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3 keys to keeping your press out of the trash

(MoneyWatch) As a business owner, writer, and adviser to entrepreneurs and startups, I've seen PR from every angle: I've sought it, had it pitched to me, and shown others how best to get it. Unfortunately, I've seen far too many companies scuttle their press efforts with some classic mistakes.

My press pointers typically apply to those who choose to do most or all of their own PR, as my company has always done. (As I have somewhat contentiously suggested in past columns, I think it is the best route for the majority of startups and small businesses). But that said, I have -- very surprisingly -- seen some credible PR firms make many of the same mistakes that "amateurs" do.

Most small companies don't have anywhere near the advertising and marketing resources that it would take to get the same reach and response that good press can get. And regardless of budget, it's no secret that effective PR can be the most powerful, cost-effective way to get noticed. One good press mention in a quality editorial environment can do more for a company than a year of paid advertising.

Without a doubt, after product and service, PR has been the most important driver of my own business, and over 20 years of working with the press, we have a good handle on the dos and don'ts. And high on the list of rules to follow are these three:

Send news, not promotion: Not knowing the difference (or not caring) is by far the biggest mistake. Clearly everyone sends press in the hopes of promotional exposure. But news is, by definition, meant to be written objectively (insert wisecrack about selected TV network here). "Acme Introduces New Widget" suggests a legitimate company news announcement; "Acme Introduces Best New Widget" is promotional. Making subjective claims outside of quoted statements, using hyperbole of any kind, or generally straying from the facts are all violations of proper news practice. And if there is a single exclamation point in anything you send to the press (or almost anything you write in business, for that matter), you probably should find someone else to write your releases. If your message reads like an ad, your already-slim chances of getting picked up drop even more.

Know and respect the "beat": Many companies take a shotgun approach to disseminating their news. They either mistakenly think that the more they send, the better their chances, or they don't have the knowledge, ability or tools to properly target their messages (in fairness to PR firms, this is one area in which they generally do much better than those who go it alone). But sending news to the wrong reporter or the wrong outlet is a surefire way to alienate the media en masse. You basically become a news "spammer" and will get treated accordingly. Invest the time to develop targeted press lists and send the right message to the right people.

Back down on your follow-up: It might seem counter intuitive to those who are new at it, but the same persistent and thorough follow-through that may serve you well with customers and projects can wreck your PR efforts. Most of the people I know in the media say that their biggest pet peeve is an e-mail that says "just checking to see if you got my e-mail." Yes, they got your e-mail, and even on the off-chance that they didn't, writing to ask if they did is a transparent excuse to nudge them, and a good way to start your press release on its journey to the bottom of the pile (or worse). A very conservative, appropriately-timed follow-up process is OK with most journalists, but know when to stop (there are very few instances where more than one or two brief follow-ups are in order, unless invited). You may or may not get covered, but being pushy will never, ever improve your odds, and will put you on the radar as an annoying pitcher in the future.

Whether mainstream journalist, editor, or niche blogger, the person at the receiving end of your news is likely getting ten, fifty, or a hundred pitches just like yours every week (or even every day). Many of these releases will get read only up to the end of the title, some through the first paragraph, and a lucky few in their entirety. Of those, only a fraction will get published, so (especially for small businesses), PR can be a long-odds game. But one great press "hit" can easily make all the strikeouts worthwhile, and taking these details seriously can improve your chances of getting favorable consideration.

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