“I made a big mistake by not seeking publicity for every single business I ran, including my early, tiny businesses.”

There’s Always a Publicity Angle

When I went into the book business, it was a no-brainer to spend a lot of effort getting publicity—every other publisher was doing it. But I made a big mistake by not seeking publicity for all the other tiny businesses that I had previously operated.

No matter what business you are in, there is a publicity angle that you can capitalize on! For example, let’s say that you sell life insurance in a small town—how can you possibly get publicity? Well, you could offer to write an article for the local paper or a local website helping people determine what level of insurance coverage is appropriate for their situation.

One of the great values of publicity, especially an article on a website or in print, is that you can save a copy of the article and show it again and again to current and prospective customers.

Publicity Can Be an Effective Sales Tool

Publicity is often overlooked as a primary marketing tool to gain attention and interest in a product, service, or company. Using publicity as a sales tool can be a more cost-effective method for generating sales than buying advertising.

To some degree, social media has a lot in common with traditional publicity. You have to directly pay for it, although like traditional publicity it can take a lot of time and effort. And social media, like traditional publicity, may be especially good at generating word-of-mouth publicity. However, social media is primarily directed at existing customers or at least people who have an interest in your product, service, or company. Hence, social media may not be great at generating new customers. Traditional outreach publicity efforts are directed beyond people your company has some kind of relationship with, and hence may be more likely to bring you new customers and immediate sales.

No matter what business you are in, you can be your own publicist! If you want to act as your own PR firm, you can produce a simple press kit. This kit should include a “pitch” letter and a press release regarding your company, new product, or unique service. Once you have targeted and established appointments with print and broadcast media contacts, you can act as your own spokesperson to pitch your own image, product, or service. You will become the focus, the center of attention, as you create an awareness of your business that will turn into sales leads.

Publicity can take a variety of formats. You or someone connected with your business could appear on a local radio or TV talk show, with your business the topic of a particular segment. Your product or service could be the subject of an article in a local, industry, or special interest website. Or you could be featured in a local or national newspaper or magazine.

You might become part of a broadcast panel discussing issues that are pertinent to your product or service, or speak at trade association meetings, trade show seminars, or chamber of commerce gatherings. The creative publicist can find thousands of publicity opportunities that allow for increasing image or product awareness.

The best thing about publicity is that, for the most part, it is free! This is especially true if you manage your own publicity campaigns. However, if you do choose to hire an outside PR firm, the costs can still be a lot less than building the same amount of awareness via paid advertising.

Target Your Publicity

How can you get publicity? Look for the media that your customers use and that might be interested in your story. For example, for a local service business it’ll be easier to get publicity in your local newspaper than in the major metro paper—and you’ll reach the same people you want to, anyway.

Develop a story angle that might appeal to each media outlet. For example, if you are pitching your restaurant to a TV station, offer to demonstrate your cooking.

Get a list of contacts—the appropriate editor at websites, newspapers, and magazines or the specific show producer at radio and TV shows. Send a one-page pitch letter explaining why your story will interest their audience, perhaps also including a press release, photos, or a video. Follow up with a phone call, and then get ready to meet the press! Even if you can’t get the media person on the phone, you should still make your follow-up pitch right into their voicemail.

The Big Media Aren’t Always the Best

Develop a strategy for getting publicity. Even if you do your own publicity, it does cost time and energy. Target the media that is most likely to benefit your business, not necessarily the most prestigious media.

Years ago, I first published a job hunting book called The New York JobBank. The New York Times ran a wonderful feature story, and I even appeared on NBC’s Today Show and was featured in People magazine. But the publicity that sold the most books by far was a very short article that appeared in the relatively downscale New York Post. A lot of people would disregard the New York Post, saying that isn’t my audience or newspapers are dead! But in New York people spend a lot of time commuting on public transit—a great time to read newspapers, and plenty of the professionals who read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times in the morning may turn to the New York Post in the afternoon.

For many product firms, the best place to get publicity is going to be in a trade publication; for many local service firms, the best place to get publicity is going to be the local newspaper. Find out where your audience is. Don’t go for just the best and most obvious places, but all the places you possibly can.

How Publicity Helped Build IBM

Always be ready to talk to the media. Forgive me for mentioning a really, really old story. But I want to go way, way back to make a point about the power of publicity.

In 1955 Time magazine assigned a staff writer, Virginia Bennett, to write an article about office automation in America. She first visited Remington Rand, famous at the time for its UNIVAC computer. But its executives weren’t available for interviews.

On the way back to her office, she passed a window display of computers at another firm and tried to get an interview there. At this company, the founder was an absolute stickler on how the public—and especially the media—should be treated at the door. Within minutes, Bennett was interviewing a very forthcoming Tom Watson Jr., CEO of IBM. A major cover story followed, equating IBM’s products with the advance of civilization. In his autobiography, Watson portrays this publicity coup as a major turning point in his battle to overtake Remington Rand and to clinch the lead in the race to computerize corporate America.

“No Comment” Is No Good

Beyond trying to get publicity to directly promote your business, your chance for publicity fame may come about another way . . . during a crisis. How do you respond to the media during a crisis?

It’s really tempting to say, “Call me back later.” Or simply not return calls. But this is the worst approach. When the media reports that you did not return phone calls, it appears to many people—rightly or wrongly—that everything the media says is true and that there are no good explanations.

Another approach is to downplay the actual seriousness of a problem—also a big mistake. Intel tried to downplay what truly was an obscure error on one of its microprocessor chips. Nonetheless, the media had a field day.

On the other hand, the classic success story in handling a media crisis occurred during the Tylenol scare. The executives in this situation were very up-front and highly accessible, and they quickly developed and unveiled a massive corrective action plan.

The bottom line is that there is a publicity story, a lucrative one, in every business . . . including your own!

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Every business can generate free publicity.
  • Don’t go for prestige; target the media that will most benefit your business.
  • If one article could propel IBM into the leader of the computer industry, imagine what the right publicity can do for your business.