Not surprisingly, public relations is a key aspect of practically every big business or major corporation. But while small businesses share some of the same fundamental goals as their larger counterparts, they aren't as likely to avail themselves of the PR machinery, often due to fears about the costs involved. But Jenna Watson (pictured), who co-founded the Los Angeles-based public relations firm Visionary5, says there's more value to PR than what most entrepreneurs think. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose talked with Watson about budgeting for PR, the risks of doing it yourself, and ways to get free exposure.
RL: What made you see the necessity of a PR firm that specifically serves small business?
JW: I realized that there was this huge gap in PR for small businesses. The cost [for a campaign from a large agency] was just so high, so I wanted to create something that was feasible for them and which didn't focus just on PR. Small businesses often need advice on marketing, branding, and social media. Sometimes they also need a brand spokesperson to do interviews or go on the news for them. A lot of my clients are a one-man show.
RL: How do you yourself define public relations?
JW: The way that I describe it to my parents or to people who don't understand PR is, we help get our clients in the media. When you're reading a magazine and you see an editor talking about this really great new camera, a PR person—a publicist—probably helped get that camera written up.
JW: PR is a great way for small businesses to gain exposure without the huge, multi-billion dollar budget for advertising that big business's have. A PR firm or an in-house publicist can talk to the media and get their clients on news segments or written about in magazines—which is actually more credible in the consumer's eyes because it's not a paid message.
RL: What should a small business look for in a PR agency?
JW: First, look at the size of the agency. If they're a global agency, a small business or start-up probably won't be able to afford a campaign with them—which can cost $10,000 a month. Second, look at what they specialize in. If you're a clothing company, you want to find someone who has experience in fashion and consumer PR. Third, talk to people. Ask your peers or colleagues for referrals.
RL: What are some of the dangers of a small business owner who sees the value of PR, but wants to do it himself?
JW: The biggest danger is, they probably don't know how to do it. It's a trade, just like hiring an accountant to do your taxes. It really is a full-time job. There's a lot of writing and pitching and following up and building relationships. As a small business owner, you're already wearing a lot of hats. Adding PR to the mix can be a huge challenge. Without the proper expertise, a small business might not see the results they were hoping for.
RL: What can a business do if they're just starting out and there's no budget for PR?
JW: One thing is to use social media, but you need to know how to use it before you jump right in. I would suggest researching social media trends and seeing what other companies have done that have generated a following. Another thing is writing and issuing your own press releases about new products or services. There are different press release distribution services—such as PR Newswire and PRWeb—that make issuing a press release easy and less time consuming. A third thing is to target blogs. Receiving coverage or a review on a blog that gets a lot of traffic can sometimes be more effective than receiving coverage in a newspaper or magazine. Bloggers are looked at as regular consumers who are writing about things that interest them and they believe in.
RL: How should you reach out to a blogger?
JW: The easiest way to get coverage on a blog is to send them a product and say, "I'd love to hear your
review on it." And the blogger will usually put a little disclaimer saying, "I was sent a product, but all the thoughts and words are my own."
RL: Can you give an example of a PR strategy or campaign for a small business that you were involved with?
JW: One of my clients is Angela Lee, a woman in Omaha, who invented a brand new product called SHOLDIT, which is a scarf with pockets. It's hard to get big magazines and big press outlets to write or cover a product. So we started out targeting blogs, specifically "mom" blogs. Got some great reviews. Then we started targeting local news and some of the bigger magazines, [culminating in coverage on the Today show in late October]. It's about building the momentum, starting from the ground, and working your way up. It's my job to find what makes it different, what makes it interesting, and what's going to make an editor want to write about it.
RL: What does Visionary5 charge for a PR campaign?
JW: Our campaigns will cost anywhere between $1,000 to $4,000 per month. Obviously if the client wants all of our services, the campaign's probably going to be at the higher end. If they're just looking for press, that would be at the lower end. It comes down to hours. It's not that one thing is worth more than the other. It's the amount of hours it takes to accomplish each goal.
RL: What's the typical timeframe for a campaign?
JW: I always try to do a six-month campaign. Also, it's important that the agency learns everything about the small business—their product, their history, any background information. The first month is usually spent laying the groundwork and getting PR materials together, writing the general press release, writing any [ancillary] material, like a fact sheet, or getting together a press kit. Then, month two is usually when we start reaching out to editors and trying to generate press on an ongoing basis. By the end of six months, you can see the results that have been generated.
RL: Final advice for working with an outside agency like yours?
JW: PR is really based on relationships, such as the relationships we've been able to build with editors. A lot of times, when small businesses try to do their own PR, it falls to the bottom of the list. If you're only sending out a press release to a couple of people every other month, you're not really going to see results. Hiring someone who knows PR and knows what it takes to get your business to the next level is always going to be your best bet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.