During the last few years, social media has stolen some of the thunder of traditional public relations in the eyes of businesses of all sizes. Even prior to the explosive use of the Internet, small businesses in particular often put advertising and marketing ahead of public relations, perhaps because of insufficient budgets, and in some cases, because of a lack of understanding of how public relations is different from the other two communications practices. However, small businesses would be wise not to forget this tried-and-true form of communication.
Unlike social networking, public relations can allow a small business to carefully safeguard its business reputation in a controlled manner. Unlike one-size-fits-all advertising, public relations techniques facilitate the delivery of strategically crafted messages, customized for each of your audience segments. And unlike marketing, which is one-directional, public relations can foster a reciprocal relationship and dialogue with all of your stakeholders: customers, partners, employees, the community and the media.
What is “Public Relations”?
While the term “public relations” may be defined differently depending on the perspective, it is useful for you to hear the definition given by Entrepreneur magazine: public relations is “using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products.” Ideally, these stories should comprise strategically crafted messages that your company controls and that differentiate your business from the competition. While these messages should be reflected in every communication your company disseminates, the story you tell should be customized according to your business objective. For example, you may be focused on:
- Increasing awareness of your products and services;
- Attempting to shift buying behavior;
- Fostering loyalty among current customers;
- Calling attention to community issues that affect your business;
- Encouraging an informed discussion in the community and surrounding areas;
- Reinforcing your marketing efforts; or
- Restoring credibility or responding to a crisis.
PR on a Small Business Budget
Although only eight percent of small businesses have the budget to hire an outside public relations firm[i], there are many activities that a savvy small business owner and designated staff can handle on their own:
- Write an article for a trade magazine. Byline articles that reflect unique industry expertise are of great interest to trade publications that have to fill their pages with interesting content month after month. Articles on a new trend you see on the horizon; insider’s knowledge of happenings in your industry; or little-known uses for your products will give you twice the bang for your buck if you create color-printed copies to mail to your customer list after the article appears in print.
- Offer free lectures and seminars. Volunteering at community organizations to give a free lecture or interactive seminar is a great way to increase awareness of your business. Be sure to bring marketing brochures and discount coupons so that increased visibility can lead to real-world traffic and actual sales.
- Interact with your community. There are many ways you can raise your profile as an active, positive force in your community, which is ultimately made up of potential customers. Donate your product or service to not-for-profit organizations, churches and cultural organizations. Send samples of your product to local media along with a press release. Sponsor a charitable event that has some synergy with your business.
- Don’t forget the press release. As long as you don’t send out a press release every time there’s a minor development in your company, the media (particularly local media) is still responsive to this formal way of communicating. Journalists depend on press releases – as opposed to blog posts and Twitter feeds – because they include the quantifiable and official details about a company. One way that the press release has changed, however, is that it is now acceptable to include video, photos and links to your business’s social media presence.[ii] If you have a small, focused media list, press releases can be disseminated via e-mail. However, if you need advice on publications to target or want to reach a national or international audience, consider using a wire service (e.g. Businesswire and PR Newswire).
Of course, there are many other activities that fall under the auspices of public relations, although some do overlap with marketing and advertising such as corporate Web sites; sales brochures; external newsletters; corporate identity design, and many more. However, unlike advertising and marketing, public relations can be pursued with a limited budget; provides business value before, during and after a sales transaction; and can be the key to your small business’s future.
[i] Moss, D., Ashford, R., & Shani, N. (2003), The forgotten sector: Uncovering the role of public relations in SMEs. Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 8, Iss. 2, p. 197-210.
[ii] Mirabile, J. (Nov. 2010), Is social media now a better media relations tool than the press release? PRWeek, Vol. 13, Iss. 11, p. 27.
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