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How to Get Started Doing Your Own PR

I've already told you about why small businesses are better off without PR firms.

Now I'll share just a few tips and resources that will help you learn how to do your own PR. Note that for purposes of this particular article I'm focusing on "traditional" media like print publications, broadcast, and online. This includes blogs but doesn't really delve into the many other social media outlets and opportunities, which merit an entire post of their own (stay tuned):

Build a press list. It used to be very expensive and time-consuming to build and maintain a press contact list, and that was an area where outside firms brought a lot to the table--they have contacts set up, constantly managed, and ready to go. But now, even the smallest business can build a quality list for very little money. Inexpensive services like provide comprehensive media lists that can be filtered and highly-targeted to suit your needs.

You can also build your lists through contacts at trade shows or by politely reaching out to key reporters and reviewers, introducing yourself as a prospective resource and asking nothing more than for them to keep your info handy and allow you to send them your news. I started my press list by buying every magazine on the newsstand that might be appropriate for our products and sending (via snail mail) the editors a short release announcing our new business with a photo of our products. It was very shoestring and modest, but it worked, and it's still a great place for a new/small business to start. That humble little grocery-store-built list evolved into a huge media contact network, and our products have been featured in virtually every major newspaper and magazine, as well as all the relevant websites and even network and cable TV.

Monitor and respond to open inquiries from the press. Again, something that used to be the expensive domain of PR firms and large corporations is now readily available to anyone. Reporters frequently post their own requests for information or expert commentary, and invite applicable submissions. You just need to know where to look, and in recent years it's a resource that has gone from expensive to free. The most prominent of the no-cost services is Help a Reporter Out. Several times a day, "HARO" e-mails a long list of media inquiries covering every topic imaginable. However, if you make ball-bearings, resist the temptation to respond to the New York Times inquiry on romantic getaways. Be discerning and protective of your time (and the reporters'). Save yourself for an inquiry related to manufacturing companies... don't worry, there will be one sooner or later.

Whatever you do, make absolutely sure you don't spam your news contacts with "news" that isn't really news.

Know how to write and send press releases. A news release is not an ad. It's not a self-serving promotional piece that says "Acme widgets are the best." It delivers news, as objectively as possible. Of course it is meant to get you exposure, and the writers, editors, and producers are well aware of that. Save your subjective content for the executive quotes you'll include in the release. And if there is a single exclamation point or unsupported claim in your release, you're doing it wrong.

In the "old days," the theoretical measure of a perfect release was that an editor could safely run it right from your copy, without changes. Nowadays there is, for better or worse, a lot more latitude about form, structure, even layout and means of delivery. But that doesn't change the need to start with a decent release or announcement. If you don't know how to write a release, learn how. As with everything, there is no shortage of free help and resources online. Bad releases work for some companies (yet another thing that always amazes me), but good ones work much better, and they build better, more trusting media relationships.

Put a process in place. Don't just fire off press releases and hope to see your big story in the paper the next day. Not gonna happen most of the time. Make sure you have a start-to-finish process in place that covers release writing, list targeting, distribution (resources like Vertical Response are excellent for that). Be prepared to provide appropriate images and other content, follow up, and monitor your results. It's easy to see the fruits of your labor using free tools like Google Alerts, your own website referral stats, offline clipping services, customer inquiries, and more.

Be professional. Just because you are not hiring a professional doesn't mean you shouldn't be one. A few tips:

  • Make sure your news is truly newsworthy and convey it properly. Stick to facts, avoid hyperbole and puffery.
  • Be hyper-responsive. If you are the type who usually takes 2 or 3 days to catch up on e-mails or calls, this is probably not for you. Assign someone to act as your "press liaison" and set up a special e-mail address and phone number just for that. A reporter on deadline can't and won't wait for you, nor is she likely to put you at the top of the call list the next time she has a story.
  • Understand the basics of lead times and deadlines, image requirements, and other elements of the trade.
  • Above all, don't annoy your contacts. Don't over-mail, don't send junk. Know where to draw the line on follow-up don't pester, don't call if the person says "don't call," and in the name of all that's holy, don't send e-mails that ask "did you get my e-mail?" I can assure you there is very little that annoys a press contact more than that. No matter how enthusiastic and anxious you are, you must take your cues from your contacts and not alienate them. Most media people actually do like working with good contacts who give them quality material, know how it's done and respect their process, time and wishes. Be one of those contacts.
There are great PR firms out there; their success speaks for itself. If you are a BP or Tylenol exec, you'd be crazy not to have a PR person by your side 24/7. Or if you are a multibillion dollar company launching a product worldwide, an agency can be indispensable. But for the typical small business, especially in a niche category, this is a function that is best handled from the inside. And as everyone knows, publicity is worth worlds more than advertising, and of course is much more cost effective. One good mention in the right place can put your product or company on the map.

Any other tips, hints or DIY PR experiences you'd like to share? I know there are a lot of new and even established business people who would love to learn more.

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