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I’m a small-business owner, and I recently launched a new product. Do I need PR rep or can I learn PR myself? What should my considerations be when deciding who to work with on PR? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a large firm vs. a small firm vs. a consultant? What can I expect from the partnership?
Dear Product Promoter,
Thirteen experts from the ProfNet Connect community share their insight:
Small Business PR: Unique Goals and Challenges
If there’s one thing that every small business can benefit from at one point or another, it would be teaming up with a public relations person or firm, says Cher Murphy, president of Cher Murphy PR. “Not only can it take business to the next level by garnering name recognition and increasing sales, but it can even be helpful in managing crisis situations.”
The challenge of promoting a small business is often differentiation from competitors, says Tim O’Brien, owner of O’Brien Communications. “Many small businesses are small players in large business sectors. To create awareness, any business has to be able to convince its targeted audiences it is uniquely better in some way.”
“It definitely takes a different approach to help a small company or ‘solopreneur’ than it does a larger firm,” says Hope Katz Gibbs, founder and president of Inkandescent Public Relations
Small-business owners need someone on their side who understands their distinctive goals and challenges, agrees Nancy Shenker, founder and CEO of theONswitch.
PR people that work with small businesses tend to focus on smaller geographic areas to draw in customers, says Susan Tellem, president and CEO of Tellem Worldwide. They concentrate on getting the owners to network in local or fraternal organizations, participate in local government, or host small wine-and-cheese networking events — which helps target local media coverage.
The distinctive goal for a PR agent working with a small-business owner is to uncover their expertise and find the story behind their business, and then coach them to express it well, says Gibbs.
“It’s not always easy, as you can imagine,” Gibbs admits. And sometimes clients suffer from what she calls the “Trifecta of Small Business Failure,” which is when they have one of these three attitudes:
- “I can do it all by myself.”
- “I’m going to hire you, but not take your advice.”
- “I want success how I want, when I want it.”
So if you’re a small-business person, remember: “There are many ways that PR can help boost the bottom line of a small business. It all comes down to evaluating and choosing the right agency, and then working with them as a team to meet challenges and make things happen,” says Murphy.
Why a Small-Business Person Should Hire a PR Person/Firm
“A small-business owner should hire a PR consultant to handle communications for the same reason that the owner hires an accountant to handle tax issues, or an attorney to handle legal issues — PR consultants are professionals in the discipline of communications,” says O’Brien.
“A strategic PR professional will identify opportunities in the industry and help lead its client through the sometimes confusing and challenging media landscape in a way that will deliver results more effectively than an untrained professional,” agrees Huma Gruaz, founder, president and CEO of Alpaytac Marketing Communications/Public Relations.
“PR firms and professionals have the contacts, creativity and knowledge of how members of the media want to be contacted and pitched,” says Bill Corbett, Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations. They also have the telephone numbers, emails and contact information for the right people.
And conversely, because of the relationships PR people build with members of the media, they are the ones the media reaches out to when looking for stories, continues Corbett.
Publicity is great for any small-business owner who wants to take their business to the next level — but a business has to be ready to accept the benefits that PR can bring, says Jennefer Witter, president of The Boreland Group. If an entrepreneur is unprepared for the attention received — like additional orders that they can’t fulfill — then they need to hold off on a publicity program.
Small-business owners can, to a certain extent, work on their own company’s publicity, continues Witter. But PR is a full-time job, and adding that on top of an entrepreneur’s already busy agenda, without the proper expertise, will probably not yield the results the owner desires.
Hiring a PR specialist allows a small-business owner to use their valuable time to focus on running their business and generating a profit, while the PR agent can work on media, agrees Susan Voyles, president of Logos Communications.
“Unless there is someone within the company who is dedicated to PR or who is tasked with PR, it often falls to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ list,” adds Susan Shelby, founder and principal of Rhino PR.
And because PR is not the primary function of business, a small-business owner may not be current on what is even possible, says O’Brien. “Many small-business owners don’t know what they don’t know, so it is easy for them to ignore communications issues.”
Additionally, for a small business, publicity tends to be less expensive than paid marketing, advertising, direct mail, etc., says Voyles.
For example, an ad the size of your thumb in The New York Times can cost thousands of dollars, says Scott Lorenz, president of Westwind Communications.
Not to mention, people will tell their friends about a new product or service if the information is disseminated by media, rather than ads, because it is a disinterested source. This is very important to get that “word of mouth” started that every entrepreneur desires, says Lorenz.
Earned media provides third-party credibility and helps get small businesses in front of audiences that might otherwise be difficult to reach, agrees Voyles.
Who to Hire: Small or Large PR Firm, or Consultant?
Interview at least three PR firms to get a broad range of what’s available, and to compare and contrast, says Witter. The small-business owner should get proposals from each firm, with a budget included.
“While cost may be the first element some think of — it shouldn’t be,” says Murphy. “Hiring the cheapest firm on the block doesn’t automatically equal lousy results, and hiring the most expensive firm doesn’t guarantee a homerun.”
The goal is to find a PR firm with a high level of expertise and low overhead, agrees Michelle Damico, principal of Michelle Damico PR & Communications.
Many big PR firms trot out their execs during the proposal process, but then won’t end up working on the account on a daily basis, explains Witter. It’s the old “bait-and-switch” trick.
If an owner decides to hire a PR firm (versus a consultant), then they should have continual access to senior members of the communications firm, who should be responsive and proactive, explains O’Brien.
But if a small-business person is working with a very tight budget, it’s best to be upfront about it, says Witter. And in that case, it might be best to work with a consultant, who generally charges less than an agency, which typically has a higher-cost structure.
One or two freelance PR consultants may be sufficient if the small business is at an early or mid-stage of development, agrees Aline Schimmel, principal of Scienta Communications. For instance, if the company doesn’t have a regular enough news flow, then they can pay for a freelance consultant as PR is needed.
Shelby also recommends checking out small PR firms, in addition to sole proprietors.
The advantage of working with a small firm is that they understand what small businesses are going through, since they are entrepreneurs themselves, says Damico. But look at their record to see if they’ve worked with other small businesses or entrepreneurs too, she adds.
As a small business grows, the owner should consider moving to an agency that offers a wider array of services, including PR, social media, marketing communications, design, etc., says Schimmel.
And while price is a necessary consideration for budget purposes, there are many other things the decision should be based on, says Murphy. Consider factors like personality, expertise, portfolio, promises and passion.
For example, the firm a small-business person chooses should have media contacts in the sector or geographic area of interest, and a proven track record, says Corbett. They should ask for samples of the firm’s placements and speak with some of the firm’s other clients before making any decisions.
And beware of the firm that gives PR second billing to advertising, warns O’Brien. Advertising firms are structured to achieve their own business objectives by charging fees and commissions on paid advertising placements, and they’re good at developing promotional materials and brochures — but usually not so great at publicity, internal communications, community outreach, etc.
This is not to say that small businesses shouldn’t advertise, but that small-business people should consider channels where they can reach their target in a way that is effective, but not cost prohibitive for their business, says Gruaz.
Make sure the PR firm you’re considering has a significant presence on social media too, adds Shenker. Small-business PR firms definitely can’t forget about bloggers and other online media!
Also, look for a PR firm that has access to tools like ProfNet, says Shenker. (Right on!)
And remember: “If it sounds too good to be true, and specific media coverage is promised, be very wary,” warns Corbett.
“There is absolutely no guarantee that anyone can secure you an editorial placement, unless it is a paid opportunity,” explains Gruaz. “Thus, when interviewing agencies, try to understand what kind of systems they have in place — not only what kind of results they provide, but how they provide them.”
If you choose the wrong PR agency, it may cost you your relationships with the media, so do your homework diligently before you engage them, advises Gruaz.
But then again, with the right PR partner, you can build your brand effectively and enjoy growth while keeping your focus on the operational needs of your business, she adds.
What to Expect From PR
“When we begin working with a client, we start by identifying who hires them, and then we build the PR program around that audience,” says Shelby. “When we evaluate opportunities, we cross-check it with that audience list to make sure that we will reach potential clients.” Because small businesses do not have the luxury of doing PR for PR’s sake, she explains.
“Working with any professional requires trust, and people only want to do business with others they trust,” says Corbett. “Businesspeople should be certain that they are comfortable working with the firm and individuals at the firm.” So small-business owners should know who will be working on their account ahead of time, and already know that that PR pro is personable and has valuable business connections.
A PR pro should commit to specific deliverables and timeframes, and offer a status report regularly, says Shenker.
Small businesses and their owners tend to need more attention than larger companies, says Corbett. Part of the reason for this is that they rely on PR efforts more since they are smaller and need to expand their brands and name recognition.
Contrary to many large corporations, small businesses also typically have more creative liberties and the ability to work nimbly on their PR campaigns, says Gruaz. Large organizations may find it difficult to quickly assemble a media response or receive speedy approval on an opportunity, but small businesses can usually deliver almost immediately without dealing with internal political layers.
In many cases, because the small-business contact is the owner, the PR responsibilities can also include promoting and developing the personal brand of the owner. “We position our owners as industry experts, regional business experts and regional business leaders,” says Corbett. “Media coverage for a small business is instrumental in supporting sales as well as growth.”
And while most agencies will not reveal their media contacts, they should at least tell the small-business person which outlets were pitched to and what the response was, says Shenker.
Corbett also notes that when he works with small businesses, he frequently ends up assisting them with business development and business challenges.
Shelby agrees, and says that her rule of thumb is to never say “It’s not our job” to clients. “If someone at our firm knows how to do it, we’ll do it,” she says. “And if we don’t know how to do it, we will find someone who does and act as the project manager, so that our client only has to deal with one person.”
Small-business people can defer inquiries from advertising sales reps and other marketing companies to their PR person to save time and help them focus on their own business, says O’Brien. “An experienced PR professional can be an effective extension of the management team.”
“A well-established PR agency should be an extension to an organization that provides high-level counsel, media relations support and boundless enthusiasm to grow the company’s business,” says Gruaz.
Written by Grace Lavigne, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.