Any entrepreneur can run a snazzy advertising campaign, if he or she is willing to pay for it. The trick is to get that kind of exposure without breaking the bank.
Such is the allure of “public relations”–the discipline of shedding a benevolent light on a person, company or cause, mainly by tapping the news media. The press is a powerful force: Clearly, Amazon.com and Google offer great services, but appearing in some 13,000 news articles around the world in the last 30 days helps get the word out too. And depending on the outlet and nature of the story, PR offers a potentially huge benefit that advertising does not: third-party approval.
“PR creates enough awareness that other people provide referrals,” says Ed Cafasso, a managing director at Manning Selvage & Lee, a global PR firm. “PR creates that kind of credibility.”
There are now some 200,000 PR “specialists” in the U.S. (not including those that are self-employed), according to the Department of Labor. Come to Manhattan and you might trip over one as you stroll down Fifth Avenue. Sadly, most aren’t very good at what they do (ask any journalist), but the good ones serve a vital function and can take your business to greater heights–or at least generate some nice buzz.
The best place to start looking for help is one of the 109 chapters of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) at http://www.prsa.org. The local Chamber of Commerce may keep tabs on nearby talent too.
Once you’ve narrowed the field, vet the survivors. Push them to offer a tangible strategy and try to estimate their ability to execute.
Some key questions: Which publications should I be targeting? What storyline will gain the most traction with each outlet? Can I speak with other clients? Who are some of the reporters with whom you have established relationships and might I be able to speak with them? (If that last one sounds implausible, apparently it’s not–Forbes.com spoke with six PR professionals who offered that same advice and claimed to comply with such requests.)
PR types often promise more than they can deliver, so manage your expectations. Some firms trot out senior executives at initial meetings only to stick less-experienced staffers on smaller accounts, says Giovanni Rodriguez, co-founder and principal at Hubbub PR, which caters to start-up companies in Silicon Valley, Calif.
Lesson: Make sure you meet the people who will be doing the actual work. If you need further comfort, look for the Accredited in Public Relations mark, or APR, meaning that the person passed a tricky exam administered by the Universal Accreditation Board.
When it’s time to talk money, request a menu of services and prices. Average monthly fees for an established U.S. shop are about $10,000, according to a recent survey of 100 firms around the country with revenues over $3 million. Some firms charge by the hour, and still others offer a la carte services–say, for running a special event or triaging a corporate snafu. Rodriguez charges start-ups a monthly retainer from $8,000 to $15,000. That’s not chump change, but it’s far less than many print ad campaigns.
Before you write any checks, set some performance yardsticks. While PR remains a squishy science, there are ways to loosely measure progress. The most common is the number of media references to your company in a given month. But there are subtler metrics, too, such as how many of your “core messages” were expressed in each article.
And remember: No matter how many times your company appears in the press, always ask your customers–either in person or through your Web site–how they heard about you. PR is an ongoing effort, and it needs constant tweaking.
“If you are not getting what you need from your agency, say something,” says Julie Adrian, head of the Chandler Chicco Agency’s Los Angeles unit. “Especially with small businesses, you have a finite bit of money to spend. We understand that it’s hard to give a chunk of that money to something that can seem so intangible.”
Rather save the money and handle your own PR? For starters, you’ll need a press kit. Most of that material will end up in reporters’ garbage bins, but a rare few might grab their attention.
The kit should include a clear description of your business and its goals, as well as a backgrounder on you–complete with compelling, relevant anecdotes worthy of a yarn. It should also contain copies of any media coverage you have received, testimonials from important customers and awards you have won. If there is an important technical aspect to your product, include an easy-to-follow description of how it works and why anyone needs it. (Note: Avoid any and all jargon; it will hasten your kit’s path to the circular file.)
For better or worse, PR has made its way into many college curricula. Mine the local schools for eager interns looking to pad their résumés at rock-bottom rates. The smartest can deal with the press, hunt for sponsorship opportunities (such as local events) and even develop a company blog to attract customers.
Applying for an award never hurts, either. Like positive news stories, awards confer credibility–and there are sponsors aplenty, including the Better Business Bureau, your local Chamber of Commerce, trade groups and even trade and mainstream publications. Beware, though: Most judges are looking for any reason to cull the field of applicants quickly, so mind the application rules unless you want to be summarily disqualified.
Come to think of it, that goes for dealing with stubborn journalists too.