Lean Marketing: Public Relations strategies for small businesses and startups

One of the least expensive and most effective ways that small businesses can grow is through the strategic application of public relations. PR can be executed on a modest budget, and the awareness and word-of-mouth that can be attained is priceless for a small company.

PR is typically a mix of social media, community participation, public speaking opportunities (including appearances at trade shows and conferences), bylined articles or media commentary, and long-term relationships with reporters (both local and national) leading to press and online coverage.

There are dozens of inexpensive PR tactics and resources that small companies can leverage, and in this post, we will explore a few best practices, DIY approaches, and valuable strategies that small businesses can leverage to great effect.

A couple of weeks ago, Ross wrote about setting goals for your company, and this is critical in your approach to PR. You should determine exactly what it is you are trying to accomplish through public relations efforts and then measure your progress toward that goal. Want 3 national press mentions in the next 12 months? Inclusion in 15 local media stories? 2,500 Twitter followers? Determine exactly what you want to accomplish and measure your progress against those goals. If the tactics you are executing are working, great. If not, be ready to move on to the next one; try lots of different ideas, and, as in all aspects of your business, don’t be afraid to fail.

Here are some tips and resources that we leverage, utilize, or otherwise live by in our own PR efforts:

Know your audience. It is critically important that you understand your audience, whether these are your own customers (or potential customers), magazine writers, academics, or influencers of other stripes. Take the time to understand who you are trying to reach and target your efforts toward them. For instance, if your customer base is accountants and your geographical strategy is national, take the time to identify the journals accountants subscribe to, the conferences they attend, and the blogs they read. When you have a good picture of how they consume information and the information they need, you can strategically target your message and tailor your content for them.

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Create a budget. Like most small businesses, you are probably working with limited resources and while PR is important, you may not have much of a marketing budget to work with. Determine for yourself how much you can spend over a given period of time and prioritize how you will do so. Fortunately, many of the resources we discuss here are free and much of the work can be done by you, so save up the funds for swag, meals,  and contests that may require a modest outlay of real cash.

Have a plan. Without a PR plan, these tactics can be disconnected from a larger strategy and will not return the results you are looking for. Set goals and then “back into” those goals with solid strategy and concrete tactics designed to reach them. Set up a calendar and be disciplined about sticking with it; you might consider a monthly “focus” such as geographical, industry, or even media outlet. Create lists of reporters, blogs, and Twitter users that you will target, and use these lists to support your strategy and stick to your calendar.

Be consistent. Be special. Have a personality. The idea is to make yourself a resource that others will rely on. If you are an auto mechanic, make sure everyone knows that you are the go-to source for information on everything automotive. Set yourself apart as the “funny” mechanic or the “socially conscious” mechanic – make sure they remember you and not the other guy down the street. Finally, have a personality and don’t be shy about using it – we tend to listen to those who interest us, and often that interest is based not just on knowledge of a given subject but in the way it is presented and the language that is used.

Leverage others. Identify thought leaders and help them to know and love your brand. Follow key users on Twitter to get a better sense of their personalities and interests; re-tweet them, engage them and develop relationships over time. Get them engaged with you (and your brand); the goal is to get them to talk about you with their audiences whether it is because they have used your product or service or because they simply like the things you have to say.

Share. Be active in the dialogue by creating content to contribute to the broader community. Developing partnerships with other businesses to reach their customers – offer them something that they can give to their customers, whether it’s a discount for your services or products or an article for their newsletter. Read other businesses’ blogs and comment on them; tweet excellent links and follow others on Twitter who do the same. Get your entire team tweeting to reach a broader audience. And don’t just talk about your business, but how you can solve problems for your customers.

Pitch like a major leaguer. Don’t be afraid to pitch reporters — the stories that people like you bring to them are the lifeblood of any media outlet. Writers and editors are always looking for great story ideas; as long as your pitch is timely and on topic, they will listen. And just because they don’t bite on your current pitch, don’t give up – you should focus on developing the relationship by asking questions, giving and getting real-time feedback, and developing a one-on-one relationship that allows you to share helpful information and give that writer the benefit of your perspective and personality. Remember to keep your pitches simple – if written, keep them to one page or less, plus make sure your pitch is relevant to the writer’s area of concentration. Finally, be sure to follow up – these are busy people and just because they didn’t respond immediately doesn’t mean they might not be interested – don’t be annoying or obnoxious, and make sure you are always polite and respectful.

Folks do like gifts. Don’t try to understand why, but people love trinkets: pens, buttons, stickers, toys, mugs, hats; for whatever reason, human beings gobble up whatever it is you are giving away. Oh, yea – remember to put your company name and logo on whatever swag you’re handing out this week otherwise it misses the entire point.

Know your resources. There are dozens of free and cheap tools available to get the word out, build awareness, and interact with customers. For your press releases, there are tons of free sites on which to post: PRWeb, Free Press Release, and PRLog are a few of the many available. HARO (help-a-reporter-out, get it?) is a go-to resource for PR professionals as well as reporters; when a writer needs sources for an upcoming story, they post on HARO seeking people who can help; when a businessperson wants to position him- or herself as a subject-matter expert they too can post on HARO listing themselves as a source for stories or information. PR gold. And, of course, you can find a PR agency to help you with public relations.

Be a resource. Create content designed to position yourself as an indispensable authority on your industry, city, profession, or any appropriate topic. Create and make available case studies to provide valuable information to the media and your customers. Position yourself as an expert by writing white papers to distribute to your readers and other professionals. Blog on a topic you know well and engage with your readers in the comments section of your blog. When you create great content, opportunities will present themselves; for instance, many trade publications will publish those case studies, and many other blogs will want to re-publish your pieces. The more places you can post your content the more significant the effect it can have: use YouTube for the videos you create, Flickr for the photos you take, and your Facebook fan page for everything and anything. If a resource exists, use it!

Share your resources. Lastly, become a resource for others by making information readily available: set up an online press center – compile all of the stories, mentions, and press releases you have generated and make them easily accessible. Be sure to include a downloadable press kit with information on your company, your team, your service or product, photos, bios, and any other material that will be helpful for those who want to write about you.

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