MacDonald Ventures

Using Public Relations to Market Your Business

Public relations is one of the most powerful, yet often misunderstood avenues available for small businesses to promote themselves.  While most people think of it only as getting publicity, it includes much more.

A good public relations expert can help you create a unified message that helps your marketing and business development.  They can help you define your product or service from the customer's point-of-view, get you on the speaker's panel at trade shows and conventions, get articles about your firm in the relevant trade publications, and help with collateral material development.  An agent should also make sure your presentation is professional, with excellent support materials, so that your message, like your photographs are in focus, instead of a blur.

Don't expect PR contacts to get you ink with weak, boring or untimely material.   Editors are bombarded with puff stories in fancy press kits. Make sure you have a story interesting enough to stand out.  Even if you think you don't have a story to tell, it may be worth your while to interview a few firms to see if they can suggest ways to promote your business you had not considered. 

Susan Banashek, who now has her own agency, Banashek and Company, in San Francisco, has worked with a number of large institutions, including Bank of America and First Interstate Bancorp and their subsidiaries. Susan suggests it's imperative to use PR when actions you take will effect special interest groups. Also, when you change your message about product, service, or management, or when there are changes in your corporate structure that may concern clients, investors, or your community, use PR to let the public know your point of view. 

Susan suggests, "When a company changes its name, whether as a result of merging or to project another image, there is a need for PR tactics to raise awareness and reinforce its new image in the community. Certainly you will want to control the dissemination of information in the case of mergers, acquisitions or reemergence from bankruptcy."

Events as a publicity tool has been used as an integral part of the PR business for years and can be far more effective than bombarding editors with press releases.  Many companies focus on staging events mainly because their products get lost trying to get undeserved publicity.   Events, on the other hand, create great photo opportunities if timely and of interest to the community.

Ed Niehaus of Niehaus Ryan Haller Public Relations in South San Francisco explains, "A small company can do its own PR, but an agency brings more than just additional hands to this effort.  An agency can add media experience, finding creative ways to make compelling news and stories out of the company's products, services and events."

Finding an appropriate agency is the most important step.  Look for growing firms with a specialty in your industry or market segment.  Talk with reporters and editors about who they respect.  Hollie Webster, an independent public relations and marketing expert in Orinda, suggests reviewing stories in related publications and contacting the company to inquire about who their agency is and how well they have worked together.

Once you have a number of potential agencies to pick from, start analyzing and comparing.  The most important element is chemistry. Public relations is a judgment skills business and it is imperative to ascertain the values, ability and judgment of the principal account executive assigned to your account.  Compare the personalities of your firm to the agency.  Is there a match?  Is it fun to work with them? Is their attitude one of "how do we solve this?" or is it "that can't be done."

Request to see a list of active clients with telephone numbers and contacts and talk with the clients.  Ask how they worked together and would they hire them again.  Check accounts lists for conflicts.  Compare size and prestige.  Do you fit in?  Visit their offices.  Carefully consider whether an agency's expert in New York will be worthwhile after you pay travel and conference call expenses.

See if the agency volunteers how they saved clients money.  Look for evidence of work product.  Not just fancy presentations and flip charts designed to impress you, but look at the design of their programs, how the goals were established, how the audience was targeted and how success was measured.  Make sure the agency really wants your business.  Forget those agencies where it seems they are doing you a favor by taking your account.  Find someone who gets truly excited about working with you.  Enthusiasm and persistence are critical assets when it comes to communicating your message to the public.

When it comes to working with firms, Webster suggests, "It is essential that clients don't bluff about their knowledge, and therefore their expectations of the PR process. The PR firm can't help unless you adequately communicate the scope of your knowledge about the business."

Get the agency on the management team.  Make them part of your strategy at the planning stage of products and programs.  They can add helpful ideas and steer you away from policies that create expensive problems.  According to Niehaus, "One mistake too many companies make is not bringing an agency in early enough for announcements.  Launching products or services takes time and many companies begin the work months in advance."

Don't expect too much too soon for too little money.  A PR firm will likely need a couple of months to do their spade work and a couple more months will pass before any media results can be expected.  In the meanwhile, they should be helping with trade publications and collateral materials. 

Results will come even more slowly unless the agency has the full cooperation of your staff and access to the executives on an as-needed basis.  Also, the better job you do of positioning your product or service, the more the agency can concentrate on getting results. 

Do expect to have instant access to your account executive or at least be able to reach someone at the agency knowledgeable enough to help you.  Meet the principals of the agency and discuss how often they will be  getting together with you and what your expectations are from the relationship.  Expect clear, explicit plans once you get started.  The plan should tell how they will be penetrating your target media, planning for special events, developing targeted collateral materials and accessing your most appropriate markets.

Agencies work on retainer, and are usually paid a month in advance.  Some firms now work on a contingency basis and get paid only for story placement.  A retainer firm may charge as little as $1,500-$4000 a month to $10,000-$30,000 a month for a major firm. 

Good PR work, including press coverage, goodwill generated, and increased impact on public perception of your firm can be powerfully effective.  According to media experts, articles are believed and remembered four to six times more  than advertising.  So, you can get a big bang for the buck with PR if you have a good story to tell. 

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