Public relations programs can often be created, managed, and executed effectively by small businesses. By taking the time to craft press release and to participate in community service activities, a small business can generate significant good will with very little time and effort.
Public relations (PR) efforts, like advertising, can help to build business and product awareness among target buyers and end users, often at a fraction of the cost of advertising. Many small and large businesses consciously utilize PR as a way to obtain free advertising about their products and services. PR can be an effective way to generate valuable word-of-mouth advertising, sometimes due to the greater credibility and availability of information provided in editorial articles and interviews with your company personnel.
How persuasive is PR? Free media publicity was largely responsible for the brief (1989-90), frenetic ground swell for consumption of oat bran as an anti-cancer food. Melatonin, a naturally produced substance that aids sleep and may be an anti-aging product, is another PR craze, with newspaper, magazine, and electronic media discussing positive preliminary research results. Health food companies cash in on this free publicity, without spending funds for advertising, promotion, or public relations. Snapple, the tea-based beverage, achieved sales in the hundreds of millions with zany PR programs that generated millions of dollars in free publicity. After the Snapple brand was purchased by Quaker Oats, the zany PR stopped and sales declined.
PR can leverage advertising and promotion programs
Public relations events can leverage the effects of advertising and promotion programs by tying all these marketing elements together. For example, a local on-site PR event for an automotive service company could include erecting a hospitality tent for company sales personnel to entertain key buyers at a local auto race. The local chain store buyers and car-owner end users could be exposed to ad messages on billboards, from announcers, and on race cars with the company logo. Buyers and end users could be given a free promotional sample to take home and try in their cars.
Public relations must be ongoing
Frequency and consistency are as necessary for effective public relations as they are the other two branches of marketing communications, advertising and promotions. To be effective, you must work on PR every day and on every level of your business—from the way you deal with your employees to how quickly you shovel the snow from in front of your establishment. Make it a habit to constantly consider the image you are projecting. It's a good one to have.
Take Time to Plan and Execute Comprehensive PR Program
Public relations programs can often be created, managed, and executed completely by small business personnel. Many PR programs are simple to create and do, unlike advertising and some promotion events requiring outside experts to create, produce, manage, and execute. Creating an effective PR program for a small business follows the same procedures as creating effective advertising and promotion programs, which include:
- Build upon a solid business positioning strategy.
- Establish marketing objectives. For example, percent awareness among target buyers and end users over a specific period of time (e.g., "achieve 50 percent awareness of our new product line among key chain buyers by the end of year one").
- Establish a PR budget. See our discussion of a small business budget process.
- Determine the PR message. See advertising ideas.
- Select PR channels and events:
- press releases
- public service or charitable activities
- special events
- company vehicles and other assets
Press Releases Do Double Duty: Raising Awareness and Providing Advertising
The press release is a widely used public relations tool. In addition, if your press release is used, it can lead not only to great free publicity but to valuable reprints you can use in your ad efforts.
As the name implies, a press release is a written communication that is distributed to media outlets, such as newspapers, radio or television stations. The fact that press releases are so widely used means that you need to follow the "rules of the game" in order to ensure that your press release is used by the media.
First, and foremost, don't waste the editor's time with a press release that is not newsworthy. Editors scan press releases mainly to meet one of two content needs:
- filler—small stories that used to literally fill space on a page; now with digital publishing, they are small stories designed to keep the view reading, and
- features—longer content pieces, usually written by a staff writer or a freelancer.
Figuring out what is newsworthy is basically a matter of common sense. Would you stop and read a similar story about a business in a different industry that yours? (You should always be reading stories about any competitors of yours!) Ideally, the information should make the readers think or prompt them to take some action. For example, an accounting firm might send out a press release regarding a change in the tax law. Another example, a gourmet food store might send out a press release highlighting its new line of upscale chocolates which not only taste delicious but have health benefits. Opening a new store or dramatically expanding an existing one is newsworthy; describing a store that has been in the same location selling the same products for five years is not.
Once you have a newsworthy topic, make sure that you follow the expected format for a press release. You may have opened your own business to give your creativity and unconventional flair free rein. That's great for the business, but not for a press release about the business. You have milliseconds to impress the editor enough to prevent your press release from hitting the recycling bin without being read. Know and follow the rules. In this digital age, that is far easier than you might think. There are numerous online sites that provide comprehensive guidance on formatting and writing style, as well as templates to follow. (Search the words "press releases" or "press release templates" in the browser of your choice.)
If you hated English as a student and the comma is not your friend, then don't shoot yourself in the foot by sending a poorly written or sloppy press release. Come up with the ideas, then hire someone qualified to create the content.
The best places for a small business to get free publicity are in the niche media area—local newspapers, local cable channels, and local radio stations. Research on names and addresses may be only as far away as the local telephone book Yellow Pages. Or, a list of industry publications and electronic media can be compiled from secondary data research or industry associations and experts. Local, regional, and national news services may also be valuable.
Public Service Activities Provide Publicity, Boost Image
Community involvement is an excellent public relations activity that can gain you free publicity of the best kind. The old saying "you have to give to receive" holds true in business. Opportunities for community service abound, ranging from extensive (and possibly expensive) commitments to those that require only a few hours.
It your budget permits, sponsor a Little League, bowling or softball team. Your team will wear your company signs, their families and friends will become your biggest boosters, and you'll get to know a lot of people you'd otherwise never be able to reach. If your budget doesn't stretch to full sponsorship, look for other opportunities to provide products or services to the organization: this will also get your business in front of potential new customers.
Donate your time and talent, as well as your products or services, where the community could benefit from them. You will be repaid a hundred fold in the long run. Participate in service clubs such as Rotary or Lions and the Chamber of Commerce. Offer to be a speaker at schools or senior centers. Donate your goods or services to local schools or churches, to be given away as raffle prizes or silent auction items.
Appropriate non-profit public service events can be targeted for company tie-ins (e.g., an energy drink company sampling participants in an American Heart Association bike, hike, run, walk event). Piggyback your business promotions on community events—such as having a "marathon" sale if the town is having a race day or offering to be a collection point for the food pantry charity drive.
Most, if not all, of the expenses you incur when you participate in community service events are deductible business expenses.
Publicize Your Special Events, Participate in Events of Others
Closely akin to public service activity participation is special event participation—indeed, depending upon the event the two can even overlap. You should be alert to find opportunities to participate in two types of events: your own and others.
Grand openings (or re-openings) are always attention-getters as are anniversary sales and seasonal promotions. A small business can host open house events and invite key target buyers to explain and demonstrate products and services. (Remember, this type of event also provides an excellent opportunity for a press release.)
Set up an event calendar or diary for your business — the kind with big squares you can scribble in. Note all opportunities for events as the year progresses. Also note when your customers may be having events. Then next year you'll be able to refer to your calendar, call your customers in advance, and ask what you can do to help them with their upcoming activity. This preemptive approach is very effective, and all it takes is a few notes scribbled on a calendar.
Watch your local papers and church bulletins for events you didn't get to participate in this year but will not want to miss selling to next year. Your non-customers will soon be recruited as steady clients. It takes little time and costs nothing.