Make the Media Notice Your Small Business - In a Good Way

You've finally followed your dream. You started your own small business and now it's time to spread the word. If your start-up budget doesn't allow for expensive advertising, free media attention should be your next step.

A mention on a blog, your local television news, or in a newspaper or magazine will reach a wider audience than advertising. Plus, a positive story also helps build your company's reputation. People will view you as an authority, rather than just an advertiser.

It takes time, luck and the right tools to enjoy the benefits of good publicity. Here are 11 tips culled from way to many years working as either a journalist or media-relations representative.

1. Create a Plan

Incorporate a media-relations plan into your business plan. Your plan should include:
1. A mission statement
2. Goals
3. Objectives
4. Target audiences
5. Strategies
6. Key messages
7. Potential story angles
8. Tactics
9. A media contact list, including broadcast, print and Internet media. (Don't forget blogs!)
Write a separate crisis-communications plan for possible emergencies, such as your company spilling massive amounts of oil in a large body of water or, more likely, a customer writing a letter of complaint to your local newspaper.

2. Be Unique
Find something that makes your business different from others in your area. "Local Plumber Fixes Drains" isn't going to earn you any media love. On the other hand, "Plumber Offers Free Service to Area Unemployed" might catch an editor's eye.

Journalists are rarely interested in sales, store openings, minor awards received or employee promotions. At the most, such stories might garner you a two-inch mention in the business section's "Briefs." At worst, an influx of non-usable press releases will irritate editors and ensure your calls are never returned.

Writers and editors, however, are always on the lookout for timely stories with an unusual angle and a good hook. They need credible experts and colorful anecdotes.

To continue with our plumber example: A good time to contact the media might be after a severe thunderstorm or flood. Send them a brief email including your credentials and several brief points about your proposed story. This is known as a fact or tip sheet, rather than a press release.

3. Contacting the Media
Don't waste a writer or editors time by contacting the wrong person, desk or media outlet. 
If you don't hear from them, don't call or email asking if they got your press release. Reporters hate that!

4. Write a Press Release
Visit e-releases for samples then start with a clear and catchy headline or subject line.
 Indicate why the story is newsworthy. What is the angle?

Make sure your lead paragraph answers the "Five W's": Who, what, when, where and why. (Specifically "why" readers would be interested.)

Stick to the point. You don't need to write a novel.
 Avoid jargon.
 Have someone else look at the release to catch any errors.

5. Distribution
Send your press release via email (not as an attachment) to the media list detailed in your media plan. Include all your contact information and direct it to the appropriate reporter or editor. If you're not sure who to contact, call the switchboard and ask.

Different media prefer you submit queries and press releases in different ways (phone, email, carrier pigeon), so check their website or ask the operator for this information.

Send individual emails with separate salutations, if you're distributing the same information to a variety of outlets. If you're distributing to a large audience, use "BCC" for email addresses. Only send the release to one person per media outlet.

If you don't feel up to writing and distributing the press release, farm it out to a professional. It may cost less than you think.

6. Be Patient
Sending a press release is like fishing. Not every editor or reporter will bite. Likewise, not every cast will produce a catch. In some cases, you may have to wait until you can submit another event, announcement or idea.

7. Make Them Your Friend
Always be friendly and prepared when speaking to a journalist. Even if you don't have much experience in media relations, they'll greatly appreciate your being polite and offering useful information.

After the interview, ask about keeping in touch and sending future press releases directly to that reporter. Your next release will get more attention because they already know your name and qualifications.

Finally, don't ask to see the story before publication. Most media consider this unethical.

8. Don't Complain
Errors happen. If a story includes a factual error, it's appropriate to contact the reporter or editor and politely straighten things out. If the story misquotes you or takes an angle you don't care for, consider whether it's worth fighting city hall before complaining.

If you still feel the problem needs to be straightened out, contact a public-relations professional for assistance. Some things are best left to the pros.

9. Keep Your Clips
Clip and save all copies of print stories that mention you and your company. Make a copy of any broadcast stories. Keep a file of url links to online stories, print the pages or capture the page image. You might need to invest in some software to capture video broadcasts of the story.

10. Spread the News
Make sure your existing customers see your media coverage. This is where a website, email contact list and social media come in handy. A customer who hasn't shopped with you recently might come back after seeing you've received positive press.

Remember to first ask the reporter or editor for permission to reproduce the story or video. You don't want to lose all that connectivity by breaking their copyright.

11. Send a Thank-You Note
This may sound silly, but I can't tell you how many reporters expressed great appreciation for my thank-you notes.

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