From the January 1996 issue of Startups

IT SOUNDS TOO good to be true. Martin Baird--founder of Robinson & Associates Corp., a marketing management firm, in Phoenix--was mentioned in the Arizona Republic newspaper's small-business column. "From that, I was asked to do seminars for USWest phone company," says Baird, "who then purchased close to 500 copies of my marketing book. I was also asked to speak at the Western Entrepreneur's Conference. All that is the direct result of one news release."

The moral of the story? News releases work. And, if you want your business to get media exposure--whether it's in a newspaper or magazine, on television or radio--you'll need a news release and a media kit. You can successfully prepare both of these yourself, if you follow a few simple guidelines.

News Releases

"A news release is a for-your-information memorandum to an editor or reporter," explains Wilma Mathews, coauthor of On Deadline: Managing Media Relations (Waveland Press). "It gives enough information to let a reporter or editor decide whether your idea or event is newsworthy enough to cover."

You must make certain that your news release is newsworthy. A grand opening, new product launch, important staff change or business award are all potentially worthy of news coverage. But remember that a community newspaper, industry trade journal and national news magazine program will all have different perceptions of what's news, so carefully choose your targets. Your company's fifth anniversary, for example, may be of interest to your community newspaper's editor, but not appropriate for the program director of a statewide radio show.

"The most difficult part of a news release is trying to identify the appropriate media," says Baird. "We analyze our potential market, and learn what they are reading, watching and listening to." Baird then sends news releases only to the places that will reach his customer. For example, local stories are sent to the small business editor at his local newspaper, but press releases for his book were sent to national business magazines. Not only does this save Baird printing and delivery costs, but it ensures that any media exposure will be noticed by his target market.

Although each editor has his or her own perception of news, most look for stories that are timely, unique and of interest to their local audience or subscribers. "Number one, news is determined by whether it's local," says Mathews. "Does it have a local hook? Will it be of interest to local readers? Next, it must be something that's about to happen. Nobody wants a news release about something that happened three weeks ago. Finally, editors are always looking for the unique or unusual."

Don't make the mistake of substituting a news release for paid advertising. Although a news release may ultimately generate sales, its goal is to transmit interesting information, so make certain you find something interesting or unique to write about. Baird generates ideas for his news releases by listening carefully to his clients' questions and concerns. "I just did a news release titled 'Internet--Riches or Ripoff?'" says Baird, "because we kept getting calls from clients saying, 'Should I be on the Internet?' or 'Should I have a Web page?'"

Like business letters or legal documents, news releases have a specific format. They are printed on plain white paper or company letterhead. In the upper left corner on the first page, indicate the contact person (probably yourself) and the telephone number. In the upper right corner, include the date you're writing the news release and the date when the information should be released to the public, such as "For Immediate Release" or "For Release: February 15, 1996."

The next line should be the headline. "The headline should summarize what's in your release," says Mathews. "For example, 'ABC Company Names New President.' That tells what the release is about and helps the editor know whether this is hot news or something that can wait." The headline should be in capital letters, centered on the page.

Beneath the headline is the body of the news release. This is your chance to convince the editor that your story merits media attention. Write carefully, making certain your news release completely answers the six questions journalists will ask: "who, what, where, when, why and how." Write in a simple style, avoiding jargon or technical terms that are unfamiliar to your audience. Include at least one good quote from yourself about the subject.

The body of the news release should be double spaced, and no more than two pages long. Leave margins of at least one inch so the editor can write comments. Complete your release by centering the word "End" at the bottom of the page.

Don't try to make your news release unusual. "A lot of novices attempt to make the news release memorable by using colorful paper, bright letterhead, cutesy terminology or funny fonts," says Mathews. "What's interesting about the release is the content. All that cutesy stuff doesn't impress editors; in fact, it often turns them off."

Your news release can be delivered by fax, courier, mail or electronic mail. But, before it leaves your desk, make certain it has been proofread. "Nothing turns an editor off faster than a release that is filled with grammatical errors, typos or bad writing," says Mathews. "Editors expect quality. If they don't get it, they're going to trash your news release."

Media Kits

If you send out a news release, you'll also need a media kit. "A media kit is an information package," explains Mathews. "It's usually prepared to be part of some event, like a news conference, where reporters are going to be. It can also be used to distribute any time a customer or media person calls."

Mathews suggests carefully choosing what you include in your media kit. "More is not better," she warns. "Reporters don't want to carry around five pounds of paper--they don't have time to read through it. They want information, not information overload."

Begin your media kit with a fact sheet--a single page that contains all the important details about your business. Include a black and white photograph of yourself, as well as a brief autobiography. Mathews also recommends including clips of any newspaper or magazine articles that have been written about your business.

"Reporters like to know other publications have written something about your business," explains Mathews. "If somebody else thought you were important enough to write about, that reporter is more likely to write about you, too."

Also include a nontechnical description of your main products or services. "But keep it very short and simple," warns Mathews. "A lot of businesses try to use a media kit as a sales kit, and include product brochures and detailed information. You're not going to sell a reporter by giving them product specs."

Baird is careful to ensure that his media kits contain more than just information about his company. "We also include industrywide information," he says. "We're in the marketing business, so we take articles out of marketing publications that would be of interest to the editor. Because then it doesn't look like you're selling your company, as much as you're including information. But those articles give great credibility and also provide a resource for the editor or writer to go back to."

Assemble this information in a presentation folder, with a cutout in the front pocket for your business card. Like news releases, Mathews recommends keeping media kits simple. Florescent colored folders or strange fonts can make you look like an amateur, so stick to a simple, professional presentation. Inexpensive folders and stationery can be purchased at most office supply stores.

A good media kit is one that gets results. "One newspaper writer has solicited us for three different articles," says Baird. "And that exposure is unbeatable."

Finally, be patient. "I look at public relations and news releases as a long-term commitment," explains Baird. "You're trying to build a relationship with a writer, editor or publication, so they will write about you or quote you. It took us two years to get mentioned in the Arizona Republic, and we must have sent them 20 news releases before the first one got picked up." But for Baird, the results from the media attention were worth the wait.

Sue Clayton is a writer specializing in buisness topics.

For More Information...

Communications Consulting & Training, 14836 S. Foxtail Ln., Phoenix, AZ 85028,

(602) 759-9295.

Robinson & Associates Corp., 12629 N. Tatum Blvd., #237, Phoenix, AZ 85032,

(602) 990-1774.