Can you handle a PR campaign?

EVERY small business longs for free publicity, which not only saves on the cost of advertising, but can position you as a credible source, enabling your business to cut-through the advertising clutter.

But depending on the size of your business and your objectives, hiring a PR firm will set you back between $1,500 and $8,000 a month, which puts it out of reach of many businesses.

The GFC forced many SMEs to let their PR agency go. Some struggled on unassisted, trying to drum up publicity as best as they could.

But a range of websites have launched in the past year or so that are designed to make it easy for SMEs to capture the attention of journalists on the prowl for a good story. The sites have developed a cult following with some SMEs, some who log on daily to see if there's an opportunity to spruik their business to the media.

The tools of the trade

Sites like www.handleyourownpr.com.au make PR look easy. The site was launched by Melbourne-based PR industry stalwarts duo Jules Brooke and Simone Heydon in April 2009. The pair have been working with SMEs for many years and created the website for businesses that didn't have a budget to employ a PR agency.

The site explains what PR is, how to go about setting up a campaign and media release writing tips. It also sells around 70 media contact lists covering different sectors of the media, priced between $50 and $200.

Another key tool for SMEs is www.sourcebottle.com.au. Journalists post a request looking for someone to interview about a particular topic and businesses that believe they could assist are able to respond. The site has 6,000 subscribers and is absolutely free for both journalists and businesses.

Site founder Rebecca Derrington says Source Bottle lists around 100-150 call outs and requests a week. While the site currently links Australian SME and journalists, it will expand into New Zealand late October and into other countries over the next several months, linking Australian SMEs with overseas journalists. It's also worth checking out mediacall.com.au, which is growing in popularity with major news outlets and is also free to use.

iPublicist recently launched for the fashion sector, acting as a virtual showroom for media to search and download press releases and look books. The founder, Becx Long plans to expand the site into other sectors, including giftwares, homewares and health and beauty down the track.

SMEs should also consider signing up for a PR course. One of the newest is Sydney's PR Mentor, which offers training and mentoring on PR over a 12 week period. The first session will kick off in February next year.

So, with the help of these tools, could you handle your own PR campaign?

The success stories

It's worked for Victoria Buckley, who has a high-end jewellery business in The Strand in Sydney's George Street. She pays a PR firm that specialises in high-end jewellery to sell her message $800 a week, but also spends two days a week chasing her own publicity. She is also a subscriber to Source Bottle.

Buckley hired a specialist firm because the fashion media was incredibly difficult to pin down, which has worked well for her. She handles all other PR, including business media, and has an extensive social media strategy in place, which she says takes a lot of time and effort to manage.

But the results speak for themselves. Buckley has conducted around 50 interviews in the past three months with business journalists that found her via PR.

"It took me over a year to get results. Early on, the knock-backs can wear you down and you can lose your confidence, but I persisted. It hasn't cost much in dollars, but it has cost a huge amount of time," Buckley says.

And it seems to be working. Jewellery sales took a nose dive during the GFC, but her business grew by 30%.

Tips from the experts

PR experts certainly don't want to downplay their profession, but do admit it is possible for SMEs to handle their own PR.

Heydon from handleyourownpr.com.au admits there are benefits to doing it yourself.

"You get to communicate your passion for your business directly to the media. That message could be diluted if you go through an agency. Editors and journalists like to hear about a business from someone who has a fire in the belly about it, which is always the business owner," Heydon says.

Before contacting the media, write a targeted one page media releases for each market, she advises. Include a catchy headline and a quote or two in the release.

"You need to have a fairly good grasp of the English language to write a press release. A journalist won't want to see grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. We also recommend embedding the release in the email rather than attaching it. It's less hoops to jump through for people to see it."

Then, gather any media samples you might like to offer and consider having professional photos of your business or product taken in case the media asks for photos.

And while follow-up is important, don't become a stalker, Heydon says.

"Follow up with one or two emails or maybe a call, but make sure you ask if the journalist is on deadline before you launch into a great big diatribe about why you're calling. Sometimes you can get good results if you call, but I certainly wouldn't call more than once. Journalists appreciate it if you don't invade their space too much."

The disadvantages

There are, of course, some disadvantages to handling your own PR. Journalists are trained the ask tricky questions, so it's best to consider well ahead of time on what you're prepared to reveal about your business – and what you're not.

If you're chasing coverage in the business press, for example, a common question will be around earnings, which is the clearest way to illustrate the growth of your business. So decide if you're prepared to answer these questions well before you're being interviewed by a journalist.

But a word of advice from Sydney PR agent Dani Lombard, who has picked up the pieces after an SME has tried to handle their own PR campaign.

"When a business hasn't gone about PR the right way, it can do quite a bit of damage to its reputation. It's very hard for us to then go back to these journalists and try and sell them a story about that business."

She says DIY PR might not be for everyone, with an SME needing to consider what their time is worth.

"I outsource my book keeping because I know if I tried to do it myself it would take me 10 times as long, because it's not my area of expertise," Lombard says.

But if you do a bit of research first to make sure you're approaching it right, a business can successfully handle its own campaign, Heydon says.

"PR is not rocket science, you just need a strong media release, some great media contacts and the time to dedicate to your campaign," she says.

This article first appeared onSmartCompany.com.au, Australia’s premier site for business advice, news, forums and blogs.

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