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Extra! Extra! Promoting in the Media

By Cathy Cain-Blank

Want to see your business covered in the bold type and bright lights of the media? There are ways to woo the fickle, seen-it-all-before press, and we're going to spill the secrets…

If you've ever opened the newspaper to find an article about your biggest competitor, or turned on the 6 o'clock news to hear a report on a neighboring business, you may have wondered how these companies got so lucky - why their stories were selected by journalists to share with the public. We've got a lot happening here, you may have thought. Why aren't our activities newsworthy?

They probably are. But don't kid yourself: Garnering the attention of the media is as much about skill as it is coincidence or good fortune. An experienced promotional consultant can do wonders for your organization. He can assist you in working with the media, and help you craft press releases to best pitch your stories. The publications you pursue may differ from the media contact list of a Fortune 500 company, but the approach to public relations remains the same.

If You've Got It, Flaunt It
The first step toward establishing an effective public relations program is to assess what's happening with your company that's potentially of interest to the media. Are you preparing to launch a new product? Has your company expanded its staff or moved to a new location? Did the company or a team of employees participate in a fundraising event? Don't dismiss what you deem "ordinary" news. This could be exactly what editors of community and trade publications are looking for - let them decide what constitutes "newsworthy." If you do continually send releases and have failed to garner any write-ups, by all means do contact the editors and ask if there's information you should be adding or altering. Prepare a list of recent activities to share with the media. You may have to limit what you initially release; it isn't reasonable to expect a publication to report six months of news on your company simply because you're now ready to embark on a public relations program.

Next, jot down what you know will take place in the coming year. Sponsorship of an industry event? A merger or acquisition? Aim to send out at least one news release a month and set a schedule accordingly. Depending on the size and scope of your business, you may have months you don't yet know how to fill. Not to worry because news may develop by then. (Another option is to create your own news; more on this topic later.)

News They Can Use
If you take on the writing of your company's news releases, be sure to format them according to editors' specifications. If you aren't familiar with trade custom, do your homework; nothing turns an editor off more than an unprofessional-looking and sounding news release. If need be, hire a freelance writer or editor to ensure that your submissions will be appropriate.

Regardless of the topic of each release, it must be prepared as a news story - not a promotional push for your company. Address the facts and purpose of the story in the first few lines. Steer clear of adjectives and fluff (e.g., "the firm's new location features beautifully landscaped gardens"). Keep it brief. And don't forget to close - every time - with a concise, boilerplate paragraph that summarizes your company's products/services and provides contact information.

Once your first news release is written, you'll need to develop a media distribution list. Don't overlook any publication that might find your news of interest. National business publications (e.g., Inc., Forbes) may be a long shot, but try targeting regional business or city/lifestyle magazines. Include community news-papers, trade journals and alumni publications (of key staff or colleges/universities in the area) on your list and, depending on your products/services, broadcast media. Some press releases should be sent to all organizations on your list; others to a select few.

Be sure to fully develop all news stories. For example, let's say senior management at a software developer has made the decision to expand the IT department. The HR director is seeking six new employees. Instead of waiting to issue a news release once the new staffers are hired, why not send a release announcing the company's expansion plans? Your community newspaper will likely consider this news even more important than running notices about the new hires since it lets members of the community know about possible employment opportunities - which means you might get a few paragraphs of coverage. Enhance the story by mentioning key employment statistics (e.g., if this is the company's second expansion in recent months, or if the size of the department will triple).

In the media business, timing and relationships are everything. It'll take time to build relationships with journalists and editors - to get them to know your company as a trustworthy source of interesting, relevant news.

One sure-fire way to get their attention is to work with your promotional consultant to find the right imprinted product to add some punch and pizzazz to a release. Trust me: Editors love to get direct-mail pieces with fun, promotional items. For example, is your company opening another branch? Consider sending stylish or funky watches imprinted with your company's logo on the face and a note accompanying the press release about your new branch that says: "It's all about timing, and we've decided it's time to expand." You'll definitely get their attention, and even if you don't get coverage, you'll now have name recognition so the editors remember you the next time you send a release.

Last fall, DigiPoS Systems, a leading manufacturer of point-of-sale retail systems, teamed up with a promotional marketing agency and Bold Approach, a Boise, ID-based business acceleration and strategy firm, to announce a key contract it had secured with retailer Circuit City Stores Inc.

First, Bold Approach issued a news release to the media to announce that DigiPoS had won a large order to supply the 600-store retailer with point-of-sale units, cable management and diagnostic software. The next step was to spread the news of the win to DigiPoS' top 200 prospects. The creative and strategic leaders of the three organizations prepared a mailing certain to get noticed: a powerful sales letter from the company president, paired with a copy of the news release and a custom-branded cigar. The letter opens with an explanation, "We're not trying to kill you by sending you a cigar. We simply want you to know that when it comes to the very best point-of-sale hardware available on the market today, we smoke the competition." The letter went on to explain that the cigar also represented the company's pride in its recent rebirth (through a management buyout), and that users of DigiPoS systems now have more time to relax and enjoy the finer things in life.

The decision to purchase a new point-of-sale system wasn't made overnight. That's why the goal of the mailing was, simply, to make prospects aware of DigiPoS' recent success and encourage them to accept the phone call they would soon receive from their DigiPoS sales representative.

According to Bold Approach PR & marketing specialist Jason Blumberg, the response to the cigar mailing was positive. "DigiPoS has received approximately six product inquiries from the prospects we targeted," Blumberg reports. "Historically, these prospects wouldn't even return phone calls.

One new client contract could potentially be worth several million dollars to DigiPoS, so it was well worth the investment to send out the mailing with promotional cigars."

Make Friends With The Locals
Are you familiar with Curves? It's a 30-minute fitness program established in 1992 by a Texas entrepreneur. Today it's recognized as the world's largest fitness center franchise, with more than 6,000 locations. But when Joseph and Flora DeRose of Highwood, IL, opened their first Curves in neighboring Highland Park, they discovered the franchise had little to no name recognition in the community, and a national advertising program was not yet in place.

The DeRoses set up their own advertising campaign to splash the franchise's name throughout the area, running ads in local publications, on movie screens, in church bulletins, even on restaurant placemats.

And then they did what any new business should do: They issued a press release to their community newspaper. When they followed up with the editor, however, they were told that because they were no longer advertising in the paper - they stopped after discovering that other vehicles had a much higher return - the paper wouldn't provide editorial support. And that's when they began to shift their focus.

"Our advertising program was working so I decided it was time to start focusing on community relations," explains Joseph DeRose, who now owns and operates a second franchise in nearby Kenosha, WI. "If you're going to spend money to make people aware of your business, you might as well do something worthwhile at the same time."

Last spring, the Highland Park Curves participated in "Food for Friends," an event organized by local business owners that benefits local food pantries. The DeRoses waived the one-time administrative fee of $149 for new members who contributed one full bag of non-perishable groceries. Existing members who brought in a bag of groceries received an imprinted Curves T-shirt for their contribution. The food drive brought in 3,400 pounds of food and, as of the writing of this article, the DeRoses plan to sponsor the food drive again.

Then last summer, the franchise sponsored the American Cancer Society Walk held at an area high school. The DeRoses set up a tent to provide refreshments for its team members (about 30 women) and presented every woman who walked - approximately 400 - with a coupon for a free month of membership valued at $39.

The DeRoses also spread the word about the fitness program using promotional products - in particular, wearables. In its first full year of business, the couple gave away about $5,000 of clothing (shirts, hats, socks, etc.). In addition to giving products as raffle prizes on the company's one-year anniversary, the business owners give them when members make referrals or win inch-reduction contests.

At the end of 2003, the Highland Park Curves boasted more than 800 members - not bad for a business that barely had name recognition. "I believe in giving back to our community," says DeRose. "We'll continue to find worthwhile ways to benefit others and spread our name at the same time."

When All Else Fails, Start Your Own Sizzle
Few companies, even large global organizations, can generate news every week; small companies may struggle to issue a press release every month. This means, at times, you may want to create your own news. Sit down with your marketing department and/or your promotional consultant and strategize about innovative ways to get your message out.

"The most fun a public relations pro can have is when there's no company news to pitch," says Peter C. Fuller, owner of a communications firm. "It's in this quiet time that creativity can speak volumes." In December, for example, Fuller issued a release for Corvigo, an email filtering solutions provider, reporting that spam increases 64% during the holidays; it was picked up by several publications.

The public relations exec advises small businesses to think like big businesses and put out news releases as frequently as possible. Last fall he issued weekly news releases on Corvigo's behalf. They didn't get press coverage from all the news releases, he says, but activity is still generated.

"If an IT executive is in the buying mindset and monitoring the issue of spam, he'll search on Google and find our news releases," explains Fuller. There's also a good chance he'll contact Corvigo. "During the three-month period we generated weekly releases, the company received 14 times as many hits to its Web site and a 45% increase in leads."

Keep in mind, though, that with each mailing - especially those that utilize promotional products - you're registering on the media's radar and increasing your name recognition, regardless of whether your information gets published every time you send something. Remember, it's the squeaky wheels (and PR-savvy pros) that get the press!

COPYRIGHT © 2005 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Cathy Cain-Blank is a marketing consultant and writer specializing in the promotional products industry. She lives in Highland Park, IL, with her husband, two teenage stepdaughters, an overindulged cat (her doing) and two out-of-control dogs (not her doing).

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