It's a way to get good publicity without advertising. And if there's ever a problem facing your business it helps you deal with it effectively.
You can use PR to attract and impress people such as customers, suppliers, distributors, banks and other lenders, potential employees and possible business partners.
And PR isn't just for big companies using national newspapers or television. Even the smallest business can use publicity opportunities to catch the eye of its local audience.
This guide will help you generate positive media coverage and identify the media you should target. It will also tell you how you can go about writing a press release and give you tips for dealing with bad publicity.
Identifying your target media
The first step to getting media coverage for your business is to decide on your target outlets. Ask yourself who will be interested in your story:
* your local paid-for newspaper
* your local free paper
* your local council newspaper
* local radio and television
* trade, technical and professional magazines covering your type of business or expertise
* national newspapers
* consumer and lifestyle magazines
* national radio and television
How to get media coverage
You could send out press releases on the same story to a number of outlets. But you'll need to tailor each release to the audience.
For example, a small manufacturer wins a big Italian order with a new manufacturing technique which it uses under licence.
The press release for the trade and technical press highlights the success of the technique and the company's use of innovation. The press release for the local paper is about increased employment and the prestige for the town in beating foreign competition.
There are many natural PR opportunities:
* a new product launch
* new premises
* new members of staff
* an important new order
* involvement with a charity
* significant anniversaries, eg your 1 000th customer
* business partnerships
And you can create publicity opportunities:
* submit articles for publication
* commission a survey on serious or fun issues and send the results to the press
* suggest a competition with your product as the prize
* give expert opinions and volunteer quotes
* send letters to the editor on business topics using your business address
Building contacts with the media
News editors decide on the news stories written by their reporters. Contact the news editor with a story, particularly if you don't know any of the reporters.
The features editor decides on the longer analytical or background articles. The press release is one of the key points of contact with news and features editors.
Introduce yourself to editors of local papers and magazines - perhaps at a reception or an organisation's annual dinner.
Put journalists on your mailing list for background information they may find interesting, such as your business' newsletter.
Journalists work to tight deadlines - find out the deadline and supply your story well in advance. If a journalist is trying to get hold of you - respond quickly before their deadline.
Journalists' news agendas are different from yours. Provide what's interesting to them and their audience, not to you. But they're always looking to fill space. Putting facts down in writing - including quotes from you - helps before a conversation with them. Emails are good for cutting and pasting.
Dealing with bad publicity
Disgruntled employees and customers, crises and accidents can all generate negative news stories.
Make sure employees know who to refer journalists' enquiries to and ensure that only employees who are authorised to do so respond to enquiries.
If a journalist contacts you, check their deadline, carefully construct a written statement, and respond in time. It doesn't look good if you refuse to comment.
Show you have done everything you reasonably could to correct any problems.
If there's a tricky follow-up question, take time to put your case forward and restate it by written communication if possible.
It's not a good idea to go off the record when there's bad news. Answer truthfully the questions put to you. But it's not your job to volunteer every detail.
Be aware that any response you give may carry legal implications. In the worst case scenarios it might be worth seeking legal advice before making any response or making statements for the media through your legal representatives.
Should I use a PR agency?
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when small companies should call in outside PR help. Take into account:
* how confident and successful you are at managing your PR and dealing with journalists
* whether you're involved in a crucial product launch or sales expansion that might be helped by using an agency for, say, six months
* whether you face a potentially controversial or sensitive issue, or are involved in an industry that's in the media spotlight
* how much time it's taking
* how much it's costing you
Choose an agency with relevant experience and contacts. Getting publicity in national newspapers, television and radio is extremely difficult without a suitable agency.
Provide a clear briefing on what you're trying to achieve. Explain what makes your company and products different.
Plan how the PR agency will work with your other promotional activities. Be wary of agencies that see PR as the answer to everything, with no thought of alternatives such as advertising.
Is it worth it?
Always get quotes on how much you'll be paying and what you'll get for your money.
* How much will it cost to write a press release?
* Who'll be doing follow-ups and answering queries arising from the release - you or the agency? Are you getting 24-hour cover or just an event- or press release-based service?
* Like your business, PR agencies will have fixed costs to cover. Decide how much actual PR output you're getting for your money.
* Assess how interested the agency is in your business, and whether it understands it.
Make sure you establish clear objectives from the outset and communicate these to the agency. At the end of the campaign you can compare your results against these original objectives to assess whether you have obtained good value for your outlay.
Writing an effective press release
What's important to you may not grab the news organisation. They may be less interested in the product than the fact that it brings environmental benefits, for instance.
News is typically:
* controversial, new or surprising
* amusing or funny
* directly important to the audience
* confidential or secret - until now
* linked with famous people or places
* linked with conflict, romance or mystery
Here's what you do
Most press releases are now delivered electronically. In an email or using a company branded document, write 'Press release'. Then write the date. Put a headline on the left - six or seven words in bold type. The headline will be active, understandable, convey the main point of the story and make people want to read on.
The first paragraph, the introduction, expands on the headline. It concentrates on what has happened or will happen, who is involved and where. It conveys the whole story in a nutshell and its interest and relevance to the readership. It would still be understandable if the rest of the press release was deleted.
Tailor the introduction to the publication - a trade journal is attracted by what a new product can do for its business audience, a local paper is interested in local jobs, prestige or human interest.
Subsequent paragraphs give the how and why - the explanation and development of the terse first paragraph or two - and the when.
A quote from you is essential.
Keep everything tight and clear, with short sentences. Don't make it sound like an ad. Write the release like a newspaper report. Refer to your business in the third person - 'it' not 'we'.
Write 'end' and then name yourself as a contact, with phone and email details. A 'note to editors' can give background or more detailed information.
Get coverage for your press release
Once you have written your press release, your aim is to get it covered by your target media organisations.
Find out their copy deadlines. Send the release to the editor, news and features editors and possibly the reporter who might write the piece.
Check if they'd like an email version. Newspapers and magazines might just cut and paste most of a well-written release.
Check the release has been received and if further information is needed.
Photographs can boost your chances of getting your story covered. Try to include at least a head-and-shoulders shot of the person quoted in the press release. Or get an agency to take a picture of the person at its premises. If you're lucky, a publication might send along a photographer.
Non-media PRDon't see your PR as just something that's directly targeted at the media. You can influence and impress people - including the media - in many ways, not just by getting a mention in a news story.
Try out some of these ideas for raising awareness of your business in your locality or your industry sector using non-media and activity-based PR. For example, you could try:
* giving talks on business and other subjects to organisations, schools and colleges
* joining an organisation and becoming a figurehead, so that its publicity brings you publicity
* sponsoring events such as a school fête or exhibition
* sponsoring a local sports team
* organising competitions, initiatives and surveys, possibly in cooperation with a news organisation
* meeting and talking to opinion-formers, journalists and other business people and leaders, just being seen around
* sending letters to the editor on local or industry issues - but don't become a constant whinger
* helping with, or donating products to, charity
* teaming up with suppliers or customers to work on attracting joint publicity
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