Jennifer Rancilio recalls one of the first times the press came calling-for a booking on a local cable TV show. "I think more than anything, I was worried about sounding uninformed. I was panicking about a 20-minute interview with the local cable company," says the 27-year-old owner of Tutto Bene Imports, a Web- and catalog-based business specializing in Italian ceramics, in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham.
Rancilio quickly realized that calls from the local press were an opportunity to generate positive free publicity for her store. "The press can really help you if you let them, because nothing is more beneficial than a third-party story," she says. "I've never had anyone mention the ads I've placed, but people will come into the store with an article three months after it's appeared."
Knowledge is power when it comes to publicizing your business. Susan Howes, assistant editor at HOUR Detroit Magazine advises finding out who the local press people are and what they cover and becoming familiar with their publications. "Know the players," she says. Once you know that much, the rest should come naturally:
Many start-up entrepreneurs are their own publicists at first, but if you prefer, you can hire a public relations professional to make initial press contacts, as Rancilio did. "I didn't know the etiquette of approaching the press or who to contact," she explains. "The investment I put into PR worked to bring me a [much greater] return."
- Develop a newsworthy pitch before contacting the media so you don't waste anyone's time. Once you've booked an interview, organize your thoughts, anticipate possible questions, and make note of the key points you want to mention. "Write it all down," Rancilio says. "It may sound a little geeky and nerve-wracking, but it helps." And remember, respect reporters' deadlines. Call if you can't make an interview, and promptly reschedule it.
- Make things easy for the press. Provide printed materials like brochures and business cards to verify spellings, addresses, phone numbers and other factual information. And be accessible-if reporters can't find you, they may lose interest in your story.
- When you get to the actual interview, assume everything is "on the record" unless you specify otherwise before a remark. Volunteer anecdotes that humanize your business-they result in interesting stories that put a professional, yet personal, face to your business. For instance, Rancilio, who regularly travels to Italy to restock her store, says stories mentioning her struggles with the Italian language, the history of her ceramic pieces, and humorous happenings in the Italian marketplaces make the biggest impression on her customers. "It's almost like bidding for a job," says Rancilio of working to secure positive press coverage. "It's like the press is the client."
- Sell your story on its own merits. Avoid things like announcing that you're an advertiser and you expect a story, going over reporters' heads, dropping their superiors' names, or pitching pieces by saying their direct competitor just did the story. Always accentuate the positive-negative comments about other businesses or mentions of your personal problems make it difficult for reporters to focus on your story.
- Focus on building long-term relationships with reporters. At the end of an interview, always offer to be a resource if the press needs information about your industry for future stories. "When I build a relationship with the press, they, in turn, can help me build a relationship with my customers," says Rancilio. "The opportunities are out there, but you have to have a new angle. The personal story behind your business is usually the hook."
Dominique King remembers how nervous she was when she set up her first interview for the local newspaper eight years ago. Now she regularly interviews people as a reporter and columnist for a small chain of suburban Detroit weekly newspapers.