The reading level for this article is All Levels

One of the least understood, most underutilized marketing techniques in the business world is public relations. That fact represents an opportunity for small business owners and managers who are willing to devote a little time to cultivating relationships with reporters and editors in their community.

Advertising is the obvious approach to self-promotion, so a lot of your competition is doing it. Generating free or inexpensive publicity through press releases and media relations is not as commonplace, so it offers a much more uncluttered arena for gaining visibility and name recognition. The ‘cost of admission’ consists of a newsworthy story and a little insight into how the process works.

Potential Pitfalls and Opportunities

The bad news is that editors, radio news directors, and other media gatekeepers receive dozens of press releases every day, and that’s just in the small towns! Releases get tossed in the circular file for three primary reasons:

1) They look unprofessional, 2) They’re an ad masquerading as a news story, or 3) They have little or no news value.

Three other fatal flaws in a news release are: a failure to get to the point right away, an abysmal absence of formatting, and glaring typographical mistakes and grammatical neglect.

Although it may sound like there are 101 ways you can go wrong (so why even try?), it’s actually more a matter of common sense, persistence, and following a few basic guidelines. It might take a little experimentation to discover whether you get better results working directly with specific reporters, instead of editors (and using email vs snail mail), but as you fine tune your approach and make yourself known to local media people, your success rate should rise significantly. You may ultimately find that public relations is the missing link in an otherwise lackluster media campaign.

Cardinal Rules of Press Release Writing

As in any type of marketing, presentation and image can make a big difference in the quality of the results produced. Here are a dozen guidelines for putting your best foot forward with the media.

1) In the headline and the body of the release, emphasize the news value of your story. If it fails to catch an editor’s attention or sounds remotely like an ad, the odds of it being published or broadcast are slim.
2) It will have more of an impact if the first paragraph contains the most important information, with the rest of the material arranged in order of descending importance.
3) One simple, but useful guideline for writing a press release is the old journalism standard of focusing on the five “W’s”, namely: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and sometimes, How?
4) Write it from the perspective of an objective observer, not from the point of view of a business owner or manager
5) Use short sentences and double spacing between paragraphs.
6) The last paragraph should be reserved for a brief bio or a few boilerplate sentences about your company. Journalists know to look there for that information.
7) One page is the ideal length for a press release. The media will call or email you if they have questions or want to interview you.
8) Formatting elements: After the headline at the top, the following information is generally inserted: the words “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE”, one or two contact names and phone numbers, and, right before the first sentence of the release, the location and date of the news story.
9) Maintain an up-to-date mailing list of reporters and editors, and get to know them, whenever possible. Jot down a few notes about each one.
10) Suggest article ideas, occasionally, and let it be known that you’re available for interviews. IDEA: One way to establish a reputation as a valuable resource for the media is by preparing for them a printed list of experts, spokespeople, and authorities on topics related to your profession or industry. 
11) Emailing tip: Reporters and editors intensely dislike email attachments, as a rule. Get around that by including the press release in the body of the email.
12) Perhaps the most important consideration when working with the media is that they’re always under an impending deadline, especially at daily newspapers and broadcast news departments. Among the worst violations of media etiquette is not returning phone calls promptly and requesting the chance to review articles prior to publication.

Opportunities to Send Press Releases

Countless opportunities to send out press releases and receive valuable, free publicity get missed every day. There are literally dozens of newsworthy opportunities for getting positive media exposure, including mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, office expansions, new employees, awards, workshops, speaking engagements, fund-raising campaigns, lobbying activities, the launch of a new web site, announcing survey results, sponsorships, or taking a public position on an industry-related issue. Business milestones are often a good reason to issue a press release, such as the grand opening of a new office or announcing a business’s 25th anniversary.

The bottom line is that being written about (or broadcast) in the media conveys more credibility than messages communicated through paid advertising; and it can be a vital element of any integrated marketing campaign. Although ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, according to Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist, one area in which that usually doesn’t hold true is modern public relations and marketing. With few exceptions, the more ways people hear about you, the better.

This Marketing article was written by Joel Sussman on 5/31/2006

Joel Sussman has been a journalist, public relations specialist, proposal writer, and editor for 23 years. In 2000, he created an online resource and newsletter for business owners, called Marketing Survival Kit . Start receiving free marketing tips, today, by sending a blank email to Marketing Survival Kit Newsletter