One of the least understood, most underutilized marketing techniques in the business world is public relations. That fact represents an opportunity for small business owners and managers who are willing to devote a little time to cultivating relationships with reporters and editors in their community.

Advertising is the obvious approach to self-promotion, so a lot of the competition is doing it. Generating free or inexpensive publicity through press releases and media relations is not as commonplace, so it offers a much more uncluttered arena for gaining visibility and name recognition. The 'cost of admission' consists of a newsworthy story and a little insight into how the process works.

Potential Pitfalls and Opportunities

The bad news is that editors, radio news directors, and other media gatekeepers receive dozens of press releases every day, and that's just in the small towns. Releases get tossed in the circular file for three primary reasons: 1) They look unprofessional, 2) They're an ad masquerading as a news story, or 3) They have little or no news value. Three other fatal flaws in a news release are: a failure to get to the point right away, an abysmal absence of formatting, and glaring typographical mistakes and grammatical neglect.

Although it may sound like there are 101 ways you can go wrong (so why even try?), it's actually more a matter of common sense, persistence, and following a few basic guidelines. It might take a little experimentation to discover whether you get better results working directly with specific reporters, instead of editors, but as you fine tune your approach and make yourself known to local media people, your success rate should rise significantly. You may find that public relations is the missing link in an otherwise lackluster media campaign.

Cardinal rules of press release writing

As in any type of marketing (in this case, you're marketing yourself to the media) presentation and image can make a big difference in the quality of results produced. Here are a dozen guidelines for putting your best foot forward with the media.

1) In the headline and the body of the release, emphasize the news value of your story. If it fails to catch an editor's attention or sounds remotely like an ad, the odds of it being published or broadcast are slim.
2) It will have more of an impact if the first paragraph contains the most important information, with the rest of the material arranged in order of descending importance. Not only will it be taken more seriously, but it will enable you to exercise a measure of control over what stays in and what gets edited out.
3) One simple, but useful guideline for writing a press release is the old journalism standard of focusing on the five "W's", namely: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and sometimes, How?
4) Write it from the perspective of an objective observer, not from the point of view of an entrepreneur or business executive.
5) Use short sentences and double spacing between paragraphs.
6) The last paragraph should be reserved for a brief bio or a few boilerplate sentences about your company. Journalists know to look there for that information.
7) One page is the ideal length for a press release. The media will call or email you if they have questions or want to interview you.
8) Formatting elements: After the headline at the top, the following information is generally inserted: the words "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE", one or two contact names and phone numbers, and, right before the first sentence of the release, the location and date of the news story. (Who to contact for more information is sometimes found at the end of the release, too.) A good place to find examples of press release formatting is to visit the web sites of non-profit organizations or governmental agencies and click on the link that says "Press Room". Another approach is to go to your favorite search engine and type in the words "sample press releases". A third option is to use public relations software to format press releases and plan a well-orchestrated PR campaign.
9) Maintain an up-to-date mailing list of reporters and editors, and get to know them, whenever possible.
10) Suggest article ideas, occasionally, and let it be known that you're available for interviews. One way to establish a reputation as a valuable resource for the media is by preparing for them a printed list of experts, spokespeople, and authorities on topics related to your profession or industry. Two recommendations would be to include your own name and phone number on that list and to get the permission of everyone whose name you want to place on that contact list.
11) Emailing tip: Reporters and editors intensely dislike email attachments, as a rule. Get around that by including the press release in the body of the email.
12) Perhaps the most important consideration when working with the media is that they're always under an impending deadline, especially at daily newspapers and broadcast news departments. Among the worst violations of media etiquette is not returning phone calls promptly and requesting the chance to review articles prior to publication.

Opportunities to Send Press Releases

Countless opportunities to send out press releases and receive valuable, free publicity get missed every day. There are literally dozens of newsworthy opportunities for getting positive media exposure, including mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, office expansions, new employees, awards, workshops, speaking engagements, fund-raising campaigns, lobbying activities, the launch of a new web site, announcing survey results, sponsorships, or taking a public position on an industry-related issue. Business milestones are often a good reason to issue a press release, such as the grand opening of a new office or announcing an agency's 25th anniversary.

The bottom line is that being written about (or broadcast) in the media conveys more credibility than messages communicated through paid advertising; and it can be a vital element of any integrated marketing campaign. Although 'Familiarity breeds contempt', according to Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist, one area in which that usually doesn't hold true is modern public relations and marketing. With few exceptions, the more ways people hear about you, the better.

Author's Bio: 

Joel N. Sussman has 23 years experience in public relations, journalism, and marketing, and is a monthly contributor to two upstate New York business newspapers. His web site, Marketing Survival, features articles, downloadable books, and software designed to help small businesses, agencies, and organizations achieve better results in their integrated sales and marketing campaigns. He can be reached at