Winning positive publicity is the goal of most small businesses--and it can take your company from obscurity to national prominence. The key is to have an effective media relations program, one that enables you to build relationships with the right journalists and win publicity over time. Here are six essential steps that will help you create a PR campaign that will put your company in the limelight.

1. Make a contact list. Most entrepreneurs have more than one type of story to tell. For example, a story about the development of a new product might be of interest to trade press in your industry or even consumer press in vertical categories, while a story about your company's affiliation with a local charity would be most interesting to your local business press. Decide what types of stories your company has to tell, then develop a media contact list with help from print publications and online sources including: Bacon's MediaSource and Gebbie Press , which both provide a free searchable database of media links.

2. Don't waste editors' time. The media are only interested in stories that will help them sell more issues or increase ratings--in other words, they want stories that are compelling to their readers, viewers or listeners. If you don't have a story that fits the immediate needs of a particular media outlet, don't waste your energy sending extraneous materials. Either tailor a story specifically for that outlet, or wait until the right opportunity presents itself.

3. Establish relationships with key journalists. Instead of taking the "blast" approach to media relations, it's often better to take the time to develop relationships with select members of the media and provide them with exclusive materials or story ideas. Making an exclusive pitch requires contacting an individual journalist to discuss your story concept, then supplying any follow-up data or materials that journalist might need to complete the story. For example, imagine you're a professional organizer and have a website visited by consumers. You might add a polling feature to the main page of your site that asks visitors to rank their families' most challenging organizational issues. The results of that poll could then be turned into a story that you could pitch to a key magazine editor. Get the idea?

4. Send great materials. Sometimes it's smart to send your media relations list something other than the standard release or media alert. Members of the media are inundated with run-of-the-mill stuff--from minor announcements to ho-hum news. Some media outlets get thousands of releases every day. What will make your pitch stand out? One way to win publicity is to provide quality materials that take some of the work out of covering your story, such as by sending product photographs to magazines, e-mailing links to online high-tech product demos, or providing a page of tips that writers can use as story background or as a springboard to your interview.

5. Take the time to follow up. Entrepreneurs new to publicity often overlook the fact that media relations is about building "relationships" with members of the media. It's not enough to blast materials to media outlets in the hope they'll gain attention. It's vital to tailor stories appropriately, send top-notch materials and then follow up by phone or e-mail. Don't be surprised if the editor or journalist you contact by phone asks you to resend your materials. After all, with the copious amounts of information sent to the media, much of it is discarded, plus stories are often assigned to freelancers. Be patient and respectful of the journalist's time. If your current story pitch doesn't meet his or her needs, find out what will so you can better tailor your next pitch.

6. Be ready with more. The best thing that can happen in your follow-up call with a journalist is that you'll spark an interest in learning more about you, your company or its products and services. So be prepared to send a full media kit or any supporting materials the media outlet may require. After you've made your first few follow-up calls, you'll have a clear idea of what this kit should contain. Just be sure not to overfill it. Remember, journalists are overloaded with extraneous materials, so pare down your kit until it includes just the essentials.

As you'll discover, the most vital components of a successful media relations campaign are listening and providing the best information to meet individual journalist's needs. If you stay on top of your program and consistently work to place stories, you'll successfully build relationships and gain coverage over time.