Small Business

So, You Want Some Attention?


I'm the owner of a new IT consulting firm. I've read it's a good idea to generate press releases about your company. What kinds of stories would help me get some low-cost publicity for my startup? -- B.Y., Algonquin, Ill.

Generating press coverage about your firm is an invaluable way to let potential customers know you are open for business. As a startup, the credibility conferred by an editorial mention of your efforts (assuming it is a positive one) can be enormous. And of course, the price is right.

Getting free publicity, however, makes for a difficult undertaking that involves quite a bit of homework and thought on your part -- or on the part of the public relations professional you employ. Writing up press releases that are purely self-serving, non-newsworthy, or targeted at the wrong publications will get you nothing except a reputation as a clueless irritant.

CRAFT A RELEASE. Start by carefully reading the Internet and print publications most likely to write about your company. In your case, that probably means regional IT or business publications or online columns, says Gordon G. Andrew, managing partner at PR firm Highlander Consulting in Princeton, N.J.

"Analyze past issues of important IT trade publications. Determine how they are structured in terms of the topics they cover, and how they present that information," Andrew suggests. "You will spot potential opportunities to act as an expert source on specific topics, to suggest an article idea, or to write a bylined article or a letter to the editor."

Next, craft a well-developed press release pitching your story idea or article, explaining your background, and giving your contact information, and target it to the appropriate writer or editor at the publication. "Communicate directly -- preferably in writing -- with editors and reporters. Suggest editorial topics or ideas that are innovative, contrary to accepted industry practice, helpful, insightful, or humorous. Media exposure is most often given to people who are interesting in some way," Andrew says.

NO GRAFT NEEDED. His client, Michael Hierl, president & CEO of the Pacesetter Group, a Princeton-based management and software consultancy, has gotten good results with this approach. "We strongly believe that professional service firms need to be identified as thought leaders in their specific areas," he says. "The work we've done with journalists has done that better than anything else."

In his initial approach to a publication, Hierl introduces himself as a reader, lets the editors know he appreciates the stories they have covered recently, and points out that his idea fits in with the kinds of pieces the publication has done in the past -- but not too recently. "It doesn't take a personal relationship with someone at the publication, it doesn't involve sending them candy -- it's about understanding their focus and having real news value to give them," he says.

He never wastes an editor's time with press releases about new staff appointments unless he knows they routinely publish such announcements. "When they hear from me, they know I have access to a newsworthy idea they might be interested in," Hierl says. "Over time, we have earned some credibility with people that are professionals, struggling with many different balls in the air and deadlines that are much tighter than we're used to."

"BEAMING VISIBILITY." Hilary Kaye, president of PR firm HKA, in Orange County, Calif., notes that the size of your community matters when it comes to submitting press releases. "Small communities will be interested in smaller news stories, while metropolitan areas can be tougher to crack," she says.

"Try to determine who the technology reporters are at your local business publications and let them know you are available to help them with stories," adds Kaye. "Making this contact will help you not only get your press releases used more often, but you may wind up being quoted in stories dealing with technology. Both are good for your business."

Once you do get media exposure, be sure to use it to add credibility to your Web site or sales brochure, to open doors with prospective clients, and to solicit speaking opportunities at industry conferences and seminars, Andrew says. Hierl says the stories that have been published mentioning his firm or quoting him have had extraordinary repercussions, particularly a bylined article reporting on results from a conference his firm sponsored.

MAKING AN IMPRESSION. "We put it up on our Web site about 18 months ago, and it still gets heavy activity. It has beamed out a lot of visibility for us across the industry. People we've never met have referenced that article when we are introduced at meetings," he says.

Nevertheless, free publicity alone can't generate sufficient revenue for most startups to attain success in the long term. Hierl has combined his PR efforts with display advertising, direct-mail campaigns, and even sponsorship of a radio show he hosted himself.

"Professional services firms of any size have to focus on breaking out of the background noise. There are a lot of firms out there, and most of them sound very similar on their Web sites and in their ad materials. You need a thoughtfully crafted marketing and communications strategy in order to stand out." Good luck!

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.


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