It’s unfortunate but true that many small businesses have the attitude of “just leave me alone and let me do my thing.” They do not seek or welcome attention from any outsiders, especially if the outsiders are the media, the government, or some kind of consumer or advocacy group. It’s the classic head-in-the-sand approach: “Maybe if I ignore them, maybe they’ll go away.” Perhaps there was a time when the marketplace would tolerate this kind of fiercely independent attitude. But that time is past.
Today’s marketplace is no longer merely competitive, it is hyper competitive! The shelves and racks of our stores and malls are loaded with dozens of “me too” products. Bankers now sell insurance and insurance salespeople now offer CDs. A single “mega-dealer” might carry a dozen or more car brands, and literally hundreds of models of automobiles and trucks on a single square block lot. It seems like every major interchange along the interstate now has to have at least two sprawling truck stops catty-corner from one another, with one or two fast food joints thrown in nearby. Did you ever expect to see the day when hospitals would advertise on billboards and television, like soft drinks or fast food joints?
A recurring theme you will encounter again and again in my books — because I think it’s that important! — is that in this complex competitive milieu it’s critical for you, as a small business to differentiate yourself in as many was as possible from your competitors. Positive publicity is one of the most powerful, and yet under utilized promotional tools available to small businesses and organizations to help accomplish that goal. Why should my small business, agency, or group seek out positive coverage in the media? Is it really worth all the time and hassle? Here are a dozen very good reasons why you should be generating as much favorable publicity for your business, agency, or group as you can:
1. It is simply a smart dollars and cents investment in your business’ or organization’s future (read that as survival). Whether you measure your “profit” in terms of dollars left over after expenses are paid or in terms of more contributions, more members, or more clients served, promoting your business’ or organization’s name and activities is no longer an optional “it would be nice if” task; it’s critical to your survival!
Every positive article or photo published in the daily newspaper, every favorable one-minute clip on the early evening news, every complimentary mention in some specialty newsletter or magazine is FREE! Sure, it may cost a little bit of staff time, some duplicating and postage expense. But it did not cost you anywhere near the big bucks that the same number of column inches in the newspaper or the same amount of airtime on the TV news would have cost if you’d paid for it like advertising.
For example, a half-page ad, which is about the same amount of newspaper space as a good sized feature story, will likely cost $500 to $600 in a small town daily, perhaps $1,500 in a newspaper in a medium-size market, and as much as $3,000 or $5,000 in a large metropolitan newspaper. If you had to pay for a one-minute story on the TV late evening news like an ad, it would run you $200 to $250 in a small market, $500 to $1,000 or more in a medium market, and $2,500 to $4,000 in a large urban market.
State and local tourism promotion agencies generally spend most of their budgets on writing and sending out their own news releases and on bringing in travel writers and editors for what are called “familiarization tours” (known as “fams”) to generate articles and feature stories about the state or local area’s attractions.
Yes, they do run paid ads from time-to-time in selected media, but this is generally only a fraction of their over all promotional budget. A state tourism agency I’m familiar with did a cost vs. return analysis on their publicity efforts. Over the years, the bureau kept records of the articles and TV features that appeared as a result of its efforts; it estimated that there had been about a 4 to 1 benefit to cost ratio. In other words, if the tourism bureau had paid for the “free” editorial space and airtime it had received, like advertising, it would have cost four times as much as it had spent on the news releases, media kits, and “fam” tours. That’s not a bad return on investment.
2. You get much more “bang for the buck” in terms of audience attention with editorial coverage. This is a kind of corollary to number 1, the opposite side of the same coin; only here the focus is on audience attention rather than on dollars spent. What I’m suggesting is that on an inch-for-inch basis (using print media) or a minute-for-minute basis (using electronic media), you will get far more reader or viewer attention from free editorial space or time than you will from an equal amount of paid ad space or time. In other words, they — whoever it is you’re trying to reach — will be much more likely to actually see, and even more importantly, pay attention to your message if you are able to deliver it through a positive mention in the newspaper or on a TV newscast than they are through paid ads in the same media.
Just think for a moment about how you read newspapers and magazines, or how you watch television or listen to the radio. If you’re like most people, you read most of the articles (or at least the headlines) in the newspaper but at the same time, skip over the ads. That is, unless you’re specifically looking for something. For example, you need tires so you look for an ad from someone who is having a tire sale; you’ve been thinking you need a new sport coat and you notice your favorite shop has announced its new spring arrivals; only then do you notice the ads. Or you watch the TV news stories with interest but pick up the paper and read a few paragraphs or carry on a conversation with your spouse or go to the kitchen (or bathroom) or just hit the mute button during the commercials! Sound familiar?
I know of a small manufacturer of a specialty garden tool who has tried display ads in various gardening magazines, but finds he gets two, three or more times the number of responses results, in terms of inquiries or actual orders, from just one mention in one of those same magazines’ new products columns.
3. It’s just good sense to build your “bank account of goodwill” with the media and the community. If it’s true we’ve moved into a new era of competitiveness in the economic marketplace, perhaps it’s only slightly less true to say that we’re also entering a new era of contentiousness in our organizational and personal relationships. Individuals and organizations seem willing to sue one another at the drop of a hat. Advocacy and special interest groups, with their “in your face” confrontational approach to everything, sprout with the ease of dandelions. The Internet has become easily the world’s most powerful word-of-mouth medium (read that as “rumor mill’), where anyone can say just about anything about anyone else, and often does. Legislators promulgate laws that run to 1,000 and more pages. And regulatory agencies issue voluminous and highly technical manuals of rules and regulations on practically a daily basis. And, of course, the media seem to delight in reporting corporate scandals and controversial issues.
What seems to be emerging is a new expectation of corporate and institutional accountability on the part of the public. Perhaps it’s the long-term fallout from Watergate, Three Mile Island, and, more recently, Enron and Worldcomm, in which there was a perception that the politicians or corporations involved were less than open and honest in their dealings with the public and the media. This perception contrasts especially with the public’s highly favorable attitude toward Johnson & Johnson after that company’s enlightened handling of the Tylenol tampering case in 1982.
It seems clear that if it hasn’t happened already, we are certainly nearing the end of the time when even small local businesses or organizations can get away with a “just leave me alone to do my thing” attitude toward the community and the media.
Sooner or later, every business is likely to need something from the community: a zoning change to put up a new building, a variance on a sign ordinance, a city (or county or state) economic development grant (or loan guarantee) to create more jobs, a long-term lease to use city property for storage purposes, permission for a new curb cut, or an extension to a street or alley to improve access to its property.
All these “needs” involve an approval process that almost invariably includes a public hearing, with the opportunity for interested or affected parties to have their say. Very often that “say” takes the form of virulent and totally unexpected opposition.
Now, I’m not suggesting that a regular program of positive publicity for your business will guarantee that you’ll never be faced with neighborhood opposition to your request to rezone a piece of property so that you can build an addition to your building or that some local advocacy group will never issue a critical statement to the media finding fault with one of your policies or procedures.
However, what I do suggest very strongly is that a diligently conducted publicity program that regularly generates favorable coverage in the media is like building a bank account of goodwill with the community, the media, local government and even regulators. Even if it can’t altogether head off any given controversy – and, anyway, how would you ever know if it did? – it may well mean that you’ll at least get less hostile, and perhaps even favorable, treatment in the media, which in turn means less harsh treatment in the court of public opinion.
4. You simply have a right to more media coverage. As a business or organization that involves people and interacts with the community, you simply have a right to more space or airtime than you are probably now receiving. It’s part of the fundamental openness of the democratic process. The fact is, most businesses or organizations do not get their fair share of media coverage; usually because they haven’t bothered to tell the media about the interesting and legitimately newsworthy things they’re doing.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I always looked forward to doing feature articles on local businesses for the traditional year-end special section — we called ours the “progress edition.” I was constantly amazed at the many fascinating and previously untold story ideas I discovered in virtually every business or organization I visited. When I would tell the folks at the business, “This is a great story! How come you never told anyone about it?” they would look at me disbelievingly and answer, “Gee, we never thought anyone was interested.”
I think it may be one of those “can’t see the forest for the trees” things. As a business or organization that is involved in its activities on a day-today basis, there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual or noteworthy about those activities. You take for granted that if you’re familiar with your activities, everyone else is as well. But the fact is, most small businesses and organizations have many reasons for sending out a news release, a topic we’ll explore much more fully in the following chapter.
5. It’s free! For often capital-poor small business start-ups, the free publicity that is available through the media may be the only way they can afford to reach the public. Charles A. Hillestad, who, with his wife, is the owner of the Queen Anne Inn, says he used “audacious” public relations to help launch their ten-room bed and breakfast operation near downtown Denver, Colorado, according to an article in Marketing News.
Hillestad was able to generate mentions of his inn in such prestigious publications as the New York Times, as well as in Inc., Elle, and Bridal Guide magazines. Among the various “tricks” he used to generate free publicity was sending articles about the inn to magazines outside of the travel industry. For example, by customizing articles to the specific editorial approach of each magazine, like focusing on the inn’s antiques for an antiques magazine, or sharing some of the inn’s recipes with a food publication.
6. It’s more believable (and more memorable). Even if your business can afford to and does use paid advertising as a promotional tool, you should still make the maximum possible use of publicity. Why? Because people simply have more faith in what they read in the editorial columns of a newspaper or magazine and in what they hear from TV or radio commentators than they have in paid advertising.
News is more believable than ads. Everyone “knows” that ads are mostly fluff and hype (read that as exaggerations, if not outright lies). And everyone “knows” that if you read it in the newspaper or see it on TV the news that somebody has (more or less) checked it out and that, therefore, it’s (more or less) “the truth.” Now, I recognize that both of those statements are gross over-simplifications, but I would also suggest that it’s a pretty accurate of our general reaction to news and ads.
What’s more, news articles are generally more memorable. My friends Xochi (pronounced so-chee) and Mitch Pannell opened their flower and gift shop several years ago. Just as their grand opening date neared and they were eagerly anticipating the arrival of their inventory, UPS went on strike. With their opening just days away and their shelves virtually empty of gift items, Xochi called the local newspaper, who came and took a picture of the couple looking anxiously out the front window of their store hoping to see a UPS truck. The photo ran on the newspaper’s business page under a headline that said “Where’s UPS?” What is interesting about this little anecdote is that now, years later, people still mention that photo.
7. You can definitely “sell” with publicity. Sales pitches are by no means limited to paid advertising. I return to the tourism agencies, and, by extension, the entire hospitality industry, mentioned earlier, as a classic example of what I mean. Just look at how effectively they have used positive publicity as their primary sales tool over the years. Make no mistake about it, all those rah-rah feature articles about fun places to go in a travel magazine, and all those favorable restaurant reviews in a newspaper are most certainly selling you on those spots as somewhere you should visit.
What’s more sales-oriented than a direct-mail catalog? Most generally it’s nothing but ad-like pitches for some company’s products, right? But take a look at the Patagonia catalog, a highly successful outdoor clothing and equipment mail-order house. You’ll find page after page of “articles” written by staff members and customers about their adventure trips where they used their Patagonia clothing and equipment, rather than the more conventional photos or drawings accompanied by a description of the product and the price. Patagonia catalogs are avidly read and jealously guarded, more like a treasured magazine than just another mail order catalog.
8. Publicity can even generate revenue. More than one organization has successfully converted its free-distribution newsletter, originally published as a public relations or promotional tool, into paid subscriptions. This has been a particularly successful approach in the health and fitness industry.
In addition, there is always the possibility of putting together a collection of articles you’ve generated and originally distributed as news releases to generate free publicity into a pamphlet or booklet and marketing it. For example, this might work well for a how-to business, such as a hardware store or home center. Finally, sometimes you can even get paid for writing an article for a magazine or journal, especially if you have some unique expertise to offer (see item 12 below).
9. Regular exposure in the media legitimizes your business. As mentioned earlier, there is a subtle but nonetheless very real perception people have that if something’s in the paper or on TV it must be important. The media themselves foster and promote this attitude because it makes their role seem more important, more indispensable. If your name shows up regularly in a positive way in the media, it helps pave the way for when your business goes to see the bank for an expansion loan. Regular mentions in the media say to the community, “We’re here to stay. We’re neighbors contributing to the economic well being of the community. We’re not some fly-by-night outfit that’s here today and gone tomorrow.” Regular mentions of your business and its people adds to your prestige, your credibility, your stature.
10. It can help you recruit good employees. You might think this item ought to be included under the last one, but actually it deserves stand-alone status because it’s going to become increasingly important in the years ahead. Changing demographics and life-styles suggest that there will be increasing shortages of skilled and experienced workers in many fields.
So, when you run your ads in the classified section or post a job to an online job bulletin board for the people you need to hire in order to expand and grow, what’s their reaction going to be? Are they going to recall reading and hearing positive things about your firm and therefore think, “Yeah, that’d be a good place to work. You can get ahead there; they always seem to be promoting people. They seem to be interested in their employees. Wasn’t there something in the paper about a new training program they just aalunched?” Or is their reaction going to be something like, “Why would I want to work there? I’ve never heard of them.”
11. You can do it yourself. If you don’t have a background in marketing and promotional work, successfully generating favorable exposure through news releases is easier to accomplish on a do-it-yourself basis than through paid advertising. A paid ad campaign, especially if it involves a highly competitive marketplace and extensive use of mass media (particularly TV), requires a good deal of sophistication to be effective. With publicity, you can “dash off” a basic news release and still get the attention to a reporter or editor.
12. You can become a media “source.” Finally, it’s simply a good idea to develop relationships with the media in the same way that it’s a good idea to develop other kinds of friendships in the community. Today’s buzzword for this is “networking.” The fact is, writers and reporters are always on the lookout for “sources,” especially at the local level. For most reporters, especially at the local level, nine out of ten of their “sources” are people in various specialized fields whom they have come to know and trust and whom they call on for background information to help them understand a complex issue they’re reporting on. In many case, a “source” is quoted directly, thus giving yet another positive plug to the business or organization the source is affiliated with. But, even you’re not quoted directly in the story, think of the important influence you could have on how the media reports information vital to your field.
Publicity is free or very low in cost, especially by contrast to paid advertising. Publicity is a very powerful promotional tool, perhaps even more powerful than advertising. Your competition is probably not utilizing publicity as a major part of its promotional program, since so few small businesses do. And publicity is relatively easy to accomplish, in fact, with the right approach, the media will very likely do most of the work for you. With all these advantages, how can you not take a good look at implementing a more proactive publicity program?