“Toot Your Own Horn”

How and why to generate a public-relations campaign.

Ask 10 fast-growth entrepreneurs to define “public relations,” and you’ll probably hear 10 different answers. In the broadest sense, PR encompasses everything from getting quoted in news articles as an expert to staging a community event that attracts a targeted audience of clients or potential clients.Some business owners equate PR with “publicity” or “advertising.” In fact, positive publicity is a byproduct of successful PR. And advertising involves paying a media provider to broadcast a specific message that you’ve crafted about your company.

When you generate PR for your firm, you don’t pay for it directly. A reporter who quotes you or cites your business as an example of a successful enterprise enhances your reputation. Press coverage often produces a bigger payoff than advertising because people give more credence to news than ads.

Most entrepreneurs want to build visibility for their business. They just don’t know how. Unless they have experience, say, writing press releases or using their company’s Web site as a promotional device, they may take a shotgun approach to PR and hope for the best.

It’s smarter to begin by identifying the core message you want to communicate and whom you seek to reach. Then devise cost-effective steps to convey that message.

Selling your story

Whether you start a newsletter, network with reporters to gain press coverage or raise your profile by organizing community events, you must tell a compelling story. Prepare answers to the “big three” questions that everyone wants to know:

  1. Why are you doing this?
  2. Why should we care?
  3. What’s your background/expertise?

By answering these questions in advance, you increase the odds that your message will hit home. That, in turn, enables you to capture the interest or imagination of your audience and to introduce them to your business in a calculated, desirable way.

They’ll heed your advice or seek out your company if they admire the way you’re “living a dream” (question No. 1), or they’re inspired by your passion to educate consumers about an important, yet overlooked health-care issue (question No. 2). And if you can cite your “10 years of experience in the field” (question No. 3), they’ll have a better reason to view you as a credible source.

Lay the groundwork for powerful public relations by answering the “big three” questions in writing. Reflect on what motivated you to launch your business and why it matters not just to your employees and financial partners, but to the general public as well. Then condense your three answers into a 20-second “elevator speech.”


  • I’m devoted to helping parents raise kids with the right learning tools. Parents who can both entertain and educate their children share their love in a whole new way. I bring 14 years’ experience as a child-care teacher and administrator to this innovative business.
  • Believe it or not, I love insurance. I worked for a big insurance company for five years and learned all the secrets of how it settled claims. Now I run a business sharing my insider’s knowledge, so consumers can negotiate wisely with their insurer. You can lose thousands of dollars by missing chances to secure the biggest settlement.

Your PR campaign thus becomes the vehicle through which you tell a great story — the story of your business.

Cultivate reporters

Even though being quoted in a news article can help you tell your story in a captivating way, there’s a downside: You cannot control the content. The reporter must integrate your comments into the larger article, and you may quibble with how that’s done.

Your interests probably clash with what the reporter has in mind. You may want to emphasize certain points, but the reporter bears responsibility for writing a fair, balanced article that could focus on issues that you deem less important. You can never guarantee positive PR by spending time with a reporter, but you can increase your chances of success by building a relationship of trust and goodwill. Here’s how:

  • Give news tips. Identify reporters who write about your industry for publications your customers read. Call and introduce yourself. Suggest a few story ideas, such as new technologies that affect your industry, changes in government regulations or developing trends. Most editors pressure their reporters to “get close to a story” by picking the brains of business people who are “in the trenches.” So reporters should welcome your call.
  • Refer sources. Connect reporters with knowledgeable sources for the stories they’re researching. You might say, “My Rolodex is loaded with contacts. If you ever have trouble finding an appropriate expert to interview, I’ll be happy to put you in touch with the right person.”
  • Ask for help. Win over a reporter by asking for advice. Discuss a business challenge that you’re facing, such as grappling with complicated zoning rules or fighting with the state tax board. Don’t insist the reporter write a story; instead, ask, “Do you have any suggestions about my next move?” Many reporters will enjoy giving advice. They may not only guide you to helpful resources, but they may also wind up writing about you in the future.

Once you turn a reporter from a stranger into a friendly acquaintance, you lay the groundwork for a closer relationship. Establish alliances within the press, and positive PR will soon follow.

Trumpet your message

In Larry Baker’s novel “The Flamingo Rising,” the proprietor of a new drive-in movie theater hires a pilot to fly over the town and drop discount coupons that look like dollar bills for movie screenings. Excited folks grab at the “money” as it falls from the sky, leading to a boom in box-office business.

Such showy tactics seem old-fashioned in today’s high-tech marketplace, where information overload tends to drown out most promotional messages. But you can still create “buzz” for your business by taking innovative, attention-grabbing steps.

Hit the airwaves. As more radio stations embrace “talk” programming to lure audiences, you have more opportunities than ever to suggest yourself as an entertaining, informative guest. Rather than just promote your business, position yourself as, say, a consumer advocate in your field or an activist with strong views about business or tax issues.

Getting yourself and your business featured on radio shows takes four steps:

  1. Research current programs by scanning the radio dial or browsing a media directory that lists national talk shows. “Talk Show Selects” (800-955-0311) lists hundreds of radio shows with preferred topics, producers’ names and contact information.
  2. Propose an idea for a show. Write a 200-word “pitch” describing why you’d like to appear on the air and what surprising, compelling or disturbing points you’d make. E-mail or fax your pitch to the show’s producer.
  3. Follow up. Call a few days after sending your pitch. Charm the producer by complimenting the show and mentioning a few of your favorite recent segments. De-emphasize your eagerness to drum up public relations; instead, insist that you’re uniquely qualified to discuss a controversial topic in an engaging manner. If you’re a manufacturer trying to get on a straight business program, for example, mention how the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate moves affect your business and that you hold passionate, well-researched opinions about how the government can support fast-growth enterprises.
  4. Publish articles. Writin
    g a short piece for your local newspaper or trade journal can build your visibility in a low-key, yet impressive manner. Many publications will include your photo, along with a few sentences at the end of the article with your job title, company name and perhaps your company’s Web site or your e-mail address.Use your article to educate or enlighten readers, not to plug your business or brag about your surging growth. Stake out a clear-cut position and support it with evidence, ranging from anecdotes to statistics. Some topics might include:

    • Presenting new approaches or beliefs about customer service.
    • Discussing ways in which you’ve successfully experimented with improving employee morale, from encouraging workers to telecommute to paying for them to volunteer in the community.
    • Evaluating new technologies and how they relate to your business.
    • Predicting industry trends.
    • Giving speeches. By serving as a panelist at a conference or leading a presentation for a community group, you gain exposure for your business. Make your remarks memorable, and you may win new customers — or even investors.

To find the best venues for public-speaking engagements, consider three courses of action:

  1. Scan catalogs of adult-education courses. Find classes that relate to your business. Then tell the instructor you’re available as a guest speaker.
  2. Contact professional associations to see if they’re planning conferences or trade shows at which you can speak.
  3. Check your local newspaper’s schedule of community events. Note which organizations host business gatherings (from networking mixers to consumer-education programs), and propose yourself as a speaker.

Write the right media release

It’s fine to delegate the writing of a press release, but be sure to review it before it’s sent out. Look for ways to enliven the text so that it captivates readers and meets the recipient’s editorial needs.

Draft a media release when you want to make a newsworthy announcement:

  • A new service or product.
  • A new marketing alliance or partnership with another business.
  • The hiring of key employees or the addition of new board members.
  • Important corporate milestones, such as record-breaking financial results or your company’s anniversary.
  • Expansion plans, such as the opening of a branch office or the purchase or lease of a new facility.

Design your media release so that it’s less than 300 words and fits on one page, double-spaced. Write in the same style as the publication you’re sending the release to, using third-person pronouns and choosing a headline that’s catchy, informative and touts the benefits of your content.

Limit your release to three paragraphs. Begin with the core message; answer who, what, where, why and when. Use the second paragraph to expand on the key point, perhaps with a compelling quote, survey result or statistic that reinforces the urgency of your message. Close with background information or additional facts that provide context.

Always send your media release to the editor of the section of the publication where you think it should appear. Call to confirm the spelling of the editor’s name before you e-mail, fax or mail your press release. Be sure to include your contact information, including your pager or home phone number, so that a reporter can reach you easily to confirm or clarify facts.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is the author of “Skills for New Managers” (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and “The Art of Winning Conversation” (Prentice-Hall, 1995).