Public Relations is Not a Vending Machine For News Coverage, Despite What Some Prospects Imagine

A Wisconsin entrepreneur’s online offer might be amusing if it didn’t reflect a distorted view of marketing communicators. At a professional discussion area, a personal care products firm owner currently proposes this “challenge for public relations firms”:

If you can get my product written up in the following newspapers, we will pay you an agreed-upon fixed price.

A publicity vending machine, in other words, except that the client will deposit money after his selections are dispensed. Sounds like a business model inspired by J. Wellington Wimpy of Popeye comics fame, who famously said: “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

What flips this proposed Agreement From the World of Bizarro from comical to cautionary is the belief – not confined to one Milwaukee-area business owner – that public relations = buying media coverage. In newspapers, of all places.

Look at how the question posted March 24, 2010 on LinkedIn begins:

PR firms always suggest they can get your company/product published in major newspapers around the USA.

Really? In what alt.universe?

As any reputable PR firm or adviser would say at the first discussion, media relations is just one tactic — an increasingly less important one — of strategic marketing communications.

Editorial placements in newspapers generally are far from the main objective in an era when consumer and B2B buying decisions are influenced more heavily by online reviews, searches, blogs and social media. SEO, blogger relations and social media engagement are more important than getting one reporter at a time to mention a company or product.

“This is a very superficial approach to building and sustaining your corporate image,” comments Jed Nitzberg, owner of Flashlight Marketing Communications of Marietta, Ga., in response to the posting. “No serious professional would do this type of ‘pay for play” model. And anyone who ‘guarantees’ coverage is blowing smoke up your you-know-what.”

Moreover, before an agency could attempt to earn meaningful coverage for the Wisconsin prospect’s home-haircutting appliance or “spinal care system,” its team would develop points of distinction and newsworthy pitches based on:

  • Market research
  • Competitive analysis
  • Industry best practices
  • Identity branding or rebranding
  • Message development
  • Other campaign prep

“In the vast majority of cases, PR pros deliver proven results for companies that actually have a story to tell,” notes a reply from Cyrus Afzali, owner of Astoria Communications in Sloatsburg, NY. “The reason a lot of companies don’t get ink is quite simply because what they have isn’t interesting enough to a broad audience.”

But the offer is to pay only for placements, so campaign development hours would be on spec – hardly attractive bait.

But wait, there’s more:

This arrangement would be very easy to track and we would pay the fee the day after the article appears in print.

Really? Very easy to track? Let’s return to the real world:

  • Does one paragraph in a products roundup count?
  • Does a quote from the owner in a news feature qualify if he comments on salon vs. DIY haircuts or back pain?
  • How about a product photo with just a caption?

Or, as independent PR practitioner Amanda Cooper of Victoria, British Columbia, suggests in a LinkedIn reply:

Some people think that any publicity is good publicity. I say “be careful what you wish for.” I am curious as to what would happen if a P.R. professional took you up on your offer and an uncomplimentary write-up happened. Does the P.R. pro still get paid?

And hold on again: Even if a hungry bottom feeder bites and even if positive coverage is earned, what is gained?

Here’s how account executive Mary A. Burns at Group 55 Marketing in Detroit puts it in her forum response:

You will need more coverage than a simple article and… you will surely want to control how your brand is handled. What value will your company/product gain? How else can this goal be accomplished?… Clearly defining your goals up front will allow for the development of a strategic — and effective — media/marketing plan.

Bottom line: I can’t imagine who’d nibble at this pay-per article Automat offer.

Takeaway: This invitation for a piecework proposal is a reminder of our profession’s need to demonstrate the value proposition of strategic public relations. There’s no publicity-dispensing lever or button.

Using Public Relations to Market Your Business Startup

Marketing a startup is one of the biggest struggles for any entrepreneur. You need to increase sales and grow your customer base, but effective advertising is expensive. While the internet provides significant opportunities for low-cost and no-cost marketing, many business owners overlook the value in establishing an in-house public relations system.

What is Public Relations?

Public relations encompass the work that needs to be done to get your company in the news. The efforts should include building relationships with appropriate news editors, writing effective press releases, and planning how to best use press relations to enhance your marketing plan. Of course, it is possible to hire a PR firm to do this work for you, but they can be expensive and do not have the same stake in seeing your venture succeed as you do.

In addition, a PR firm will have to be taught about your company — what you do, how you do it, what will be newsworthy, and who should be targeted. You will be charged for the hours it takes to get them up to speed. A better entrepreneurial option is to teach yourself all you can about effective public relations, then assign the tasks to your key employees as you grow.

Planning PR

The primary objective of public relations is to expose more potential customers to your company and product(s). You may have a secondary objective of exposing potential investors to your company, as well. Thus, your first step is to define what is and will be newsworthy about your business. Sending out sporadic press releases is far less effective than developing a steady stream of publicity. The editors who review hundreds of press releases per day are more likely to notice yours and hopefully become interested in your progress if they see your company name on a regular basis.

News events are fairly easy to come by with a startup. Consider planning press releases for:

- What your business will do

- Who will benefit from your product or service (consider seeking “testers”)

- Securing investors or financing

- Business launch or grand opening

- New product releases

- New contracts awarded (with your client’s permission, of course)

- Staff changes and additions

- Website content additions, especially freebies

- Events you sponsor or co-sponsor

Once your business is launched, every milestone that you noted in your business planning is an opportunity for a press release. Be creative and stay on top of the process. Interesting news is important, but consistency is critical.

Meet the Press

The best planned PR campaign is only as effective as who it reaches. Do your due diligence in finding the right news sources to reach your potential customers. Most newspapers and television stations have editors dedicated to business news. Find out who they are and make an effort to get to know them. Let them know that, as an expert in whatever it is you do, you are more than happy to provide information on your business, industry, target market, or whatever else they need. One great way to meet members of the press (local, anyway) is through networking events. If there is an important guest or popular speaker, chances are the beat reporter will be there. While everyone else is clamoring to make contact with the star, take that opportunity to get to know the reporter.

Building a good relationship with the right members of the press is invaluable. If they can count on you to provide informative and interesting quotes or sound bites, you will not only build your reputation as the expert in your field, but your company will garner free advertising every time you are used as a source.

Finding the right outlets, and knowing their editorial schedules, is critical. Don’t just randomly send out press releases, but do your homework so you know they are going to the right person at the right publication. Most magazines have a three-month advance requirement, meaning articles they write today will not be published for three months. Local newspapers and magazines tend to have much shorter news cycles. Keep this in mind when setting up your public relations marketing plan. Select the media outlets that are likely to meet your objectives. Whatever your target market reads, that’s where you want to be. Gather all the editorial information you can about these sources. Read the magazines (and subscribe), watch the TV shows. Pay attention to the details of how they present information. If a single, square, color photograph is standard with an article, be sure that is what you send. If articles are short, keep your press release short. Building these contacts takes time, but is well worth your effort. After a few distributions, you will establish a system for reaching your best opportunities and the time required will be significantly reduced.

Writing the Right Press Release

Press editors are flooded with press releases, often reviewing a hundred or more each day. The trick is to make your press releases stand out to the reviewer. Every news item you distribute should say “News Release” and your company name at the top. Avoid sending press releases on standard letterhead. The next line is your headline. Headlines can be the most difficult, yet most important line in the entire document. It needs to grab the editor’s attention and urge them to read on. Reporters and journalists are looking for news items that are important to their readers. Spend some time on the headlines, they are your first obstacle to getting free press.

The body of your press release contains two parts — the news item itself and a general company description. The news item should include complete answers to the classic questions — who, what, when, where, why, and how. Use an active voice — say what you do, not have done or will do. Include quotes from you or other key employees and be sure to make the information relevant and interesting to your target market.

The final paragraph of your press release should be “About the Company” — a good description of what your business does. Include media contact information at the end, with at least your name, title, telephone number, and email address so that the contact can reach you for more information. Excellent samples of press releases from within your industry can be found at PRWeb by searching your keywords.

Get Your Public Relations Started

Wherever you are in the startup process, get to work on developing your company’s public relations plan right away. Identify the media most relevant to you, and brainstorm newsworthy items that you plan to distribute. PR can be an effective marketing tool and it’s free. Don’t overlook the possibilities for your venture, get started today.