If you’re running a small business, there’s a fair chance you’re handling public relations without even realizing it. PR is often unavoidable. Sometimes, it’s for the best, and sometimes, it’s for the worse, but either way, it’s something with which you’re going to have to deal. The quicker you work targeted PR campaigns into your marketing strategy, the better you can craft your brand’s public image and reach your target audience.
Not everyone can afford to hire public relations specialists or PR agencies. PR professionals are notoriously expensive, but the good news is that all small businesses can do some of the work themselves. From crafting your own thought-leadership blog posts on LinkedIn to sending out newsroom press releases, a solid PR strategy doesn’t have to be overwhelming. These tips can help.
What Is Public Relations?
Every type of business — from nonprofit organizations and government agencies to Fortune 500 companies and small businesses — has PR, whether they’re doing it intentionally or not. This could be as simple as social media posts and media coverage or as calculated as marketing communications.
According to the Public Relations Society of America, the definition of public relations is a “strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” In other words, it’s a way of highlighting your brand’s positive attributes and telling a story in such a way that raises your profile with the general public. These stories can be:
- Online: This includes web publications and social media.
- On the radio: This includes podcasts too. A speaking engagement on a podcast is a great way to boost PR.
- On television: This includes being a guest on a show or getting covered in a local news segment. This could even enter the territory of product placement, though PR is not advertising, so you do not pay for it.
- In print: For example, having clothes featured in a fashion magazine is epic PR for fashion houses, but that’s on a national level. Local newspaper columns and features are also fantastic PR for a small business.
If you’re wondering where the mutually beneficial part comes in, it’s largely because radio hosts, journalists, newscasters and writers need content. When public relations professionals send out press releases that would interest an outlet’s readers, it’s a win-win situation. They get to highlight the brand they’re paid to highlight, and the journalist gets a new story that may attract new readers (and readers lead to advertising dollars). Of course, sending out a press release isn’t the only way to get PR, and brands can attract media attention organically through product launches, special events and in the worst-case scenario, bad behavior.
Tell a Brand Story
In media relations and content marketing, we often hear the word “storytelling,” and it’s for a good reason. Telling a story can increase consumer loyalty. If people feel like they know your brand and what you stand for, they’re more likely to buy in, especially if they share similar values. Thankfully, telling your brand story doesn’t have to cost a dime, and you can do this through:
- Your brand’s website
- Social media posts
- Blog posts
You should be thinking of your business as a living, breathing human persona. For what do you stand? How did you evolve? Never underestimate the value of telling these stories in an "about us" section on your website. People respond well to posts that appeal to their emotions.
Position Yourself as an Industry Leader
This is where thought leadership comes into play. The best way to grab a foothold in the market is to establish your brand as a leader in the industry, but this is easier said than done. If it were simple, the entire public relations industry would be out of business. Nonetheless, there are some steps you can take to bolster your perceived authority:
- Start a blog on Medium
- Write industry-specific blogs on LinkedIn
- Guest post on industry-specific websites
- Partake in speaking engagements
- Write a guest column in your local paper
For example, if you comb through Forbes, you’ll see a bunch of contributors who give sound advice to business owners and marketers, but they aren’t from the Forbes team of journalists. This is a prime example of PR because these guest posts are written by industry professionals looking to establish themselves as industry leaders. Don’t let imposter syndrome get in the way; people are largely trusting and will believe you have the know-how if you act like you have the know-how.
Establish Relationships With Journalists
The best way to get media coverage, whether you’re looking to write a guest post, have a new product featured or appear on a podcast, is to make connections with journalists who cover your industry. You can start by doing a web search and taking note of which journalists are writing about your competition. You can start jumping into their periphery by commenting on Twitter, and over time, they might start to see you as a reliable, honest authority.
After you’re in a journalist’s line of sight, you can search for his contact information (this is frequently listed on mastheads or in social media bios) and send him a press release for whatever it is you want to promote. Remember to not overdo it because people don’t like always being asked for favors, but if a journalist likes you enough or you’re valuable to his beat, he won’t mind. For example, a restaurant reviewer for a local newspaper needs to find new local restaurants to try in order to do his job, so he will probably be open to unsolicited press releases from local restaurants.
Bring in the Influencers
Whether they’re podcast hosts, book authors or fashionistas, influencers are dubbed "influencers" because they’re influential. People are paying attention to what they do, and being mentioned on social media by someone with a massive following is probably the best PR a brand can get — but it’s also competitive. Makeup companies and clothing brands regularly send glamorous PR packages to influencers just hoping they’ll like their products enough to feature them. It’s the equivalent of having a Von Dutch trucker hat spotted on Paris Hilton in the early aughts, and every brand wants to be that trucker hat.
The best thing you can do is seek out influencers, interact with them on their social media posts and hope that they’ll start to recognize you. You may also want to reach out to their management and see if they want any free swag or if they are down to collaborate. Remember that PR is not the same thing as a sponsored post, and it has to be genuine and organic. Once money exchanges hands and that influencer posts #ad or #SponCon next to your product, the vibe immediately becomes less trustworthy, so the best you can do is just let them try your products for free and hope for the best.
How to Handle Bad PR
No one ever plans to have bad PR, but sometimes, things happen. Unfortunately, this is often exacerbated today because of social media, where the tiniest snafu causes a media frenzy. We saw this in 2017 with Kendall Jenner’s disastrous Pepsi commercial, and we see this constantly in the world of government relations. How many times have we watched a politician walk back — or stand up for — his statements after a light smattering of public outrage?
The more your small business grows, the more you’ll be in the public eye, which means you’ll be scrutinized to a much greater extent. Despite what they say, not all press is good press, so if you find yourself tangled in a wave of bad PR, you should:
- Apologize: People appreciate honesty, so if you’ve done something blatantly wrong that doesn’t implicate you in some kind of legal scandal, just apologize. This goes for things like quality control issues, poorly executed campaigns and social media posts that accidentally offend or were perhaps insensitive. If the bad PR is the result of legal trouble, it’s best to take advice from your lawyer before you speak publicly.
- Take steps to do better: Outlining a clear path forward will help put customers at ease. They want to know the mistake will not happen again, and if you have a plan, you can prevent that.
- Highlight your company’s strengths: When something negative happens, people often forget all the good you’ve done. Make sure to highlight this in a quick sentence or two in your statement.
- Never lash out: Maybe you don’t agree with the criticism, but it’s still not OK to lash out. That makes you look unapologetic, cold and guilty rather than correct. Rise above and act strategically rather than with emotion.
When to Hire Your Own PR
If you can afford someone to focus on media relationships, it's always an expense that's well worth it. A great PR campaign can take a lot of time, which takes you away from running your business, and it can be one of the most effective ways to grow your brand.
Alternatively, you may wish to hire a PR agency if you have hit a wave of terrible press. Many PR professionals specialize in mitigating PR disasters and can help your business smooth out its public image and get back on the general public's good side. Remember: If BP could revamp its image to be perceived as somewhat green after the disastrous tragedy that was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, anything is possible with a good PR team.
Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.