Practical, doable PR tips for small businesses

I work in PR for a medium sized firm. I also recently opened a small retail business with my girl. It has been a month and we have had success with our PR campaign. I thought it might be useful to share info about what we’ve done and why. Hopefully it helps your small business.

If I am unclear, or if you think I am out to lunch, leave a comment. This post is meant to spark discussion and maybe save you money on the cost of folks like me. IT IS DIRECTED AT SMALL BIZ OWNERS WITH NO FORMAL PR TRAINING. The idea is delineating tactics that work, that anyone can do, with the goal of getting coverage for small businesses.

Each day I become more convinced that paid advertising is for big budget, big name brands. If you’ve got money to buy ads you should think about doing it. But, since you probably don’t, a PR campaign (and social media, which I will consider part of a PR effort for purpose of this post) is likely a good option because it can be done with little cash expenditure.

Costs of PR and Pros

Despite low to no cash expenditure, PR for small biz ain’t free, because your time ain’t free. It is a business function, like any other and uses resources, like any other. If you have cash to hire an agency or someone like me, then do it. Again, I am going to asssume you don’t, since PR pros are not cheap. Some people claim that you should stay away from media/bloggers etc if you cannot afford an agency. These people are DEAD WRONG.

Different goals but one overarching goal

Similar to any effort you engage in as a business owner, begin by asking “what is the purpose of this initiative?” Once you figure that out delineate clear goals for your PR campaign and metrics for them. In a PR context, this may mean saying “I want XX number of media placements over the next month.” That, though, is not an end in itself.

The placements should DO something for your bottom line or they’re worthless. Yes, establishing a causal linkage between X and Y is impossible in this case but you may see a correlation between media placements and traffic through your store, to your website or more inbound phone calls requesting info, etc. All things that should, by conventional logic, help your sales.

In the end, the purpose of positive media exposure is more interest and traffic that results in more sales, not getting your beautiful mug in front of camera so the world can experience your hotness. Don’t lose sight of this.

Social tools and their uses for PR

Charlatans everywhere are now yelling about how social media changes everything. It doesn’t. But it has given YOU, the small business owner, immense power to connect with key opinion and tastemakers in your space. I want to talk about the use of social media to get placements in traditional and new media spaces. So , to be clear, this is NOT about “building a community” – I am going to talk about how you use social media to get into the newspaper, on TV, in relevant blogs etc.

Listening and compiling intel

Let’s assume you know nothing about who in the media covers your space. Pre internet you would have had a tonne of work to do to learn this info. Now, however, things are much easier. Arguably the most powerful thing about social media and the internet more generally is the ability they give you to LISTEN and watch. If you’re unclear on how to listen on the internet go here and do what Chris Brogan says). With a google reader, google alerts and a service like Tweetbeep (google alerts for Twitter) you will get LOTS of info about who is saying what about your space.

Listen passively first and identify as many of the key “talkers” as you can. Make a list and keep detailed notes on what these individuals talk about, when they publish and what their slant is. You can also include contacts. Again, these notes needn’t be Dostoyevsky epics. Here is an example

Jane Doe – Lifestyle Reporter, the Montreal Gazette – jdoe@thegazette.canwest.com T: 514 666 6666 (Gazette newsroom, main number)

* Writes “the Retail Detail” columnn that runs each Saturday in business section
* Seems to value in store interactions more than what products are in a store. So we NEED to make sure our interactions are friendly
* Very into store design – has referenced the fact that she loves architecture numerous times
* Has critiqued stores that could not serve clients in perfect french in the past.

You can get good, actionable info on the 5-15 key players in your space in a matter of 3-4 weeks. It need not take more than 5-10 hours of work or about 30 mins a day-ish.

Getting noticed – for the right reasons

The next step involves getting noticed and being what Julien Smith and Chris Brogan call “one of us” (aka – one of the “tribe”). Because you have listened and compiled intelligence you need to contribute and SHARE the work of others before you pitch your own stuff. This means:

* leaving meaningful comments on a few blogs each week – try to leave at least 4 per week for 4 weeks before you have to approach a blogger or journo with an ask
* sharing articles that you think a community will care about on social networks (at least one per day)
* retweeting your identified influencers’ posts and mentioning their Twitter handles when you do (there is no rule but do it at least once a day)
* mentioning your identified influencers on follow friday
* interacting with bloggers and journalists on Twitter via using @ replies. If @joesmith writes a great article in the paper and is a guy you want to write about you, but you disagree with parts of it, strike up a conversation on Twitter with him.
* linking to their blog posts in yours

Social media makes it easier than ever before for influencers to know that you exist, that you read their ideas, and that you like them. Each of these was a real challenge for PR pros for years. Connecting with certain journalists was hard, making sure they knew that you knew about them was harder and promoting their content in a way that they could see you doing it was next to impossible. Twitter now allows you to do this regularly and easily. WHAT A PR TOOL!!!! You can do all of this with one retweet click! Edward Bernays would freak.

Another great way to ensure journalists and bloggers know about you (and know that you read their content) is to link to them in your company’s blog. Links are currency on the internet – especially where Google is concerned. A blogger will be notified when you link to one of their posts and a Google analytics (which is widely used by media/firms/bloggers) will tell them which sites are “referring” people to their content. So, if you blog, LINK a lot . You will be noticed and will be doing the linkee a favour (assuming you are not linking to something to illustrate it as an example of all that is dumb in the universe). Check this out for an example of link love posts.

Linking is a great way to start building the relationships that you can later call in favours from – favours such as “cover me.” Again the principal is help before asking for help. It is simple, give and you are more likely to get. Just like mommy told you when you were little.

Events and getting media to write about you

Events are a great way to get media coverage, PROVIDED the event gives bloggers and journos something of value to write on. At our media launch for FAIT ICI we created an event that was about more than just the opening of another organic store in Montreal. Instead of saying “come to a store opening” we staged an “information session” about how the challenges and benefits of producing organically in the province of Quebec. It was a BROADER, more WIDELY interesting story. We had 4 suppliers (two food, one skincare, one gifts) and on hand to conduct interviews with us. It worked great – we must have got 5-6 good placements out of the event. The lesson is simple – unless you have a hardcore following, great relationships with media or something truly revolutionary to say (i.e. something that is HARD news) make sure you really consider the DESIGN of an event. We were just a store. A cool one, yes. A new one, too. But a store nonetheless. Give journalists more to write about and you will get more of them out to your event.

Information and swag

Journalists and bloggers need to information to help craft a story. If you want media coverage you need to have a few things on your website that our easily findable.

* A contact for media to call that is EASILY findable
* A backgrounder (written in plain, stripped down language) about your company
* Images and multimedia content that reporters or bloggers can use.

You can have a lot more – in fact online newsrooms are a sub-industry of PR. But make sure you have AT LEAST the above.

You should be ready to give away product as well. Much is made of swag these days. But please, don’t let a writer leave without giving them a sample of your offerings. If you wanna go overboard, you can. Journalists and bloggers, similar to most of us, like stuff. You should not HAVE to give away so much swag that a fleet of semis is required for transport.

Conclusion

PR pros tend to make public relations sound like a voodoo priesthood – incredibly complex and reserved for the few. Indeed, PR is a craft and requires real skill. But YOU can get publicity for your small business absent people like me. It takes clear goals, good intel and an understanding that you have to give to get. More than anything getting publicity for your small biz takes time and effort. New media have made your task easier though.

May the force be with you oh entrepreneurial Jedi!

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Davina K. Brewer July 13, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Jackson, This is great advice for small business owners, and a lot of it. I agree much of this can be done without the so-called experts, provided the business owner can invest two essential assets to do the job right: time and talent.

Writing and commenting on reporters’ blogs, developing simple backgrounders all sounds great, promoting events, etc. all take the time, the talent to do it well. Running a small business is a lot of work, and yes some people are a natural at this PR and Marketing Communications stuff. They’re lucky, but not everyone is IMO.

That’s one reason I’m a solo PR: many of my clients don’t have time to follow people on Twitter, read blogs, or the talent to tell their stories in a compelling way. They need a little extra help writing that background sheet, refining their elevator speech before they’re ready for the media close-up. FWIW.

Jackson Wightman July 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Thanks Davina.

Totally agree with the gist of your comment. PR is hard, doubly hard when trying to run a biz – that is why there are folks like you and I.

For people who cannot hire a pro there are still some things that can be done though. By doing some of the things I mentioned (and some I did not) a biz owner CAN get some coverage. Doesn’t mean they’ll be able to replace all the value a PR pro would bring. They won’t.

I just get sick of greedy folks trying to make our profession out to be a voodoo priesthood. It is a self serving depiction of what we do

Krista July 13, 2010 at 3:03 pm

I agree with Davina’s comment that, as with any aspect of running a small business, PR takes time but it’s not rocket science.

Something you might want to add is how small business owners could consider their own networks of friends and colleagues and see where those relationships may lead to opportunities. I once did a “PR 101″ presentation for a friend to a group of community nonprofits– many with limited resources for fundraising, let along PR. I covered everything from soup to nuts on the basics (much like your post) but pointed out how sometimes we overlook our own social networks when it comes to getting the word out. Sure enough, that got the wheels turning for the group– some of them didn’t think to inform their friends, who ranged from newspaper editors, to printers, and even high-ranking administrators at larger corporations.

Similarly, small business owners might consider tapping into their social collateral by inviting friends to test their products, visit their stores, or attend an event. More than likely, their friends are supportive of their business ventures, and maybe they’ll tell another friend or post a comment or Tweet about that business or product somewhere else. And so the WOM circle starts…but it’s just one piece of the puzzle and it’s not to say it will work for everybody’s business.

Jackson Wightman July 13, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Hey Krista!

Very insightful and thoughtful comment. I have to be honest – I had not thought of it, though it now seems obvious. My experience thus far with small biz is that you NEED to tap EVERY resource you have – esp in the early days. Great point – thanks for sharing it will be helpful to others I am sure.

ally parkmore July 14, 2010 at 5:37 am

This is a very interesting article, some useful practical tips! And esp nowadays, where we are pinching our pennies..its important to look into other resources.

This may also help and strengthen your article. I found this free online resource extremely helpful and might help you generate some ideas for your retail business or any business for that matter.

http://alison.com/courses/Stone-Soup

Its a free interactive online business course which covers entrepreneurship. Taking as its inspiration the book: “Stone Soup – The Secret Recipe for Making Something from Nothing”
I found it so helpful. Enjoy:)

Scott in Montreal July 14, 2010 at 11:15 am

As somebody who is trying to get a copywriting slash communications company off the ground – and a big fan of how you have handled everything for FAITICI – I thank you for this!

There are a couple of new shops in my neck of the woods you would probably be interested in networking with: Cru Vitalité and Saveurs de Vivre (the latter has been open since December, actually). They are three blocks away from each other, on Gounod, just east of St-Laurent.

Jackson Wightman July 14, 2010 at 11:29 am

Hey Scott – Wordpress is not letting me reply with “reply” so I will just drop in another comment :)

Thanks for the compliment re FAIT ICI – it has been fun to be able to run social media and PR as I wish to. Love my clients to death, but small biz gives one the chance to test out one’s own ideas undiluted.

Appreciate the heads up re those businesses. We’re always looking for like-minded operations to work with. Have a great day!

Janet Thaeler July 15, 2010 at 9:16 am

Jackson
Thanks for sharing these killer tips – esp. to listen first before you do any PR. It’s easy to think you know what to do or guess, but if you first see what’s being said you’ll be more effective.

“Community building” may work for a small company – it just depends on their strengths. I always say, if you have a strong writer, blog. If you have someone who can do well on video, post videos. Picture, Flickr. If you’re strong on Facebook, grow that channel. If neither, then just find the influencers and engage with them. If I had to choose one platform, I’d usually recommend Twitter because the level of engagement and people are more likely to click.

One “social” technique that’s popular and effective is to do infographics or viral type blog posts. We pitch to a lot of influencers and we run social ads at the same time. The content so it gets a lot of visibility in a short time which leads to links and it helps our rankings. It’s not free – but it’s also not nearly as expensive as print advertising. I’ve seen it work really well.

Another way is to get quality articles written and go directly to newspapers or blogs and get them republished. Link back to your site with keywords (or descriptive phrases about your business.)

Last of all, use online press releases and distribute them online. Everyone has news or something they can talk about as a formal press release. This is my specialty. There are a few free sites that are decent or you can pay for distribution and get better coverage + reporting and features.

I think I just wrote a blog post.

Best
Janet

Jackson Wightman July 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

Hey Janet,

I think you wrote a good blog post :) I am grateful you shared it here because there is lots of value in what you say.

Re community bldg and social media more generally, I believe the thing many small biz owners forget is that it takes TIME. The pace of returns is glacial. And, quite frankly some businesses are, by their nature, easier to build community around. Some disagree, but I would say that one might have an easier time building an online community around an organic, local-focused general store than say a firm that makes garbage cans.

Have a great day and thanks for stopping by!

David Landis July 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

Jackson – great thoughts. Do you mind if we re-post on our site: http://www.landispr.com?

Jackson Wightman July 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Thanks David! Feel free to repost.

Jeff D July 15, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Jackson, valuable PR advice for small biz. Biz owners can find a wealth of tips, tools and templates online and social media is essential for localized business promotion. The key is using tools that make the phone ring. Hope you don’t mind another source for hundreds of DIY PR, media relations and marketing/PR available at The PR Coach http://www.theprcoach.com. We;ll share your post there too. Thanks and good luck to all.

Jackson Wightman July 15, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Thanks Jeff! This comment thread is rapidly becoming a useful resource – which is GREAT! Feel free to repost my stuff.

You are bang on about the end goal – phones ringing and traffic in the door!

Have a nice weekend

Bart van den Belt July 16, 2010 at 1:59 am

Wow… Great blog post! Thank you very much. Even for a small business owner from the Netherlands this marketing and pr/advice is really usefull… Let’s get to work!

Kind regards,
Bart van den Belt

Jim Bowman July 16, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Jackson – that’s the best and most succinct explanation I have seen about how to use social media in media relations. After working with global giants most of my career I now enjoy helping small businesses use PR, especially online PR, to do more business. This post is one I will use and pass along.

Jim Bowman
ThePRDoc®

Lynford Morton July 18, 2010 at 12:54 am

This has got to be one of the best practical PR blog posts I have read in a very long time. Lots of useful information — especially on using social media. I, too, would like to share it on my blog. http://www.prworkshop.org. Good stuff!

Jackson Wightman July 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

Thanks Lynford! Feel free to share it as you like

Lloyd Irvin May 3, 2013 at 12:53 am

Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips and hints for first-time blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate
it.

Jackson Wightman May 19, 2013 at 10:34 am

Hey Lloyd,

The best advice – and I know it sounds trite – is remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Thanks for the kind words

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