Public Relations

Definition: Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives

Just what is public relations? And how does it differ from advertising? Public relations is the opposite of advertising. In advertising, you pay to have your message placed in a newspaper, TV or radio spot. In public relations, the article that features your company is not paid for. The reporter, whether broadcast or print, writes about or films your company as a result of information he or she received and researched.

Publicity is more effective than advertising, for several reasons. First, publicity is far more cost-effective than advertising. Even if it is not free, your only expenses are generally phone calls and mailings to the media. Second, publicity has greater longevity than advertising. An article about your business will be remembered far longer than an ad.

Publicity also reaches a far wider audience than advertising generally does. Sometimes, your story might even be picked up by the national media, spreading the word about your business all over the country.

Finally, and most important, publicity has greater credibility with the public than does advertising. Readers feel that if an objective third party-a magazine, newspaper or radio reporter-is featuring your company, you must be doing something worthwhile.

As your business grows, it naturally becomes a more prominent element in your community and your industry. That means that what it does naturally becomes more worthy of notice. And that means improved opportunities for using public relations as a bigger part of your marketing mix. PR is an excellent tool because it gives you exposure you don't have to pay for directly. The term "directly" is chosen carefully here. True, you may not have to cut a check to a broadcaster or publisher when your company is mentioned in a news report. But good PR rarely happens without effort. Getting good publicity usually requires careful planning, persistent effort, and, often, spending money for press release mailings, copywriters and PR consultants.

The good news is, as the founder of a growing company, you're in a prime position to be listened to by consumers and the news media. All you have to do is let others know you exist and that you are an expert source of information or advice about your industry. Being regarded as an industry expert can do wonders for your business. But how can you get your expertise known?

  • Start by making sure you know everything you can about your business, product and industry.
  • Talk to as many groups as possible. (If public speaking strikes fear in your heart, you'd better get over it. This is one skill you're going to need as an entrepreneur.) Volunteer to talk to key organizations, service clubs, business groups or anyone else who might be interested in what you have to say. Do it free of charge, of course, and keep it fun, interesting and timely.
  • Contact industry trade publications and volunteer to write articles, columns or opinion pieces. (If you can not do that, write a letter to the editor.)
  • Offer seminars or demonstrations related to your business (a caterer could explain how to cook Thai food,
  • Host--or appear as a regular guest or contributor to--a local radio or TV talk show.

Do all this, and by the time you contact media people and present yourself as an expert, you'll have plenty of credentials.

Why do some companies succeed in generating publicity while others don't? It's been proved time and time again that no matter how large or small your business is, the key to securing publicity is identifying your target market and developing a well-thought-out public relations campaign. To get your company noticed, follow these seven steps:

1. Write your positioning statement. This sums up in a few sentences what makes your business different from the competition.

2. List your objectives. What do you hope to achieve for your company through the publicity plan you put into action? List your top five goals in order of priority. Be specific, and always set deadlines. Using a clothing boutique as an example, some goals may be to increase your store traffic, which will translate into increased sales, and create a high profile for your store within the community.

3. Identify your target customers. Are they male or female? What age range? What are their lifestyles, incomes and buying habits? Where do they live?

4. Identify your target media. List the newspapers and TV and radio programs in your area that would be appropriate outlets. Make a complete list of the media you want to target, then call them and ask whom you should contact regarding your area of business. Identify the specific reporter or producer who covers your area so you can contact them directly. Your local library will have media reference books that list contact names and numbers. Make your own media directory, listing names, addresses, and telephone and fax numbers. Separate TV, radio and print sources. Know the "beats" covered by different reporters so you can be sure you are pitching your ideas to the appropriate person.

5. Develop story angles. Keeping in mind the media you're approaching, make a list of story ideas you can pitch to them. Develop story angles you would want to read about or see on TV. Plan a 45-minute brainstorming session with your spouse, a business associate or your employees to come up with fresh ideas.

If you own a toy store, for example, one angle could be to donate toys to the local hospital's pediatric wing. If you own a clothing store, you could alert the local media to a fashion trend in your area. What's flying out of your store so fast you can't keep it in stock? If it's shirts featuring the American flag, you could talk to the media about the return of patriotism. Then arrange for a reporter to speak with some of your customers about why they purchased that particular shirt. Suggest the newspaper send a photographer to take pictures of your customers wearing the shirts.

6. Make the pitch. Put your thoughts on paper, and send them to the reporter in a "pitch letter." Start with a question or an interesting fact that relates your business to the target medium's audience. For instance, if you were writing for a magazine aimed at older people, you could start off "Did you know that more than half of all women over 50 have not begun saving for retirement?" Then lead into your pitch: "As a Certified Financial Planner, I can offer your readers 10 tips to start them on the road to a financially comfortable retirement..." Make your letter no longer than one page; include your telephone number so the reporter can contact you.

If appropriate, include a press release with your letter. Be sure to include your positioning statement in any correspondence or press releases you send.

7. Follow up. Following up is the key to securing coverage. Wait four to six days after you've sent the information, then follow up your pitch letter with a telephone call. If you leave a message on voice mail and the reporter does not call you back, call again until you get him or her on the phone. Do not leave a second message within five days of the first. If the reporter requests additional information, send it immediately and follow up to confirm receipt.

Once you reach the reporter on the telephone, remember that he or she is extremely busy and probably on deadline. Be courteous, and ask if he or she has time to talk. If not, offer to call back at a more convenient time. If the reporter can talk to you, keep your initial pitch to 20 seconds; afterward, offer to send written information to support your story ideas.

The following tips will boost your chances of success:

  • If a reporter rejects your idea, ask if he or she can recommend someone else who might be interested.
  • Know exactly what you're going to say before you telephone the reporter. Have it written down in front of you--it's easier, and you'll feel more confident.
  • Everyone likes a compliment. If you've read a story you particularly enjoyed by the reporter you're contacting, let him or her know. This will also show that you're familiar with the reporter's work.
  • Be persistent. Remember, not everyone will be interested. If your story idea is turned down, try to find out why and use that information to improve your next pitch. Just keep going, and don't give up. You will succeed eventually.
  • Don't be a pest. You can easily be persistent without being annoying. Use your instincts; if the reporter sounds rushed, offer to call back.
  • Be helpful and become a resource by providing reporters with information. Remember, they need your story ideas. There are only so many they can come up with on their own.
  • Always remember that assistants get promoted. Be nice to everyone you speak with, no matter how low they are on the totem pole. After you establish a connection, keep in touch; you never know where people will end up.
  • Say thank you. When you succeed in getting publicity for your business, always write a thank-you note to the reporter who worked on it with you. You'd be surprised how much a note means.

Plan your publicity efforts just as carefully as you plan the rest of your business. You'll be glad you made the effort when you see your company featured in the news-and when you see the results in your bottom line.

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