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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Publicity is not really free – there is a cost to the effort. But in a world where branding, where telling our stories and connecting to our customers (beyond price, selection and service) is essential, it’s a powerful way of making meaningful contact. And it’s sort of free.

Kind of, Sort of, Free

11 January 2008

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A few years ago someone wrote an article that proclaimed through its title “PR is Dead!” But businesses that buy into that statement miss out on an exciting world of exposure to their customers – exposure that is generally taken more seriously than a paid advertisement. If you are underestimating, or worse, not even considering, the value of public relations efforts, I encourage you to think again. There are a lot of aspects to a good PR effort, but let’s limit our discussion to the press release – the one PR element most companies at least know about.

It’s hard to make generalities about the cost of advertising, because depending on your market and if you are B-to-C or B-to-B, the costs can be very different. But everyone agrees that advertising can be expensive. A press release is an attempt to get free mentions in the publications in which you might otherwise be advertising. If you have a good handle on who your customers are, what you want from them, and where you should be advertising to find and communicate with them, you have a good handle on where you should send press releases. In most cases, publicity is an important supplement to a paid marketing strategy, but in some cases publicity alone is sufficient, and in every case the balance of publicity to paid advertising could be shifted in favor of more publicity.

You know you have to spend time working with a copywriter and/or graphic designer to put together your ads, and that the quality of your ads determines whether or not people actually read them. The same kind of attention must go into your press releases. Editors of magazines are looking for content of interest and value to their readers. Who would expect them to run a lifeless news blurb of little substance, or a simple product promotion? Writing a good press release involves finding the interesting story (most often the human interest story) about your business or something a member of your business is involved in, and tying it to a news event or other timely public information. The thing most editors want to see in a press release? It’s easy – quotes. People like to read about what other people observe and feel, and quotes provide that.

Even if you are not interested in hiring a professional PR firm (which for small companies can be hard to justify), hiring a professional writer to produce your press releases is something you should consider. When a freelance writer wants to get a writing assignment with a particular magazine, they pitch their idea to the editor. An editor knows right away if the writer has taken the time to understand their publication, the publication’s voice, and the publication’s audience.

The same care and attention must go into press releases. Press releases can be broader in appeal (in terms of voice and style) because they are going to numerous publications. When you send editors material they would never run because it is irrelevant to them, they start ignoring everything else you send. They won’t take the time to rewrite it or even polish it, though they will likely cut it. Be sure it’s well written, and make it easy to cut from the bottom up – because that’s what they’ll do.

Editorial contact information is easier to find and compile than ever before. Most magazines say who their editors are right on their websites. Simple web tools make it possible for you to monitor your own internet mentions without spending $500 - $800/month on clipping services. Very savvy business owners seek opportunities to build relationships and network with the editors of publications of interest to their customers, gaining important insight about the type of content those editors are seeking and their particular business challenges. You’d be surprised how your PR efforts mature once you understand the world from the editor’s perspective.

There’s a lot more to a good public relations effort than press releases, and we can talk about some of those things another time. But for now, consider the interesting things that have happened to you, your employees, your co-workers, and your general business in the past year. What types of stories could you have written, and which publications would have been interested in running them? Which customers would you have reached if that had happened, and would how many customers would have to have responded in order to have justified the time and effort of writing the release?

Publicity is not really free – there is a cost to the effort. But in a world where branding, where telling our stories and connecting to our customers (beyond price, selection and service) is essential, it’s a powerful way of making meaningful contact. And it’s sort of free.

(c) 2008. Andrea M. Hill