Public relations strategies are probably one of the least understood marketing strategies a company can pursue. Most executives and marketing managers understand direct mail (maybe not well but understand the mechanics), advertising placements, trade shows and banner ads. But public relations has not really penetrated down the food chain to small and medium sized companies.
This is really a shame since public relations should really be seen as part of an integrated marketing plan. Integrated marketing is a fancy way of saying everything you do in sales and marketing is interrelated so you need to plan each item with the whole in mind. If you are looking to add more "hits" to your website then public relations is a great tool. If you are looking to add more "likes" to your Facebook page then public relations is a great tool. If you are looking to gather up more fresh sales leads then, yeah, you get the idea.
In general, you should think of public relations as viral marketing. But viral in the way of news as in traditional media. This is not to say that a modern public relations strategy won't look to deploy some of the advertising or content that goes "Facebook Thumbs Up". But what it usually entails is getting third party media outlets to grab onto a topic and publish via television or webcast, radio or podcast and print or website. You'll note that I have to put the Internet distribution methods right along side "old school" media transmission methods. The two have become so bundled with TV, radio and print you really can't separate the two. It's also important to note that you probably need to account for those outlets in your goals and those modern outlets may become separate media penetration goals in and of themselves. If you're looking to build web traffic then public relations can be one of the most cost effective ways to achieve your goals.
The Principle Benefit of Public Relations Over Direct Viral Marketing
There probably isn't a single target communication that you come up with for media outlets that can't be spun into a direct Internet viral equivalent. But there is one principle advantage of having media outlets pick up your communication. Your communication is transmuted from "self serving spin" into "public benefit news".
There are two "holy grails" of marketing achievement. The first is direct consumer evangelism. The second is getting "news" published about your company.
Direct consumer evangelism is when customers who love your company and products tell others about that love. This is an ultimate achievement. They actually sell for you. A recommendation from a friend or family member is the most highly regarded product message anyone can give. The conversion rate for sales is usually above 50 percent regardless of industry or product because the evangelist is usually asked what they use and like. That is an invitation to close a sale.
Getting news published, in a well regarded publication (magazine, newspaper, news show, etc.) that features your company or product is the second best PR achievement you can have. Often, behind the scenes, this news feature started as a public relations campaign. The magic of the feature is "self-serving" company generated information is transformed into news that either entertains or serves the public. Also, readers and viewers significantly lower their barriers of skepticism about the information presented. The news is coming from "an objective" third party so the information is generally far more favorably received than a direct press release or advertisement that you publish yourself.
In our modern society the roles are shifting away from traditional media to online BUT I consider this a transfer of the outlet not entirely new outlets in themselves. A blogger is an editorialist. A podcast is a radio show. You get the idea. The process to reach those outlets is very similar. However, the turn around time for publication tends to be accelerated. For example, The Drudge Report, often beats traditional newspapers to the punch on news outbreaks because structurally they are small with almost no bureaucracy and publishing is instantaneous through the Internet. Heck, phone apps will alert your purse when there is a breaking news article. That runs circles around even cable news cycles.
Devising a Public Relations Plan
Creating a basic public relations strategy starts, like all marketing efforts, with defining your target market, determining which media outlets your target audience uses and having a developed company/product benefits to that market. This is the strategy we deploy for just about any advertising-marketing efforts.
Define End Reader/Viewer Demographics
Communications requires an audience. In your case it's also your market. Chances are if you've already done the marketing work to decide on advertising placements in magazines or participation in trade shows then you already have done this work. You sell to people. People at home or people at work. You'll need to define them a bit. Here is a simple 10 minute exercise.
Make a list of who you want to reach in communications. If it's consumers then you need at least the basics male/female, age, location, incomes, marital status and other relevant commonalities such as hobbies, interests, affiliations, attitudes, etc. Also identify problems you solve or joys you add to life.
If it's a business then industry, business classification or SIC code, business size, geography, professions, roles and titles. Also identify a business problem you solve.
Make a bullet point list, print it off and hang it on your wall. Ask at least 5 people to review your list and offer feedback. Make changes and reprint.
Create Your Media Targets
There are literally tens of thousands of magazines in the US. There are literally tens of thousands of newspapers (yes old fashioned paper) in the US. There are thousands of radio stations. There are hundreds of television stations. There are hundreds of cable/satellite TV channels. There are tens of thousands of news websites and more blogs than you can shake a stick at. There is no shortage of outlets looking for news to carry.
Your challenge is not finding news outlets. Your challenge is weeding through your communications opportunities into outlets that match your target audience.
Becoming News Worthy
The twist, and what makes public relations different than most other marketing communications, is now you need to make your company and products news worthy. This is the point where most people give up and run to public relations firms. But have heart and a little courage and you can do the work yourself.
In General, you need to determine how to make something interesting to the end reader (your target market) and timely to the publishing company. For example, if you create lines of clothing and you want to reach fashion magazines then you need to time their editorial calendar to the season of clothing you're trying to promote. The magazine will be working on Fall articles in Summer. If you approach them in Fall it will make it more difficult to get coverage.
Get the publishing schedules of your media outlets. You can do this by visiting their websites and finding them or calling their sales staff. They are more than happy to send you a media kit hoping you'll buy some advertising.
Next you need to make something different, relevant and interesting to the end readers.
Sometimes you can ride off general societal buzz. So in our clothing line example maybe you are using a new fabric that's just out? Is there something eco or green about the clothes? Are the zippers and buttons made in such as way as to aid the elderly in self-dress? Are you made in America or switching back from overseas? Did a large retail chain just pick up your line? Is there a celebrity of the day that is known to wear your product?
You can see you need to brainstorm and help the media outlet "connect the dots" between your company and product and why its interesting and relevant to their lives.
- Can you make your company or product entertaining? Is there something unusual or funny about how your business started or how you do things.
- Can you present your company or product as niche or special? Do you stand out from the crowd? These will be leading points to bring forward.
- Can you tie your news to overall social, political or technology trends? Technology news is excited about 3D printing - do you use 3D printers in your R&D and can you tie your product to the "technology de jour"? Does your web technology help the average citizen make health plan choice selection? You get the idea. Ask your friends, family and colleagues for ideas.
Getting Hits Verses Getting News Placement
Given the Internet there is a "short hand" method to score website hits and then there is actual news placement.
The Short Hand- You can write press releases and pay for news distribution on PR sites such as prweb.com, etc. If you do a Google search you'll find a ton of them. You pay for your press release to get digitally distributed to dozens, hundreds or thousands of news indexing sites/services. The more you pay the more distribution you get. This technique is unlikely to get media to pick up your story but if you're looking for inbound web links this can be an effective strategy for your search engine rankings. Here is a prior article on this topic.
There is a site that's been out for a long time called HARO, "help a reporter out". It is a site that allows reporters to post experts they need to reach. It takes effort to comb through all the posts but occasionally you'll get lucky and find a story match. You then need to write a brief pitch to try to get to the reporter and capture their interest. They are usually on a tight deadline so first in line gets attention. HARO was acquired and has introduced a pay service that will alert you to keywords in expert requests. I can't testify to the usefulness of this tool set but it's something to consider.
News placement usually requires creating an overall pitch, details press release and the effort to identify your communications targets and email and call writers and editors for that publication. In general, consider this a sales effort. You build a pipeline of contacts, outreach efforts and progress with those targeted contacts.
A Charity Event, The Classic Way to Get Coverage
A common strategy for companies is to financially sponsor a news worthy event. Becoming the sole financial sponsor or a high level sponsor for a charity event is often news worthy. You'll want to be selective in your charity and you'll want to create the tie in, promotional overview and presentation of your company.
A good idea is to look for charities with strong brands that are good for your company to be affiliated with. They exist locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. This allows you to "ride the coat tails" of that brand. Because the charity is news worthy by brand, you now become news worthy. Here is a prior article on riding your client brand coat tails. The concept is similar.
Picking Your "Face Person"
You need to assume success. So you need someone to be the point of contact for media inquiries. It is important that person knows in-depth what the story is, can answer general questions regarding the company, the employees, the customers and the products and can quickly and easily give people access to the key employees and customers that help build the story. Small companies usually have the owner or a senior manager as the person who handles the calls.
This person will be the contact name, phone and email address on your press releases. You should also pick in advance which other owners, managers and customers can be quickly and readily available to answer questions and provide quotes. A reporter won't wait because someone is traveling on business.
Have a Serving Attitude
You need to practice a little. Have someone ask you questions about your company and practice giving simple and succinct responses that also guide the direction of a conversation. You have no idea when someone will reach out about your story and in the case of newspapers and news websites they usually have a tight deadline. You'll get a call and you'll need to immediately start to answer questions.
Your mission is to make it as easy as possible for the person on the other end of the phone to get the information they need to publish and if possible to make enough of a personal connection with that reporter so they will use you as an expert resource for future publications.
Hustle for them, take calls immediately, work overtime to get the information they need.
Making It Easy for News Gatherers
You should be able to immediately send over the following information to any reporter: detailed company overview and pictures of company, key persons and products.
Create a media relations page on your website. Most journalists these days start their research by going to a company website. Do what large companies do and create a media relations page. It sounds harder than it really is.
Your media relations page should have its own link on your website. It should have your point person of contact with name, title, phone and email address. Your page should have a chronological list of your press releases. Your media relations page should have a chronological list of already published news on your company that are available online as web links. You can even put on a list of photos that are photos of your logo, operations, key employees, products, etc. You should put a short description title with each photo - no more than 40 characters.
You also may want to state that the photos are public domain. This means anyone can use them without requesting permission. Why make them public domain? This will speed up the process for news sources to publish stories and articles. If you have issues related to making the photos public domain then you can consider licensed use with registration. This basically means people can use the materials but after they fill out an online form that includes name of organization, first and last name of person downloading, mailing address, how image will be used, when it will be used and contact email.
If you want to give explicit permission for use then make it obvious who and how to contact to get permission for use. I'd recommend water marking the photos on your website as not approved for use and then having a version you send over without the water mark once you've approved use.
Getting Started Strategy One - Survey Results
News outlets love to publish surveys. They don't even have to be statistically valid surveys. They just need to be targeted and large enough that they seem objective. I worked at RELO which was a national (and now international) real estate network. If you didn't want to be in a real estate franchise (like Remax, Century 21, etc.) then chances are you joined RELO. Some of the largest independent and well known real estate brokers in the US were members.
Every year we surveyed the membership about their sales, their employee base, relocation related moves, etc. We compiled the results and created some nice visual charts (Microsoft's Excel product does a great job of this) and we'd issue press releases. Every major industry publication would pick up the story and several large city newspapers. RELO wasn't huge. We had about a dozen employees at the time. Better yet, RELO became a "go to" source for real estate relocation quotes from reporters. This created a stream of articles throughout the year in which executives of RELO were quoted in articles.
Exercise Putting Surveys to Work for You
If you'd like to get coverage in industry publications then conduct surveys on your own. If you have a large client email distribution you can try tools like Survey Monkey to promote surveys and quickly conduct them. Phone surveys tend to be the most reliable for getting a good response sampling with a short turn around time. You can also send out paper surveys but it can be a real chore to execute.
Compile your results and create a press release around it. It really is a simple tool that can be very, very effective.
Real World Example
At Hi-Five Sports Clubs we're launching a new service. We're taking our tried and true summer sports camp program and we're looking to offer it as an employee benefit on the campuses of large companies. Lots of businesses offer summer camps but none of them offer them as an employee benefit with the convenience of operating right at the place they work. We think it's great, of course the market will tell us its opinion soon enough. If you'd like to see some of what we're doing please take a look http://www.hifiveatwork.com/.