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Promote your business: PR

From the point of view of business, the media's insatiable quest for the new and newsworthy represents something of an opportunity; an opportunity for free and extensive publicity.

The art of persuading the media to devote their airtime and their column inches to a business is known as public relations.

Unlike advertising, PR does not set itself explicitly to sell. Its aims are broader. PR seeks to achieve two things: to raise the profile and the understanding of a business among a community; and to create a climate of opinion or perception that is favourably disposed towards that business.

Put bluntly, PR is about getting noticed and being liked. It is - or can be - a remarkably effective promotional tool for smaller businesses, largely because it depends on the possession of a little imagination and media savvy rather than an extensive marketing budget.

Planning

The goal of most PR is to win positive media coverage for a business.

As with all communication strategies, good PR is planned rather than indiscriminate. It is also long- as well as short-term. And that demands gentle persistence on the part of the business.

Since PR is about raising awareness and creating a mood of generous recognition, it is extremely useful at addressing more than one audience. An appearance in the pages of the relevant trade press, of course, will help influence potential customers. But a similar splash in the local press will colour the attitudes of a much broader, but no less important, community that will include local authorities, other businesses, employees, financial institutions and, that hugely significant body of opinion, the general public.

The media

PR is essentially a co-operative activity. Whereas an advertiser simply buys space in a chosen publication or medium in order to fill it as they or their advertising agency wish, PR hinges on persuading editors and journalists of the advantages of allocating editorial room to a business story.

In truth, most of the media is either local - defined by region - or specialist - defined by specific readerships. What's more, most of the media possesses nothing like the news gathering resources of the national papers and broadcasters. They rely on others to bring the stories to them.

Despite differences in size and capacity, a local paper will nonetheless be organised along the same lines as its national counterparts. There will be an editor who is responsible for its tone, style and general content; sub-editors who organise, edit and trim the content to fit the available space; and reporters, some of whom are on the staff and some of whom work as freelancers, who produce the content. The newsroom of a local radio or TV station will work in a roughly similar way, except that the end product is broadcast rather than print.

For the smaller business, national mainstream press and broadcasters inhabit an off-limit world. Every week, thousands of press releases from lobbyists, pressure groups and corporate businesses pour in. To make yourself heard among the noise and clamour of the national media is difficult.

If, however, a business feels it can interest one of the heavy circulation publications, then there are appropriate tactics. Editors are normally firewalled by iron phalanxes of PAs whose job is to stop anyone unimportant reaching the top man or woman. So don't try. Instead butter-up a writer. Staff or freelance writers, some of whom may have relevant areas of particular interest, are the principal channels for content on the major titles. Interest one of them in your story and at least you will have an inside voice. It is no guarantee of coverage but it will raise your chances.

It makes much more sense for smaller firms to concentrate their energies on those titles or broadcasters that are eager for, rather than swamped by, news. And remember that the local or the specialist audience is precisely the one that the vast majority of businesses need to reach anyway.

Identifying the relevant media

Local media is helpfully self-defining. It will usually consist of a few papers that vary in significance and circulation, and (probably) more than one radio station. Although limited in distribution or coverage, most local media will have a general audience.

Trade publications, on the other hand, are invariably national in distribution, but their readership is selective. Most businesses will be aware of the titles that cover their own sector.

Before drawing up a list of media targets and contacts, it is useful to find out just how influential - or otherwise - individual titles actually are. To do this, a business should turn to the pages of a media directory such as BRAD Insight. Not only does BRAD segregate publications by industry sector and geographic region, it also gives such important information as circulation figures, profiles of the readership and copy dates

The news

Journalists are always anxious to find people to write about and events to cover. So all the better if someone - or some business - brings the news to them. But there is a proviso: the story you have to tell has to be worth hearing. Journalists expect a trade, reciprocity. In return for the publicity they can offer your business, they want a real news story: not opinions (unless you are influential and respected, a point to which we return below), not a speech. They want something that their readers are prepared to spend precious time reading. They want a story that will stand up in public.

The stories

In form and structure, there are two sorts of story in which a business can get coverage. There is the feature story and the round-up story. The feature story is more or less self-explanatory. It concerns itself solely with one business, and details its work, its product, its approach or its people, depending on the angle that's being taken.

The round-up is a summary piece that charts a market trend, or provides an industry overview, or comments on a region, or profiles a new type of company, or covers a large event. A business usually contributes by offering, at the invitation of a journalist, a quote on the subject that is under scrutiny. Such pieces allow a business the chance not only to claim publicity for its views but also, by implication, to cement their importance in the eyes of the audience.

Your own story

So, what makes a story newsworthy? Most news stories, whatever the medium, whatever the audience, will comprise one or more of three elements. They will be topical; they will be original; and they will be diverting. That is, they will be of relevance or interest to the audience; they will tell people something they didn't already know; and they will possess a 'personality' or angle.

Most start-up businesses are in themselves of interest simply because they are new. Take, for example, the story of a company that, spotting a gap in the market and in the traffic, decides to set up a bicycle courier service in a large, busy city. The company has very little money to invest in advertising and so instead chooses to exploit the PR opportunities that the new enterprise might afford. They contact the local newspaper and radio and television stations. All express an interest, but what really captures their imagination is the promise of the courier company to get a package from the local television studio to the newspaper office in less than five minutes, a journey that would take 20 minutes by van. They make it, and the story and some nice quotes from the owner, along with the attendant publicity, are broadcast on TV, transmitted on radio and covered in two papers. And all for a couple of phone calls and a press release.

You don't, of course, have to be a new business to get in the news. A new product or a new service are worth a press release, either to the general or the specialist press. Indeed, the story doesn't have to involve anything as obviously attention-grabbing as a new product to make a good PR splash. Organising an event, winning awards, landmark anniversaries, or orders from a famous customer or from an unusual part of the world will often work as well. The secret is to give the story the feel of hard news and a hook on which a real interest narrative can be hung.

Press releases

The first point of contact between a business and the media is normally a press release. A title will use a press release as the basis for its story, either reprinting it if it is particularly well-written or re-developing it to suit the style of the publication and the space available. A radio or television station will pick from a release the bones of the story they want to put together.

To be effective, a press release must work much as a good piece of journalism works. It must be clear, assured, factual, and proportionate to the story (there's no room for marketing over-sell in a press release).

The purpose of a press release is to convey as much relevant information as economically and plainly as possible, and in an order that allows the reader access to the main points almost immediately.

Since reader interest demands that you include as much information as early as you reasonably can, the introductory paragraph must certainly outline the whole of the story. Colour, texture and a few more appropriate details can be saved for later in the release. A helpful rule of thumb for a successful press release is to start cutting it from the end. If by the time you reach the first paragraph, or even the first sentence, you still have a complete story, albeit shorter on specifics, then the release is doing its job. Another useful guide to judge whether a release is earning its keep or not is to check whether it answers those five perennial journalistic questions: 'who, what, why, when and where'. And always write for the audience.

You should ideally include a quote from somebody at the business, giving them a name and saying who they are. This has two effects: firstly, it adds authority to what is being said; and secondly, it personalises the piece, an extremely important media requirement.

The release should close with what is known as the editor's note. Essentially, this is to provide additional, background information about your company - how long it has been going, how it started - and its products or services. It is in the editor's note that you can afford to engage in a little overt self-promotion, detailing your successes and the brilliance of your business. It is here that you should also include contact details, so that if the journalist wishes to follow up the story, they will know to whom to speak. Attaching a good quality photo won't harm your prospects.

The media is nowadays a truly electronic beast, so send your release by email.

To improve the chances of your release getting through, you should address it to a particular journalist on the publication or at the station. Once it has been sent, a polite follow-up call should be made to the journalist to find out if they wish to take the story further.

Cultivating the press

Once you have got yourself into print or onto tape or film, don't allow the relationship to go cold. Maintaining steady contact with journalists encourages them to trust you as a reliable source of content or to turn to you for comment.

Good PR, however, isn't just limited to the supply of stories. There are other PR tactics open to a small business.

Additional tactics

Community and the environment

The link between a company and the surrounding community has always been more complex than that simply of offering employment. Indeed, there is little - certainly not size and not cost - to stop a business from developing a wider involvement in its locality. This can take any number of forms, depending on the nature of your business: it could be a matter of donating a computer to the local scout troop, for example, or offering work experience to pupils at a nearby school.

Just as a commitment to the local community is increasingly a measure of a company's sense of social responsibility, so respect for the environment is likewise gaining an equally sharper profile. A few pounds invested in supporting a tree-planting scheme or a public floral display or in encouraging employees to travel to work in an environment-friendly way can garner a far greater return in approving publicity.

Events

Nothing works quite like entertainment when it comes to effective PR. If you are launching a new product, or celebrating a milestone, or if you just wish to get your business better known, it is an invariably successful tactic to invite customers, potential customers, staff and some local opinion formers along to a specially planned event.

Sponsorship

Sponsorship is a major element in most PR campaigns. Without trying to elbow Shell or Microsoft off the stage, a business can adopt the same useful approach in a more modest arena. There are a myriad opportunities for local sponsorship: the programme for the latest amateur drama society production, perhaps, or a trophy for the under-12s football league.

Newsletters

A business does not need to depend on getting a mention in the press; after all, it can always set up its own. Online newsletters are an invaluable way of treating an audience of prospective clients to an intelligent, engaging soft sell. They tend to work best for businesses that have a product or a service with a reasonably wide client base, since this provides ample scope for genuine news stories. The room afforded by a newsletter means that case histories and product reviews can sit alongside lighter, informative pieces on, say, industry trends or market views.