For most small and medium-sized businesses, Public Relations or PR can be like a 'dark art', a magical way for large corporations and multinationals to protect their image when something goes wrong. But what is often overlooked is the potential to use PR as a marketing tactic. 

This oversight is often driven by fear of the unknown. Why would a journalist want to write about our business? How do they know what to write about?

If there is one thing that is true about every small business it's that everyone wears many different hats and performs a multitude of different roles. And PR is just one of those roles. The reality is that PR in small businesses is often done by people just like you. Maybe you’ve seen your competitor get a nice story in your local paper, or on a blog you follow, about a new product or service or perhaps a large customer deal they’ve signed. Chances are, someone at that company used their PR skills to reach out and suggest that story to a journalist. How do you do the same for your business? 

There are some lead generation methods for SMBs that won't break the bank, but wouldn’t it be great to get the word out to everyone without having to buy direct mail lists or putting up a sign or notice on your web page that you’re not sure anyone will actually read? 

It might be time to start your own PR strategy. 

But do you know how to get that kind of PR for your SMB? Or is that something best left up to the experts?

Doing your own PR

Here’s the great news – ANYONE can do PR. Sure, it’s great to have someone who specializes in PR who can advise you, but a great deal of PR today relies on good old fashioned common sense, rather than expensive agency fees or a dedicated headcount. Thanks to the advent of social media, it’s never been easier to get your message out there. But there are some fairly concrete suggestions to follow when you’re looking at PR for your business.

In-house vs Agency 

There are two options for anyone who wants to do PR – either do some homework and own your story and reaching out to the media, or retaining a PR agency to do it for you. Each has its pros and cons. For cash-strapped businesses, it might be harder to come up with the monthly “retainer” that many agencies charge to get you coverage. It’s also important to remember that coverage is never a guarantee – at the end of the day it comes down to your business and the newsworthiness of what you’re offering or doing. Even the most expensive agency can’t get PR for a company with no news.

But an agency is good for more than just coverage. They often can provide advice and guidelines for a small company engaging with the media for the first time.

However if you’re a real bootstrap startup, you may want to try and do some of the PR yourself – and that’s never a bad idea, because it gives you a good feel for what might be interesting as a story in your favourite publication.

With that in mind, below is a basic guide to what you need to know in order to create your own PR strategy as an SMB.

The PR First Step

You read articles about your industry all the time, and now is the time you can put that expertise to work for your business! What makes an article interesting to you? Take five minutes and write down what was interesting about the most recent article that you read about your industry. Did it mention competitors? Did it mention products or services? What made it compelling to you?

Now, take five minutes and think about your most recent development at your company – whether that was winning a big client, or developing a new product or service – what makes it interesting to you? Write that down too!

What do the two lists have in common? This is where the fun starts. Brainstorm with your colleagues and figure out what the common denominator is between the two: what HAS been written about and what you WANT to get written about.

Make a short list of those common denominators.

Now ask a third party – maybe your spouse, or a friend, or a connection who doesn’t work at your business but might be in the same industry: Would this be interesting to them? Is it something timely? What are the unique differentiators about what YOUR business is doing?

If it’s unique, timely, and interesting to a target group of people, that’s news, and it’s something the media might want to write about.

Pro Tip: Make sure it's actually news before going to the next step. Is it something everyone's heard about already? Figure out what makes it different. You have a small business but if your idea is big, explain why it’s big!

Getting the media interested in your story

Now you’re ready to do some data gathering and analysis. Make a list of all the stories you’ve read recently about topics that are similar to the news you just identified. It’s also important to remember that each journalist at each publication often has a target set of readers in mind when they write their stories. Would that audience be interested in the news you identified? If so, that’s a good clue as to whether or not a journalist might be interested in your business and your stories.

Make sure to write down where you read it, the name of the reporter and the topic. This is important data gathering and although time consuming, it often provides you with insights. Create a spreadsheet, or if you’re using a customer relationship management (CRM) system, you might be able to use this to keep track of your targets.

Just 10 years ago the information on how to contact journalists was a closely guarded piece of information and it was mostly reserved for press agencies. However, the age of social media has changed that tremendously. Since many journalists want to engage with their readers, many are active on social media, and quite a few news outlets today post the journalist emails at the end of a story. So contacting journalists has become easier.

But it’s more than just a contact – you need to think about those journalists as ongoing connections – because once interested, you might be able to talk with them about other news you have in the future. So every contact you have with a journalist has to ensure you leave them with a positive impression.

In fact, if you’ve decided you don’t have anything newsworthy now, take this opportunity to start following the journalists most likely to cover your news. 

Making the connection for your business news story

Once you’ve determined what news you have, and which journalists to go after, it’s time to reach out to them. Remember: be compelling. If you don't make your story interesting why should any journalist take the time to write about it?

A short, snappy email detailing the who, what, where, when, how and why of your news is the best way to progress. Even better? When you can reference an article that they’ve written that touches on your topic.

Could your news be a continuation of their story? Let them know how it fits in with what you’ve seen them write in the past, and they will likely be more interested in the information you’re passing along. Offer to give comment or feedback on other topics related to your business and industry as well while you’re at it. Journalists often keep track of potential news sources for future stories.

The Waiting Game

It’s what everyone dreads: you’ve sent out your carefully-written email, but sometimes, the journalist won’t get back to you. They might be covering something different, or they may have moved on from the topic. Or they might just not feel like it fits in with what their readers need. They may not have the time to tell you why they can’t cover it, but if they’re interested in your story, they will get back in touch with you. However, if they feel that you will be difficult to work with they will likely not get back to you at all. Pestering a journalist - who is juggling many stories can guarantee your contact gets pushed to the bottom of the deck or deleted. Even if a journalist comes back to you and says that they can’t cover it this time, that’s a great time to be gracious. Keep the connection alive.

In the meantime, think about what you can do to let your network know the information. Do you have a robust following on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook? That’s often a great place to put up information and to encourage your connections to pass along your story. Keep cultivating those connections, as you never know which connection might be the one that bears fruit and passes your business name along to a huge prospective customer. Never underestimate the power of your network.

So you’re in the paper….

Congratulations! Your story is in the paper, on a blog, or website – great work!! Now it’s time to be grateful! When a journalist takes time to include your story in one of their pieces, or better yet a whole story, it is a terrific piece for your sales team, marketing team, etc. Take it one step further and thank the journalist for their story. Also, be sure to post the link to the story (never cut and paste the whole story as that can be illegal in many countries!) on all of your social networks. Encourage your connections to check out this journalist’s work. Keep that cycle going!

In conclusion

The reality is PR for small businesses doesn’t require special training, and is exactly the same as PR for every other business. It's about....identifying the real news and stories that makes your business unique and interesting to your target audience. You may not have the resource, and you may have to work a little harder for it, but isn't that always the case for an SMB?

For more ways to help your small business stand out in a crowded market, take a read of this 'Small Business, Big Impact' e-book and start punching above your weight.