You need not have a fully staffed department or a degree in marketing to capitalize on the benefits of good public relations. Many of the things you can do to enhance the image of your company are as simple as placing a call to the local newspaper, or making an appearance at a community event.

Often, when you hear the term marketing, people immediately think of advertising. The fact is, advertising is merely one facet of a what should be a diverse promotion mix. There are other elements used for promoting your company. One such element is public relations.

Public relations is a close relative of advertising. The difference is that the public relations aspect focuses on promoting the company rather than its products, and targeting all of the stakeholders, including stockholders, employees, customers, and the community. Public relations (PR) employs many of the same elements as advertising — working with outside media, developing communication pieces and understanding the target audience.

Another difference is that public relations is often viewed as being more credible than advertising. This is due, in part, to the fact that people understand that advertising is being paid for and sponsored by the company, and the company is going to present a biased view.

Pubic relations is a beneficial tool for any company. It is important to develop your company’s public image within your local community and within your overall industry. To do this, it is imperative to first decide what that image is going to be. Are you a “fun” company? A “formal” company? A “technical” company? Determining this objective helps to guide the process of creating your public relations tools. A “fun” company might be well suited to attend a local carnival or sponsor a booth, whereas a “formal” company wouldn’t fit well in this setting.

Why is it important to establish this community image? To begin with, if your business is local, these people are your customers. In addition to customers, though, your community is where you will look to hire employees. It is also the regulating board for zoning and other legal issues. Maintaining strong community ties can help you further your business in many ways.

After you have determined your company image, you need to set your objective(s) for the public relations effort. For instance, you may set an objective to have six press releases published in the year 2002, or you may work toward the publication of a company brochure.

The Tools
So, now that you have determined your image and defined your objectives, let’s examine some of the tools used during public relations to reach your goals. One of the most common tools is the press release. Press releases can be sent to your local and industry media on a regular basis — often these releases are sent monthly so that when the publication has space to fill, they have information about your company to fill it with. Press releases can give pertinent information about the company such as growth statistics, employee appointments or promotions, board of director information or the announcement of new locations. Press releases can also be used to point out charitable donations or involvement in local and national organizations.

The key to getting your release published with the information you want is to make it brief and to the point. Do not add a lot of “fluff” to the piece, because it will be edited out, and you run the risk of important information also being removed along with it. In other words, stick to what is pertinent about the topic at hand. A good press release will not be a long document — in fact, it may be as short as two or three sentences or as long as two or three paragraphs. Anything longer will be considered more like an article, which most publications will not have room to print. Including photos with your release will help to get your information noticed in the publication. (E-mail releases with photo attachments are often welcomed.)

Another tool in PR is the press conference, which can be used to announce "big news" for the company. This can be a higher profile way of putting the news out, which may gain you even more positive publicity than just sending out a release. Joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions can be announced using a press conference. To implement this type of public relations tool, organize an event to invite the local and/or industry press to join. Often this works well at a trade show or an open house. Designate a time to make the announcement so that everyone arrives in time. Put together a press packet so that the information will be cited correctly in the various media. Following the announcement, answer questions from the media and provide contact information to answer questions that arise later. After the event, be sure to follow up with the media who attended and those who were not in attendance.

Creating a company brochure is another PR tool. This brochure gives pertinent information about the overall company. Include company history, location, subsidiaries/parent company, and the mission statement. You may also want to include information on community and charitable involvement, as well. This same information can be used, along with the company financials, to assemble an annual report. These brochures and reports can then be used to communicate with all stakeholders in the company.

Another idea to supplement your public relations toolbox is to write an article on a subject relevant to your industry. Most often, the editors of industry publications will not want you to include information pertaining to your specific company or products for such articles, but simply getting your name and biography in front of industry professionals can do a lot to promote your company. Also, if you have a unique product or program, you can include it in a generic sense, which can create a better awareness amongst the audience. This awareness will help the overall marketing effort for that specific product or program since people will at least be knowledgeable about the subject in the first place.

Along with these tools, public relations can be used as a tool for crisis management. When negative publicity surfaces, such as company layoffs, product malfunctions, or negative financials, it is vital to act in a clear and consistent manner to keep an open channel of communication with the public. The way to do this is to first select one spokesperson for the company. Make it clear to everyone else that they are not to talk to the media; instead, they should refer all questions to the spokesperson. By assigning only one media contact, the message will stay consistent, and you will avoid numerous scenarios and opinions from winding up in print. Second, you need to make sure to communicate all pertinent information. Find out the information that the public wants to know about and answer questions from them. If you don’t answer the questions, someone else will, and their "take" on the situation may not really be what is happening. Finally, as you work toward resolving the issue that brought about the negative publicity, make sure to communicate the steps you are taking. This helps you to retain current customers who may be concerned about the future of your company.

Media Relations
In order for you to be successful with your public relations program, it is important to build strong, positive relationships with media personnel. By doing this, you have a better chance of seeing your press releases in print, and the media personnel may be more likely to call for your comments on stories relating to your company and/or products. This gives you a chance to tell your side prior to negative publicity, as well as gives you a chance to get your company in the spotlight related to positive aspects of the industry or product category.

Building these relationships does not have to be difficult. Simply making contact with editors and writers for local and industry publications can be the first step. Let them know that you’re willing to help whenever they have space to fill or need a comment or quote for an article. Maintain contact with them by sending them updates and press releases so that they know what is happening with your company. Invite these media representatives to company open houses or other company events. This lets them get firsthand information about the company and may result in some free publicity.

Once you’ve built this relationship, make sure to continue to follow through. If the editor calls asking for an updated press release to fill open space, make sure to send it right away. If a writer calls asking for a quote, give them enough information to let them pick and choose when writing the article. Continued effort like this will further the relationship and your public relations objectives.

Public relations can be a very powerful tool, especially when combined with other promotional efforts, such as advertising, personal selling, sales promotions and direct marketing. When planning for these elements, make sure to maintain a clear and consistent message throughout all of your promotional strategies. This consistency will create a strong promotional campaign and help you to reach your goals.

Barbara Barney owns marketing Avenue, LLC, a consulting business that specializes in creating and revising marketing plans for small businesses. She also teaches marketing at Western Michigan University.

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