A good public relations strategy allows an organization to communicate effectively with its target audience. To achieve optimum value, business owners need a process for executing that strategy as effectively and efficiently as possible. Without the right framework, you may be faced with short-lived gains or unnecessary expense.

The good news is that there's a simple method to follow--the Communications Cycle--that can serve as a guide for small business owners who want a simple and effective method for developing their public relations strategies.

Ted Skinner, vice president of PR Products at PR Newswire, answers key questions about making the method work for your business.

What is the "Communications Cycle"?

The Communications Cycle can be broken down into five steps:

1. Messaging: Before implementing a public relations strategy, you must first determine what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. What are the key points you want to convey? What is the most effective format in which to communicate the message: text, video or multimedia?

2. Targeting: The most important aspect of public relations, as in sales, is knowing your target audience. A common public relations misconception is viewing reporters as the primary audience. True, reporters will be your main communications conduit and a very important group for tailoring your messages, but the ultimate target of a PR campaign should be customers, investors and potential partners. Before engaging in any public relations outreach, determine who your audience is, where they're located and what information sources they use to drive their business decisions. The more detailed your targeting, the more effective your communications will be.

3. Distribution: There are several methods you can use to get the word out, ranging from the very basic to the more robust. As with messaging and targeting, tailor your distribution to each audience based on how it accesses information.

E-mailing or faxing to a pre-determined list is the simplest and least costly method for disseminating information. However, this approach is limiting because only those on the list will get the information.

Newswire distribution services come with a price tag, but the expense ensures a much wider audience through direct contact with reporters and postings to news and consumer sites around the world. Further, some newswires offer search engine optimization of news releases, which increases the likelihood of your release being picked up by Yahoo! or Google. Social media elements, such as tagging technology and blog monitoring, are also being incorporated to augment the standard press release distribution.

Speaking of which, blogs and social media sites offer an increasingly important and very cost-effective channel for PR activities. However, with reward--reaching a highly targeted, motivated audience--comes risk. Blogs and social media sites open you up to criticism.

4. Monitoring and measurement: Monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of a PR program is crucial and should be ongoing. The most straightforward and cost effective way to monitor PR activity is to manually collect articles from printed publications or websites. Services, such as Google News, offer a relatively easy and free way to track coverage that's posted online. However, collecting and clipping articles can be time consuming, especially for a small business owner. Professional clipping services can assume this burden, but at a price.

Equally important to the number of articles generated is the effectiveness of the coverage. Were your key messages properly conveyed? What tone did the media take in relating your news? Was it discussed in the blogosphere? These are all important factors in weighing the success or failure of a PR program and should be evaluated after each campaign.

5. Assessment: The final stage in the cycle is taking what you've learned from your campaign and applying it to future work. If the media wasn't interested in your news, look for a different angle or different publication. If lack of understanding was a problem, refine your messages. If the wrong people read your news, re-examine your distribution methods. Over time you'll hone your campaign to achieve the greatest results for your business.

How can the Communications Cycle benefit a small business?

The Communications Cycle is designed to generate targeted exposure in a cost- and time-effective manner. For small business owners with limited experience planning or executing public relations strategies, the step-by-step approach allows them to organize their activities around a framework that will help produce measurable results. Public relations will always be more of an art than a science. The Communications Cycle helps clear up some of the vagaries.

What simple tools and practices can small business owners with limited resources use?

  • A solid media list should be at the core of every public relations campaign. Media lists can be built from first-hand knowledge, online sources or from media databases. Although there's a cost involved, media databases offer the most efficient means for gathering information and accessing important details about specific reporters.
  • Newswire distribution services can also be valuable to the PR efforts of a small company. Again, there are costs involved, but the scale of distribution that a newswire provides can't be matched by other comparable means.
  • An online media room is another tool that can be valuable to small businesses. Very simply, a media room is a section on a corporate website dedicated to news and materials that are valuable to reporters and other individuals seeking information on the company. Media rooms can range from the basic, such as a chronology of recent announcements, to the more sophisticated, including technology that automatically posts releases, allows for the download of multimedia content and provides direct communication to company contacts.
  • Expert sources , individuals at your company who can discuss topics related to your business or industry, are highly desirable to the media and can offer companies a way to gain notoriety even when news isn't available. There are several ways to leverage an expert source. The most direct approach is to proactively offer a list of reporters access to the individual if a need arises. Once a relationship is developed, very often it will be the reporter who approaches your company for future commentary.
  • Online services , such as ProfNet, connect your experts with journalists looking for quote sources. The services allow companies to create profiles for their experts, which are then made available to reporters who are registered on the site. The sites also allow companies to access postings from reporters who are seeking experts for articles currently in production.
  • Blogs offer a forum for your expert to voice his or her opinion on a wide range of matters and, in turn, showcase his or her knowledge to readers. The risk with blogs, as mentioned previously, is the potential for critical or negative comments.

In the future, what will be the most important PR tools for small businesses?

The growth and maturation of social networking will continue to influence the PR landscape. As these technologies become more mainstream, we should begin to see more localized, Zagat-like content available in communities across the country. Such sites should afford small businesses even greater opportunities for exposure. Traditional tools and practices will continue to be the foundation of public relations, but more and more we'll see the influence of shared content and communications.