30 percent of all calls are completed on the first try," says Friedman. So if you need a little time to master the art of leaving perfect voice-mail messages, don't worry; you're bound to get plenty of practice.

Contact Source

Telephone "Doctor" Customer Service Training, (314) 291-1012, http://www.telephonedoctor.com