Public Relations & Your Small Business

The practice of public relations is often misunderstood, thus overlooked by small business owners. There is an assumption among small businesses that PR exists only to serve corporate giants who are looking to dodge impending negative fall out of their reputation, following a catastrophic blunder on the part of their company. While public relations is the key to maintaining a company’s image and reputation, the bulk of work in this industry is dedicated to facilitating success rather than evading disaster. And now more than ever, a growing number of small businesses are seeing the benefits of well-run PR in the success of their overall marketing plan.

Public relations is the means by which your company becomes known and stays known among your target audience. Consistent exposure to your company through press releases, by-lined articles and special events (to name a few) can have an enormous long-term impact on the success of your business. Small businesses that implement effective PR campaigns have the ability to become known as a leader in their industry, as well as their community. While there is no price that you can put on that type of exposure, PR is also typically more affordable and cost-effective than many other widely used methods of public exposure.

Creating a Brand with Public Relations
Public relations should be the first component of any small business’ marketing plan. It is the catalyst that will draw your audience’s attention to you and all of your other marketing efforts. PR is the seed that establishes your brand within the minds of your potential customers. Once they have an image to attach to your company, that image will resurface every time they come into contact with you. Successful implementation of PR should be the precursor to any ad campaign, web marketing or product promotion that your small business performs. By first creating a brand, you are producing a captive audience for future messages of all sorts.

PR establishes you as an innovator and expert in your field by exposing your audience to the information via a third party. Americans get their information from the media and there is simply no substitute for having your company appear among the top stories of the day that are of interest to your audience.

There are basically two types of information in the media: news and advertising. For a price, you can have your company appear in the paper or on TV and radio every single day if you desire, through advertisements. But at the end of the day, it is a message that you created and paid for, and your customer knows it. And who is going to believe a message that says “I’m the best. Just ask me!” Because ads come directly from the company and are so self-serving in nature, they lack the most important influencing factor on brand building: credibility. Advertising there is little credibility to an ad because the message comes directly from the company and is clearly self-serving in nature. The other way to gain exposure through the media is to be featured in the news. Unfortunately, reporters and writers aren’t just following you around town, waiting for you to do something great that they can write about. But they are constantly looking for new and interesting concepts to pique and hold the interest of their readers. That is where PR comes in.

Why Do You Stand Out in a Crowd?

Establishing yourself in your industry comes down to a single question. What makes you different? After all, if you are the same as everyone else, there is no motivation for the media to cover your story, or for your audience pay attention to it. If you are having a difficult time identifying your unique characteristics, then develop a component of your business that nobody else is offering.

Using your unique, industry-specific insight, educate the public on things that affect their daily life. Become the only accountant in your city who offers free monthly tax seminars to the public. Establish yourself as the first manufacturing company in your area to implement a new technology that increases efficiency or cuts down on pollution. Create an internal environment that interests the external world, and you will have developed the starting point of your PR process.

Implementing a Successful PR Plan

Public Relations, like any other facet of your business, is a very focused discipline that requires the skills of a professional for the best results. Small businesses often don’t have the financial means, or the need, to staff a full-time PR or Marketing professional. But that doesn’t mean that PR tasks should be delegated to people in-house with absolutely no experience in the field. There are many firms all over the country that specialize in managing the entire marketing mix for small business clients for considerably less cost than a full-time employee. Implementing your PR plan with one of these firms gives you a tremendous leg up on your competitors and provides a greater probability of success for your PR and marketing efforts.

Once you have established the distinguishing characteristics of your company, your marketing firm brings insight to the process of determining who the target audience is for your message. Who are your past, present and potential customers, and what would be of interest to them? Once they have helped you determine your audience, you are able to tailor your message and the presentation of it to suit their needs.

By nature, stories that appear in print and in radio and television are required to be newsworthy. Sometimes, from an insider’s prospective, the line between newsworthy and blatantly self-promotional is extremely difficult to detect and adjust for. There isn’t a newspaper in the country that will print a press release that simply states all that you have to offer to customers, even if you think it is important. But that’s not the goal of a press release anyway. That’s what ads are for. Press Releases should focus on news, and outline you as the primary credible source for the topic of the story. Establishing credibility is the primary goal of public relations efforts. That will pave the way for the placement of additional marketing pieces down the road.

Working with an outside firm also offers several other advantages to your small business. PR professionals are in constant contact with media outlets of all kinds. Once your press release, article or special event has been created, a Public Relations expert knows how to get it into the hands and on the pages and airwaves of the key publications and broadcast outlets that your audience is getting its news from. Working with a firm also brings the advantage of an outsider’s perspective of your company and your industry as a whole. They can help you identify and accentuate positive perceptions of your company in your audience’s mind. They also know how the message can be tailored to shed negative perceptions that may exist among your target audience.

Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of using an outside firm to establish your public relations is their understanding of PR as a crucial part of the entire marketing mix. Many firms that cater to small business promotion do so through a variety of methods. Most wear the hats of Public Relations Manager, Marketing Manager and Advertising Manager for their clients. PR is a vital aspect of your company’s promotion because of what it does for the other components of your marketing plan. Variety is the key to creating a lasting brand for your company. A well written, well distributed press release will get your name in the paper. But a few strong press releases, combined with advertisements, publicized special events, and a state of the art website will get customers in your door and build a lasting impression of your business in their minds.

The Keys to Small Business PR

Companies of all sizes have identified the benefits of public relations in their marketing system. Perhaps your company has tried implementing PR into your mix as well. There are a few things to keep in mind that will make a huge difference in the success of your PR activities. By differentiating yourself among your competitors and in your location, PR will help you to shape a brand and create a lasting image in the minds of your audience. However, the best way to yield success from your public relations efforts is to work with a professional that brings experience to the table and knows how to get results. Finally, Public Relations is component of the process of marketing. A single press release alone will get you little or no attention from your key audience. But through consistent implementation of a marketing plan, PR is able to establish you as a leader in your field and your community. Patience in the process is what separates the success stories from the failures in public relations implementation.

Solving the Public Relations Puzzle

You often hear people refer to public relations or PR as something positive or negative that a company received in response to an action. “Wow, they got good PR out of that!” But, what exactly does that mean?

The confusion about what public relations is or what it encompasses is not surprising given that the field is so multi-faceted. Research will show that the term public relations is often grouped under marketing and used synonymously with others such as community relations, media relations, public affairs, image enhancement, publicity, and promotion.

In fact, leading experts in the PR field often disagree, offering numerous definitions for clarification. Rex Harlow, a pioneer in public relations education, complied over 500 definitions from a variety of sources ranging from complex essays to simple descriptions. One of my favorites is, “PR stands for Performance and then Recognition.”

In 1981, the Public Relations Society of America attempted to end the confusion, by forming a task force with the mission of defining public relations once and for all. They landed on this concise definition, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to one another. It is an organizations efforts to win the cooperation of groups of people.”

But the real question is, why does this matter? Why should I understand and have a need for public relations in my business? Authors Cutlip, Center, & Broom offer some help to these questions. In the sixth edition of their reference book, Effective Public Relations, They state that public relations is, “the management function that identifies, establishes, and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics on whom it’s success or failure depend.”

This definition is great in that it, first, identifies that public relations does not just happen. It is truly a function that must be created. Second, this definition contains the key phrase, “success or failure.” This is why public relations efforts are so essential. How your company interacts with and represents itself to the world will determine the fate of your company.

We know that the definition of public relations is ever evolving and often disputed. However, there is one clear and common thread that is woven throughout these definitions. They all involve relationships and interactions. Simply put, public relations is all about communication. It is working to produce effective communication designed to influence, provide information, and gain understanding.

Perhaps the most understood public relations action is use of the media to communicate with and promote to target markets. Submitting press releases, gaining exposure, and developing promotional campaigns is something we can sink our teeth into. However, it is important not to confuse advertising and public relations. Advertising is a paid tool that can be used to support public relations efforts. When used effectively together, the two can make a powerful team.

Keep in mind that media relations and publicity are just a few of the many areas of public relations. Effective communications need to occur with all of your “publics” both internal and external. For example, your business cannot function without clear understanding and communication with your bankers, investors, and/or board members. You depend on a relationship with your local community to support your efforts. And, you rely upon your employees to support your image. Public relations involves developing and implementing a successful communication plan to work with and among these groups for the benefit of all.

And, what happens when things don’t turn out as planned? Enter public relations again! Public relations efforts must be pro-active in order to protect the image and reputation of the company. From crisis planning to the simple development of clear responses to community questions, it is in the best interest of the company and their publics to be prepared.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about public relations is that the field itself has a poor image. For some, the term PR tends to conjure up thoughts of deceptive and self-serving rhetoric. They picture obnoxious, celebrity press agents of today who believe that any press is good press. Some picture historical event promoters such as P.T. Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus, who use exaggeration and hype to entertain.

Unfortunately, it is true that not everyone engaging in public relations activities is acting in the best public interest. But it is also important to understand there are wonderful, ethical, and positive public relations actions taking place all around us. In fact, without them, we would be a lost society.

The art of public relations is one that has deep and historical roots. In a sense, it’s as old as communication itself. Government, religion, and business have and always will rely on public relations. Think about it, what would be different in our world if the Catholic Church hadn’t taught its priests to “propagate” the faith? Without communications developed to influence targeted publics, how would we be persuaded to accept the authority of government leaders or to take a position on a public issue? We can even thank event promoters in ancient Athens for building the foundation for special event planning of today. It takes the same basic public relations skills to promote the Olympics then that it does now…now that’s an event!

Public relations efforts are essential to business success and growth. And, opportunities to use public relations activities to better your company and your bottom-line are endless. Ann Landers point out, “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them!” Don’t make this mistake by ignoring the power of public relations. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Ins and Outs of Small Business Public Relations

The biggest misconception about public relations is that it’s primarily for large firms, huge corporations or Hollywood celebrities. Nothing could be further than the truth. From my perspective, it’s small businesses that benefit most from an effective PR campaign. Why? Small businesses have to find an effective form of marketing, but they also have to be more budget focused and need to get the most bang for their buck.

Think about it. What small business could launch an advertising, or direct marketing campaign that could match that of a corporation with extremely deep pockets? And, even though online marketing and social media offers small companies a real advantage over most traditional forms of marketing, it’s still often difficult to compete with companies who have the economic wherewithal to hire a firm to work exclusively on their websites, blogs, social media, analytics, AdWords campaigns etc. But, when it comes to PR, if a small business or entrepreneur gets creative, develops some good stories, and takes time to really study the media’s needs, that company or expert can end up on the evening news, Time, Oprah, People, CNN, or other major media outlets.. By doing so, that company can leap-frog over the competition and literally go head-to-head with company’s ten to twenty times its size.

There would be no way a small business could compete using other forms of marketing. Granted, as I mentioned before, the net and social media is a huge leveler. Small companies can compete as never before via the internet. But traditional PR still remains the true giant killer when it comes to marketing for small businesses. One or two well-placed media hits can help launch a company. If that company then takes that media coverage and amplifies it on the net, those media hits become even more powerful.

So, whereas it’s true that large companies, feature films and celebrities need to launch powerful PR campaigns, it’s the small businesses of the world that benefit the most from effective public relations.

Copyright © Anthony Mora 2009