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Why PR Is the Prescription

Times are tough. It can be difficult to keep your focus on driving the top line when the bottom line is bleeding red. A lot of us can identify with John Krafcik, acting president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, when he says, "Flat is the new up."

Still, you know you can't put your marketing program entirely on hold. You need to do something to attract new customers (and give existing customers more reasons to stay). It may be sacrilege for an ad guy to say so, but I recommend a healthy dose of PR. Yep, PR.

There are a couple of trends that, while causing headaches for journalists, can work in your favor: Properly understood, they can help you generate attention for your business.

Lines are Blurring

The first trend is media convergence. The worlds of journalism, entertainment, and marketing are converging, to the point where it can be difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. Thinly disguised promotional tactics are on the rise in the media—you need no more evidence of this than when the teaser for your late local news just happens to feature a story tied to the topic of the prime time show you're watching. And this trend is not limited to a blurring of the lines between journalism and marketing. It's also happening within the world of marketing.

Advertising and PR—once separate and siloed professions—are not as distinct as they once were. Merriam-Webster's dictionary offers about as formal a description of public relations as you'll find: "the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution." Compare that with this simple, seemingly offhand statement from the employee handbook of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, one of the nation's most creative ad firms: "Advertising is anything that makes our clients famous." Other than stylistically, there is very little difference between the two. Both advertising and PR are all about generating attention and affection for their subjects.

But let's face it—advertising is expensive. While the current economic situation has brought some temporary relief from relentless media inflation, buying space and time isn't cheap. You get what you pay for with advertising, but if you want a lot it will cost a lot.

Media is Getting Complex

No so with PR. While it is possible for any publicity campaign to fall flat, the right story told at the right time in the right way can bring powerful and valuable attention to your business far in excess of what you spend to develop it. Especially in light of the second trend forever changing the news business: complexity.

The media universe ain't what it used to be. There are more cable channels, more radio channels, more magazines, and infinitely more Web sites, blogs, and other online avenues than any of us could have imagined a decade or two ago. And they're all competing for valuable content. At the same time, no one wants to be second with a story.

That alone would be difficult for journalists to contend with, let alone the fact that they—like every other professional these days—are being forced to get along with fewer resources. Newsrooms are shrinking even as their task of finding relevant, compelling, and unique stories is getting harder. But the news business abhors a vacuum as much as nature does. That presents a window of opportunity for your good story.

Do Your Homework

The key word, of course, is "good." Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist for a moment. Imagine what it would be like to spend precious time sifting and sorting through inane news releases, annoying e-mails, and calls from pesky publicists while laboring under continually looming deadlines to deliver original, compelling stories. Not fun. The last thing you want to do is make the life of someone in that position more miserable. You can neither bother nor bore your way into a journalist's good graces.

That's where the importance of doing your homework comes in. You have to start not with your needs, but with the needs of journalists. A journalist's job is to serve as proxy for his audience. You have to demonstrate that you understand what that audience is feeling and thinking and hoping and wanting, and tell your story in a way that will resonate with it. Before a reporter or editor will agree to tell your story, they must see some sort of benefit to their readers, listeners, or viewers in telling your story.

I'm a firm believer that every company has stories worth telling. Take some time in the next week or two to generate a list of a dozen or so of your own. Identify which media outlets—from the oldest newspapers to the newest blogs—would be appropriate for each, and why. Then set about developing the contacts and content with their needs in mind, not yours. Focus on what's in it for the audience, and you may get an audience with the people who can make it happen. As with a lot of things in life, the best way to get what you want is to focus on what others want.

PR Pros Can Help

If you feel the need, ask a PR practitioner for help. The best PR pros will tell you the truth about your stories—more than once I've been told that some idea I've come up with would appeal to my mother and few others. That's no fun to hear, but if tough love protects my company's credibility with the press, it's worth it.

The world of the news media is continually changing, and the sooner you get started with a smart, disciplined PR program, the sooner you can enjoy its benefits. It doesn't cost a lot of money and it need not cost a lot of time. All it takes is thoughtfulness and a commitment to respecting both journalists and the audiences they serve.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, a firm that specializes in helping stalled companies rekindle growth. He is the author of the new book, When Growth Stalls.

McKee is president of McKee Wallwork & Company and author of Power Branding and When Growth Stalls. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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