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Effective PR: ten FAQs

  1. What can PR do for a small business?
  2. When and where is PR most effective?
  3. What makes a good press release?
  4. What other PR activities should I consider?
  5. Can I do my own PR, or do I need an agency?
  6. How much time and money should I spend on PR?
  7. How do I get coverage in local and trade publications?
  8. How often should I produce press releases?
  9. What audiences should my PR activity be aimed at?
  10. What follow-up actions do I need to take after sending out a press release?

1.  What can PR do for a small business?

PR is used to raise the profile of a business and portray the business in a good light. As well as publicity, PR covers: supporting good causes; having a social responsibility to your workforce and neighbours; sponsorship; open days; speaking engagements; and producing newsletters.

Most PR is common sense, but when it comes to spending money on publicity you need to think of targeting those bodies who can do you the most good.

PR-conscious companies are able to generate a warm glow about their activities that encourages people to apply, reduces staff turnover and makes selling to cynical buyers that much easier. "Ah yes, I've heard good things about you." The welcome mat is already there.

PR often works alongside advertising and can reduce the amount you need to spend without reducing sales.

PR can publicise your special qualities, often at no charge, to those groups of people who matter to you most. Nobody wins success by being seen as an average, run-of-the-mill company that just ticks along. Most people, not only the customers, want to be associated with a dynamic organisation that makes things happen.

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2.  When and where is PR most effective?

PR can be highly effective in most businesses. Where it can make a big difference, however, is where the product or service cannot establish and maintain a significant differential advantage by itself. Where this is the case, you can still separate your company from the rest by emphasising your unique qualities or values. For example, you may be more caring, more public spirited, more international, or just more adept at creating news that will keep your name in view and help shape positive perceptions.

PR should be a staple part of any firm that needs to survive and grow. The benefits are as great for someone like Virgin as for a corner shop that stays open all hours. Generating goodwill and a positive attitude will help any business.

If you sell to the public, good publicity can have a dramatic effect, particularly in industries like fashion. PR can also be an important part of your promotional activities whenever you launch a new product or service.

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3.  What makes a good press release?

Most PR is geared towards generating good (and free) publicity in the media. The trick is to write it as a news story, not as an advertisement for your firm. Whether your story is published will depend on how good your press release is:

  1. It must be news. The story must be topical: you have to find a peg to hang the story on. It is not news that you make dog baskets - but it would be if the Palace bought one.
  2. Head it up 'Press Release'. Find out the name of the journalist responsible for the section you want it to appear in, and address the press release to that individual.
  3. Put a headline to identify the story. Do not waste too much time on dreaming up a winning pun as the sub-editor will always re-write it.
  4. Write for the publication's readership. Use jargon for the technical press but simplify it for your local paper.
  5. Put the meat of the story in the first sentence to attract the reader (and sub-editor), then develop the story in succeeding paragraphs. Most stories can be told in three to four paragraphs.
  6. Type in double spacing to make it easy to edit.
  7. Use quotes from an identified source to add interest.
  8. Add your contact details, including your out-of-hours contact telephone number.
  9. Include a photo if possible. Put a caption on the back to identify the people portrayed.

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4.  What other PR activities should I consider?

Don't think that PR is just about press releases. A press release is a great PR tool, but there are other options. Be prepared to try any creative idea that will get you noticed for the right reasons. Alternatives to using the media include:

  • Support local causes

It can create good relationships and a good image within the community and perhaps create something newsworthy for the local press.

  • Become an expert commentator

Be prepared to talk at local schools, the Rotary Club, professional networks and institutes, and so on. It demonstrates good neighbourliness and may lead to some valuable contacts, not least among the media.

  • Sponsorship

Rather than being a supporter, why not become sponsors of something special? However, if you choose to go down this route, remember that what you support should reflect the image you wish to create. For example, if your product is associated with sports, sponsor a local fun run or something similar. If your image is more intellectual, sponsor the local operatic society's next production.

  • Have open days

Open days, if appropriate, are cheap to organise and can generate considerable goodwill. Put up flags or hire a jazz band to attract attention.

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5.  Can I do my own PR, or do I need an agency?

Few small firms can afford the full-time services of a PR agency. Most want a monthly retainer that can run to several hundreds of pounds. With a bit of guidance and study, you should be able to manage simple press releases yourself. If your budget and ambitions allow, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations will supply names.

When choosing an agency, you need to ensure that they understand your line of business. Look for past cuttings and ask how they would handle your account. Establish precisely what you are paying for and what you will get for your money. Be particularly careful before committing yourself to paying a retainer.

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6.  How much time and money should I spend on PR?

Remember PR is all about getting people to know about who you are and what you do. It will help groom perceptions and create a positive image of your company 'personality'. How much time and money you spend on PR depends upon how satisfied you are with your current image and how important it might be to improve it. Naturally, the more you put in, the more you'll get out.

For most companies PR is not the top marketing priority, but sensibly used it has a valuable role to play. Many firms do it themselves so most of the cost is in time, rather than money. Monitor your results, take press cuttings and form a judgement on whether the results justify the effort and expenditure. If you do opt for DIY bear in mind that you are unlikely to do the job as well as a professional.

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7.  How do I get coverage in local and trade publications?

Study the press and see what makes news. PR, more than almost any other marketing activity, is based on good contacts. Cultivate the journalists and editors who matter to you. Keep them informed without flooding them and make contact at trade shows.

To state the obvious, most local press is quite parochial and will only look at stories within their catchment (readership) area, so bring in your location early in the story.

The national press and high-circulation women's magazines are deluged with press releases and you must come up with something really startling to make them print it. Do not waste too much time on those.

It can also help your cause if you send out a 'press pack'. This will provide background information about your company and key staff. It can also inform editors about any areas of expertise you have, should they have an urgent need for a story. For example, you may be an expert on a certain technology or aspect of business legislation.

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8.  How often should I produce press releases?

As with any form of marketing, PR works best when your name is seen on a regular basis. Since not every press release is going to be published, this means that you must have a strategy of sending out maybe two or three a month, depending on how serious your intentions are.

Different publications will have different deadlines. Find out what these are and draw up a list for easy reference. There is nothing to stop you sending a press release out early, and putting a date embargo on it until it is time to be published.

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9.  What audiences should my PR activity be aimed at?

Whoever you most wish to influence. For example, if you want to raise your profile as an employer to attract staff then the local papers would be the best media choice. On the other hand, if you wanted to create a better image for potential investors, the business pages of the broadsheet newspapers will be better for influencing your target audience.

Send your press releases to publications which will reach the audience you are aiming at, and which are likely to be interested in publishing your release. And send them to a named individual rather than to the Newsdesk or The Editor.

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10.  What follow-up actions do I need to take after sending out a press release?

Clearly it will antagonise your journalistic contacts if you are on the phone to them every few minutes checking whether they are going to publish your release. However, the occasional interest call will not come amiss. Better still, find a reason for ringing, such as when there is a new twist to the original story, or because some additional information has come to light.

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