Media and publicity – magnifying positive word of mouth for your business: The publicity home run

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By Mark Buckshon

Ontario Construction News staff writer

You will hit a marketing home run if your local newspaper or television station profiles your business on its news program in a positive feature article.  Conversely, you could be forced into bankruptcy if the opposite happens.

Media publicity, of course, is a two-edged sword.  It magnifies everything.  If you have a great reputation and positive word of mouth spreads, you’ll multiply the results with positive publicity.  The reverse applies if your story is negative.

The big challenge with publicity is that you cannot control its timing and results.  With one special exception to be discussed later, you can’t expect the news program producer or publisher to distribute your story, exactly as provided, on your schedule.  Nor, in most cases, will your relationship as an advertiser with the publisher influence or control the news coverage.

Publicity’s return on investment is usually worthwhile

However, you can still manage and plan the publicity-seeking process and here the reward for your input effort will far exceed the cost.  Say, you have a $100,000 advertising and promotion budget. Would you achieve greater results by spending the money on print and Internet ads, or by hiring or contracting with a competent media relations employee or consultant?

I expect you return on investment would be significantly higher if you invested in the media relations process rather than the advertising. (If your advertising is effective, then you may find allocating additional funds for  publicity initiatives will enhance your advertising’s effectiveness..)

If your business is smaller, you will need attract the publicity yourself, but again, your reward for effort will be potentially far greater than rushing around like a sparrow, submitting one public tender bid after another, hoping something succeeds.

Publicity creates credibility

The reason solid media publicity is so valuable is its helpful impact on your credibility, trust, and therefore brand. Positive publicity is like great word of mouth, magnified by the reputation and distribution of the media outlet generating the news.  With a credible media presence, you will find doors opened you didn’t know exist, and existing clients more willing to enthusiastically refer and support your business.

Of course, the converse also applies if you are caught up in scandal or bad news, such as safety-related job site deaths, fines or civil/criminal penalties associated with your projects, or consumer complaints of poor service or work quality. You need to be prepared with crisis contingency plans – a set of protocols and rules designed to minimize the damage and (in some cases) restore your business reputation quickly.

You won’t have the resources this level of formal planning if you are small but you should always be aware of the rules of the game. Then, if a crisis occurs, you will be able to reduce the damage of negative publicity.

Make sure everything is in order first

Be sure all is in order at your business before you seek media attention. You certainly don’t want publicity if your employees are violating ethical guidelines, if your site crews are so undisciplined that they don’t care about safety, and your client service is so sloppy that people are complaining.

Publicity consultants

Public/media relations consultants and specialists vary greatly in competence. Large known PR agencies may attract you with their best rainmakers, but assign a junior who doesn’t know how to think creatively, and is constrained to recommend ineffective, bland, and boring strategies.

You can connect with peers in your community and trade association for guidance. If one of your best clients or suppliers is achieving great media relations success, find out how the are doing it.  Through references from your trade associations, you may find colleagues in other cities who have achieved great results: Often you can borrow the great ideas elsewhere and apply them in your own community, where they will appear to be new.

In most communities, community colleges have publicity/media relations programs. Students can be inexpensive, but their work quality will be uneven.  You may connect with media relations specialists and consultants through your community service and non-profit marketing contributions (a great way to gain some publicity for yourself).

I’ll be happy to exchange email ideas with you about publicity options relevant to you at no charge, and consult with you by phone for an hourly fee in greater detail if you prefer.  You can reach me directly at buckshon@cnrgp.com. For my free e-book, The Art and Science of Publicity, email publicity@cnrgp.com.

Your publicity building blocks

The news release

This is the standard publicity resource.  You write a news style article, usually about 500 to 750 words, with a strong, but dispassionate message and succinct and attention-grabbing headline. Don’t use  phoney superlatives, make  unsubstantiated promotional claims or and puff your story with clichés.  You need to be newsworthy, and tell your story so that it is interesting to your readers.

NOTE:  The  newsworthiness threshold has declined with the Internet era. Now  many seemingly minor issues can justify a news release. Fed through Internet news service providers, these announcements can boost your search engine rankings.

Media lists and news release dissemination services

You can compile your own media list, but you will find it easier to use the news dissemination services such as Canada News Wire or PRNewswire.com.  You pay a fee, but can be sure your news release will be distributed. Your news release will  find its way on to websites and in some cases, if your story is truly compelling, you will receive some coverage in other print and electronic media.  You can also use free Internet services.

Third party power and relationships

The strongest and most powerful media management techniques occur when you develop creative strategies behind the scenes, especially when you relate your organization to community service or non-profit activities.  Obviously I’m not suggesting you fake who you really are – that could lead to a true public relations disaster – but if you can affiliate with causes, issues, and passionate people who care about these matters, you’ll likely get more press.  The reason is that reporters have a natural bias in favour of non-profit groups; they (and their publishers) believe  businesses should pay for advertising.

Drama, excitement, creativity and fun

Co-ordinate exciting events or activities which reflect your brand/values and serves your community.  You can also, to a lesser extent, piggyback on other community activities.  Many construction industry organizations participate in Habitat for Humanity projects: These contributions are useful and rewarding but will generate you far less publicity than if you do something unique.

Stunts – wild, off the wall, and dramatic events, sometimes work, but be careful –  the publicity can backfire on you. Also, consider whether these activities fit your brand and marketing position: If you are a conservative, thoughtful and reliable industry practitioner, having your company president dressed up as “Joe the Plumber” at a public bond hearing or financing meeting might gain you some local publicity – but will you attract any useful new business?

Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to take risks and to speak out on controversial topics.  Just make sure your point of view reflects both your own values, and those of your current and potential clients.

Seed publicity and magnifying results

Once you have received publicity in one media outlet, you can enhance the process by sharing the news and drawing in other media organizations.  For example, if you are profiled positively in the local business newspaper, you may find you can send a note to your daily newspaper, with a suggestion to them how they can make the story relevant to their readers.  Or, even easier, you can take the daily newspaper article and send a copy with cover note to community weeklies,  and trade journals (especially of your potential clients). You can also apply the same principals to the electronic media.

Your reputation as an expert

Publicity turns you into the expert.  Make yourself available to reporters as a source of information about your speciality. This is especially useful if your services relate to topics that are newsworthy, but where people are reluctant to speak among themselves about their own circumstances.  (If you, for example, specialize in insolvencies or insurance restoration work, your clients probably won’t wish to receive too much direct publicity – and in fact, you may be sworn to confidentiality about the circumstances — but you certainly can speak on how economic trends  and how people and businesses can avoid problems.)

You will achieve media guru status by communicating well and reliably.  Often you can get started by sending a brief notes to reporters and journalists; you may also find it worthwhile to send your informative newsletter, individually addressed, to reporters and editors as well as current and potential clients.  (See the the next chapter for newsletter ideas).

Returning calls and communicating with journalists

You should respond quickly and authoritatively to journalists who call.  Interrupt almost anything to respond to a media inquiry or return call from your news releases or announcements.  (Accordingly, plan your schedule to allow to respond when you issue news releases or announcements.) When you speak with the press, be absolutely truthful.  If you don’t know the answer, it is far better to admit it than to fake it.  You can offer to obtain the information, and – after learning the deadline – call back in time.  Be sure to follow up.

Some businesses have strict rules about who should talk with journalists, and how to handle these calls. There are good reasons for these rules. Uninformed and inexperienced employees can blurt out things that could damage your reputation.

Of course, conversely, if your business operates with an open and responsive culture, you may find your employees’ spontaneous initiatives creates incredibly positive publicity. For example, an employee not knowing your client is a journalist, treats her with such great respect and positive service that she enthuses about your business in a news article.

The more you need to control what your employees say to the media, the bigger you need to work on your internal practices and policies to make things right. You can simply encourage your employees to respectfully refer the media calls to your designated media spokesperson or yourself – most journalists will accept this as a common-sense business procedure.

Hiring experts to help

If you don’t have publicity talents, you can learn them, or hire experts to help you. Many people for example work with professional writers to produce books and articles ghost-written in your name.  You spend time with the writer, make suggestions about what works best, and the writer then crafts the words to reflect your voice. You of course still need to be actively engaged in these process, and you should expect to pay significant fees for this work (though if you are on a low budget you can often find a student or part-time writer willing to work for below-market prices.)

Combining publicity resources

Note these resources can be combined, magnifying the results you achieve for your time investment. You take the articles you write for various publications, meld them into client newsletter pieces, adapt your thoughts and phraseology to speeches, and then combine all the pieces into a book, which you then promote with publicity and effective media relations practices. All of these initiatives ultimately improve your personal credibility, reputation, and create more demand and interest in your services, as they enhance your brand.

Social media

Services such as Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin as well as more specialized Internet forums and sites provide incredibly rich publicity opportunities for you. This is because many media outlets monitor the Internet sites closely for trends and issues of relevance, and if you are seen as an expert on these sites, you will gain attention.  I discuss these resources more closely in the chapter on online marketing.  In some cases, media publicity initiatives have been set up on these forums – in one case, a few years ago, a group of frequent fliers I belonged to created a public firestorm against a major airline on an Internet forum.  We knew key journalists were watching.

Awards and competitions

If your association or community group has an award or competition for any category relevant to your business, you should always consider either nominating your business or encouraging your clients to nominate you; then take the effort in preparing the submission as great as you would your best RFP proposals. The most effective awards occur when they are validated by the media.

You will find competitions within trade associations, public service groups, Chambers of Commerce, and so on.  Enter them.

Paid competitions

Some commercial businesses and organizations set up competitions and make money from the fees and entries. You need to decide if this is a worthwhile expense – the advantages can be similar to advertorials described below; you may be able to control the results to some extent, and the contest organizer may have achieved enough credibility that the investment is worthwhile.  But I would generally avoid paying fees to enter competitions unless they are operated by reputable community and non-profit groups.

Measuring your results

Unlike conventional advertising, it is hard to plan and project your results for media relations and publicity.  You simply don’t know in advance what will work, and what won’t. The indirect benefits of solid positive publicity are truly hard to measure.  Consider for example what happens when you appear as an expert on a local news program. Someone who needs your services might call you right away. But you may also find one of your current clients, shares the news with a friend that you really are as good as you sounded on television.  You will receive a referral call but won’t know why it happened.

You can measure the results in the number of articles published, the responses attributed directly to the publicity, and so on, but I would advocate you measure results by what you actually can control: Your response time in returning media calls; the number of articles you are able to publish in relevant trade journals, and so on.

A special note about advertorials

You will, from time to time, be invited to have your business profiled in an editorial-style feature for which you are expected to pay a fee. Publications and electronic media outlets offer these services because they are easier to sell and often more effective than conventional advertising.  They also provide you the control over timing and message you wish to convey – something impossible with regular media publicity.

Our business earns most of its revenue from advertorials, packaged as special features. We work with your suppliers to encourage them to purchase supporting advertisements for your business, and if we attain enough revenue from the sales,  write the feature article without requiring you to spend any of your own money.  This can result in three, four or even eight to 16-page features.

These advertorials are effective because (a) they are written by trained journalists; (b) designed to be credible in style and content and (c) they don’t break your budget.  As well, your suppliers achieve value – they achieve recognition as being good enough to do business with you (thus they are also good enough for other clients). We practice what we preach and provide service levels far beyond the basics – anyone who advertises is our client, and is treated with respect.

Other publications offer similar services.  You need to decide how and when to use these resources. Clearly, you don’t want to hit up your suppliers too often – unless you wish them to add the cost of all the publicity to their invoices to you!  And you need to consider the likely long-term value of advertorial-type publicity within your market and community.

If you have $100,000 to spend on publicity and advertising, you will gain much better results by spending $20,000 on media relationships and business development, than spending everything on advertising.  You might want to free some of the remaining $80,000 for advertorials in selected media.

If your budget is smaller, you may find an investment of $1,500 in a paid feature is worth every cent because you can use this to enhance client interest and attract other media attention.  For more information, email publicity@cnrgp.com.

This material is excerpted from Construction Marketing Ideas: Practical Strategies and Resources to Attract and Retain Clients for Your Architectural, Engineering or Construction Business, by Mark Buckshon. You can obtain the full book from Amazon.ca or through the Construction Marketing Ideas blog (www.constructionmarketingideas.com).

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