Business Planning - The importance of public relations

Understanding how to make use of PR can improve your image and draw customers, says Neville Stein.

No one would argue against the suggestion that this season has been volatile and demanding. Recent spells of bad weather have resulted in a haemorrhaging of customers, and in such times gaining new customers and getting lost ones back are both vitally important.

However, promoting your business to new and existing customers can be expensive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it costs five times more to get a new customer than it does to keep an old one.

That certainly rings true when one considers that a typical company in our industry might spend anywhere between one and four per cent of sales on marketing.

So what should we do? I think it is time to strip away the political Machiavellian stereotype of the spin doctor and consider another mass promotion technique - the role of PR, or public relations. As Bill Gates said: "If I was down to my last dollar, I'd spend it on public relations."

Building relations

What is PR? In short, it is about building good relations with an organisation's consumers and potential consumers by obtaining favourable publicity and building up a good corporate image.

It is about enhancing strengths rather than concealing weakness and communicating what you are about and what you offer, which is actually what most of us do anyway in our daily lives. As one anonymous commentator put it: "Everything we do or say in life is public relations."

PR is focused less on advertising and more on giving valuable information to the public, usually without a sales pitch. The aim is to educate the consumer so that they recognise their own wants and needs rather than being sold to directly.

Think of a scenario where a nursery or garden centre launches a drought-resistant range of plants through a media release along with a fundraising scheme to donate a percentage of sales to a fresh water charity in Africa. The business and location gets coverage along with its values and customers get informed of the product's benefits.

The key here is the media release - also known as a press release or news release. This is a common tool used by PR companies. Quite simply, it is the planting of favourable news stories about a company or product in the media that are not paid for by the company involved.

Effective publicity

Because the public has a degree of belief and respect for news stories, these stories tend to carry more credibility and people do not feel manipulated or sold to in the way they might should the message be coming straight from the business featured. It is an example of well-organised publicity.

Publicity is powerful and should be controlled as a positive force. It can be described as a very broad marketing tool essentially involving press releases, press conferences, photographs - which often speak volumes - letters to papers and, of course, editorials.

The good news about publicity is that it is often free. Granted, there may be management costs in planning publicity and hiring the relevant experts to carry out your campaign, but aside from all that it is incredibly easy to get some press coverage in a local paper and attract new customers.

Cornering the market

So how can you get a media release for your business? First, you need to get to know your local press and identify the kind of news stories that they run frequently. Usually, a news story will get published if it depicts new or unusual events, innovations, improvements in working conditions, store openings - anything that is important to the local community.

If a news story is dramatic, emotional and has a "human interest" element, then it stands a good chance of being published. A nursery providing plants for a local play group to start a small learning garden, for example, ticks a lot of boxes. Disregard the old adage "never work with children and animals" because these stories are more likely to get in print.

Secondly, a news story should be well written, brief and adhere to the guidelines of the paper. It should be directed to a specific person in writing, copy deadlines need to be observed, contact details included and any other relevant information. The inclusion of professional photographs should also help ensure publication of a good news story.

If you decide to write your own release rather than employ a PR professional, this is what your news story needs to include: details on who is involved, what they are doing, where and when the story is occurring, why it is happening and how it is happening.

Put an eye-catching hook in the first paragraph to capture the journalist's attention and then try to be as factual as you can. Subtlety and restraint, for example, should be exercised in the wording and description of the event to avoid the content reading like a direct advertisement for your business.

Creating a story

In many instances, news stories do not conveniently exist when they are needed. So it is often the case that a story is created as a part of an overall marketing plan.

For example, the organising of a charity collection point for shoeboxes destined for the third world at a garden centre is a marketing campaign that has merit as a news story and is something that can be timed to suit the business involved.

Coverage in a newspaper, plus the need to donate shoeboxes at the site, should result in increased footfall. Do not, however, submit a news release like this every week or month. Overexposure can lead to overfamiliarity and cynicism about your motives.

PR can be a free and flexible marketing tool, which I believe should be used more widely to support other marketing strategies. Some businesses find that the actual search for good things to publicise leads to people raising their game and producing something really worth shouting about.

Media guidance

- Know the print deadlines for newspapers and magazines.

- Make sure you direct the news story to a specific person.

- Keep it genuine, interesting and informative.

- Be restrained in your use of language.

- Include additional information about your business at the bottom of the news release.

- Always include good-quality images.

Neville Stein is managing director of business consultancy Ovation.

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