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How does a small to medium business with a tight budget afford and manage publicity? Cameron Cooper talks to movers and shakers in the PR industry about what it takes to put your business in the public eye, and how to get maximum bang for your buck

Active ImageHow does a small to medium business with a tight budget afford and manage publicity? Cameron Cooper talks to movers and shakers in the PR industry about what it takes to put your business in the public eye, and how to get maximum bang for your buck

When it comes to publicity, Richard Branson is an expert. The Virgin king doesn’t sit in his office despatching dull press releases to the wrong media people at the wrong time in their deadline focused day. He creates news.

But not for the sake of making news. He is an entrepreneur who knows that, via a high profile event, consumers will find out, by the way, that he has a new company or product or service, and what his competitive edge or point of difference is. Or, at least, the media noise he makes will give him an edge over his relatively quiet competitors, and a platform from which to pontificate about how he’s shaking up an industry sector with radical ideas and great deals. That’s the real story or the real agenda behind his ‘news’.

He has been branded a media tart, but Branson laughs last and loudest. He has estimated that his PR stunts are 30 times more effective than money spent on advertising. Most small to medium business owners will never match the media profile of the founder of the sprawling Virgin group, but his media-savvy approach is a lesson about the value of PR, and the difference between newsworthy publicity and promotion that is really advertising disguised as editorial.

Kathryn Britt, a director of Cicero Communications in Brisbane, has created media campaigns for the likes of accounting giant, Deloitte, and consulting firm, AT Kearney, along with smaller businesses. She says most SMEs are too busy with general business operations to worry about media matters. “My guess is that most small businesses are head down, bum up at the coalface trying to make sure they’re getting new clients and that their existing clients are paying them,” she says.

Britt says it can be a costly mistake, however, to ignore media opportunities. She notes that when meeting new clients they often express frustration that “my competitor’s in the paper all the time and he’s getting all these clients”. She says PR will not always win a contract, but it is a great profile-raiser.

There are some key points to remember when dealing with the media and seeking PR opportunities. First, you need to think about your audience. Which companies or business people do you want to read about your product or service? And which media outlets are you going to target? Second, develop a PR plan. This entails setting objectives for your media campaign, deciding how you want to position your business in the public arena, and determining key messages that you will consistently express. Third, develop a relationship with key media targets at television and radio networks, and newspapers and magazines.

Some SMEs will take the do-it-yourself PR route, others will hire an agency to fast-track a campaign. Peter Burr, marketing director of new brand, Print Solutions Australia, is not a fan of the DIY option. “It’s not your core business,” Burr says. “And I’m a firm believer in bringing in experts. In the long run it’s going to cost less.”

Burr says most businesses have neither the time nor inclination to develop media contacts. “I can establish that via a relationship that has already been set up with a PR agency,” he says.

Formerly the marketing director responsible for the massive Hutchison 3 telecommunications campaign, Burr is now discovering the reality of smaller budgets at PSA, where the option of running an expensive television advertising campaign is not available. He wants bang for buck through PR.

PSA has sought to tell stories through media releases about the benefits it can bring to customers. “A lot of people believe that what they’re doing is so good that people will just want to read about it,” Burr says. “It ain’t going to happen.”

He says the media needs facts and figures and an angle that will be of interest to readers. PSA pushes the line that its products and services can save most businesses about 20 percent in operational costs. “Just putting out a press release simply saying how good you are at doing something is not going to get someone’s interest.”

Creating a media release is a work of art in itself. With press releases, Cicero’s Britt says you need to understand how a newsroom works, “so you’re contacting the right person and you’re not phoning them at 5 o’clock when that’s their deadline”.

She agrees that media releases must reflect the audience’s interests. “Too many companies put out media releases that highlight things that are of interest internally. That’s what your internal newsletter is for, or what an email campaign to clients is for.” Trends, research, and local angles stand a chance of being picked up.

Peter Kent, general manager of the Porter Novelli agency in Melbourne, says a successful media campaign involves more than just getting a media blitz or column centimetres in newspapers. “It’s really about understanding the suite of communication opportunities and which is going to be the most effective for your business situation or problem.” A press release, product launch, email or blogging campaign, events—they are among the many options.

Kent says if a business is to benefit from PR it needs to “pass over control of their brand or idea. It’s getting an idea into a consumer’s head without being overt about it. A lot of companies think they can control the process, whether it’s classic media relations or an event or field marketing—that’s advertising. Public Relations has the credibility of using a third party”.

Nicky Dowling, a founder of Sydney public relations agency n2n Communications, says most companies decide to seek PR assistance because of a positive event such as business growth or the advent of a new product. She says the chance to be exposed to new technology is another good reason to embrace an agency. She cites access to Real Simple Syndication, or RSF feeds, a technology that allows automatic access to regularly updated content such as news to be delivered directly to users’ desktops. “When you look at new tools like that, some companies might not know they exist. And some companies might think they are beyond their reach.&

Dowling says businesses and PR agencies must manage expectations from the start. Many businesses mistakenly expect that a PR agency will get them publicity in The Australian Financial Review every week. It is a pipedream for most. “You’ve got to be able to have honest dialogue on both sides. And that means being able to sit across from a client and say: ‘This won’t work. This is a waste of your time and money’.”

All the same, Dowling says SMEs should expect that agencies will come up with clever ideas to get coverage while still meeting journalists’ needs for a newsworthy fact-based story. She lists some ccommon mistakes that businesses make when chasing PR.

1. A lack of clear objectives—before embarking on plan, be clear about what you want to achieve and your target market.

2. Not understanding the difference between PR and advertising—to achieve media coverage you need to have news. Look for angles that are new, different, exciting and controversial.

3. Not knowing how to create and maintain an effective working partnership with an agency—to maximise results an agency needs to get inside your business and be part of your team so they can identify opportunities.

Budget Issues

The big questions for many SMEs when entering the world of PR are: which agency is best, and how much will it cost?

Most agencies will want a retainer for ongoing work and then charge an additional hourly rate. N2n’s Dowling says some SMEs may be surprised at the cost of PR. “It’s obviously cheaper than a mass-market TV advertising campaign, but there’s still quite a lot of work involved in getting material together or creating a story opportunity that has media merit.”

Rather than keeping budgets secret, she advises companies to be upfront with PR agencies. “Don’t just issue them willy-nilly 15 things you'd like to achieve and then get a surprise bill at the end. A lot of companies will be hesitant to tell you the budget. It’s actually in your best interests to tell us the budget because then we can say ‘okay, here’s how you are going to get best results for your spend’.”

In choosing a PR agency, Dowling says word-of-mouth and industry reputation still count. “Talk to the journalists that you want to cover your company,” she says. “They can usually talk about who the good agencies are.”

Finding the right agency involves having mutual respect, according to Porter Novelli’s Kent. “Beyond respect, we actually have a real personality fit with them. You get the greatest success out of having a good cultural fit. From a client’s side, you want someone who is passionate about your brand and who understands what you are trying to achieve. From an agency’s side you want someone who is going to respect your advice.”

Kent says it is crucial to pick the appropriate agency for the job. Don’t hire a crisis-management specialist when what you really want to do is launch a product.

Be conscious, too, of what the overall fee includes—or does not include. Will an agency provide media monitoring? Is the agency going to charge extra for phone calls, faxes or taxis? Beware of hidden extras.

For Peter Burr at PSA, it is a case of so-far-so-good on the PR front. PSA has featured in The Australian Financial Review’s Enterprise quarterly section and a broad range of other publications. “We were very happy with that because we are a new brand. We basically hadn’t been on people’s radar and we’ve had some very good features where we are the focus of the article. What more can you want?”


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