Effective Self-Promotion Begins with the Press Release
Why your business should be using press releases for marketing its products and services by Christopher Simmons
An effective marketing plan for any type of new business venture, or an existing corporate entity, comprises a myriad of tools and strategies. The most common is advertising, placed in media outlets which specifically reach the target market (whomever would buy or use your company product or service). Other methods include guerilla marketing techniques like cross-promotions with other media (radio tie-ins, etc.), contests/giveaways, and public relations (PR).
The number one tool of PR professionals for more than fifty years has been, and continues to be, the press release. It’s the standard method of communicating your newsworthy announcement to relevant media, and which can result in free publicity you could never afford to buy.
What Large Companies Know
One of the most effective business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing methods for large companies has always been the press release. They are used by manufacturers in all industries to announce the launch of new products, by non-profit groups to announce fund-raising events and activities, and by entertainment companies to promote the release of everything from games to books, music, and film.
What these large companies know that many small businesses don’t, is that the best publicity is free publicity. This is particularly true if your company is in a specific market segment.
For example, if your company manufactured and/or distributed digital cameras, your target audience might be the people who buy imaging products on the high end (such as people who make a living as a photographer), and consumers who buy point-and-shoot cameras for family photos. For each of these sub-segments, there are national trade publications as well as consumer publications found on the local newsstand, and supermarkets.
By “trade,” I mean intended for the manufacturers, resellers, and sometimes professional users in a market segment. An example would be Car and Driver for consumers, and Tire Wholesale Monthly for the tire retailing trade. Both might be good targets for PR if you were a tire manufacturer.
Using the digital camera example, each of these types of publications has dedicated editorial staff and each will generally have various sections of the publication which are hungry for content. The easiest section of a publication to get free publicity in, is typically the “news” section; or in this example, it might be “new products.” If you examine the front portion of almost any trade magazine, you will find a section dedicated to new product announcements. In almost all cases, these product announcements are culled from press releases sent in to the magazine by a PR person/firm. Editors expect them and rely on press releases for filling their “new” pages. PR professionals often send press releases by multiple methods, in this context, such as enclosed in a media kit with images (transparency or in digital form) and product brochures and specifications, as well as by email (and/or fax, depending on publication’s preferences — most now prefer email over fax).
This method of getting product exposure in a national trade magazine is invaluable because it often is equivalent to at least 1/8 page of “editorial” space, which would cost a minimum of $1,000 if comparable space were purchased as an advertisement. Trade magazines generally have a limited circulation of anywhere from 25,000 to 150,000 but do a good job of holding onto subscribers because they are given away free via a method called “qualified circulation,” where the receiving party must qualify as a professional or trade member to receive the publication gratis.
Additionally, these publications often schedule articles each year for their editorial calendar on various topics, and the writers for these features are dependent on the manufacturers and PR firms to supply relevant demonstration units and/or product data. Typical articles include product comparisons, round-ups, and reviews. Contact with the editors of trade publications always starts with a simple press release.
Consumer publications also have a news/new product section, and sometimes oddball sections (Playboy, Maxim, and Newsweek all have specialized sections on new stuff with broad interest categories). Consumer magazines often have much higher circulations because they are more general in nature, less technical, and have better circulation because they work with distributors (confusingly called news agencies) which in turn place copies onto newsstands, in gas stations, and in supermarkets.
I learned the value of this at an early age when I published a small-press fantasy publication as a teenager, and sent a review copy and press release to Playboy. They ended up including it, featuring it as a quarter page full color mention in their Potpourri section. I could never have afforded to buy that kind of publicity. I sold out of the publication within a month.
In the examples above, I’ve discussed product marketing. The same methods, however, apply equally to everything from launching a website or e-commerce site, to releasing a new music CD, or announcing a rally at city hall protesting alleged police brutality. All of these examples have one thing in common: they seek publicity.
The best place to get that publicity is through the media. Unfortunately, it can cost thousands of dollars per month to manage extensive PR campaigns, including press release writing, distribution, media kits, letter writing, and telephone follow-ups. For most small businesses it’s impractical to hire a PR firm, and so it is often neglected in marketing plans.
The truth is that most small companies, no matter their market focus or product offering, can use many of the same methods and tools of large corporations with hired-gun PR firms, and save thousands of dollars doing so.
Defining the Media
When I speak of “the media” I am talking about almost any kind of communication medium which provides information to an audience of some kind. This is a broad characterization, often referred to as a “media outlet,” and includes: television news programs, morning shows, and talk shows; local cable TV news, national cable network programming, radio talk shows, daily and weekly newspapers, newspaper city-magazines, consumer magazines, trade/industry magazines, electronic newsletters, news-oriented websites, and e-zine websites.
All of these formats contain content of some type which in turn has an audience who views it. In almost every instance, you can provide relevant news announcements to these media outlets, and there is a chance they may find your information news-worthy and mention it.
Why Use Press Releases
The most compelling reason to use a press release is because it is the standard method of communicating your news to your intended target. Because of the format structure, combining a headline with a “to the point” message, and an opening paragraph describing what the news actually is, it is easy for a harried assistant editor to quickly scan your release to see if it’s relevant to their needs. If so, the body of the release contains additional information as well as contact information.
Press releases have been the standard method of disseminating news for decades, and every editor has learned to both loathe and rely on them. Some outlets like the Los Angeles Times receive up to 3,000 or more press releases a week, and they diligently peruse each and every one when properly submitted. A press release is what an editor expects to see, and is the primary method of communicating your news to media editors, regardless of media format.
Essentially, you must use a press release if you want to get the word out to the media about your news or product launch.
Unfortunately there are many people, who are not PR professionals, now littering the media desks with frivolous and un-newsworthy press releases. This chaff is immediately round-filed by editors and their assistants because it either is clearly unrelated to their audience, or is incorrectly formatted as an “advertorial,” or is simply not news. Reasons for this increase are directly related to the popularity of email dissemination over fax, and the advent of press release submission services who don’t always monitor the worthiness and relevance of the releases they send. (Disclosure: the author of this article is the president of a PR firm founded in 1983, and which adheres to the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America.)
Being newsworthy means writing a properly formatted press release which includes an engaging headline (see my separate article on “How to write a release” for more info on formatting) that announces something new. It’s supposed to be news, not an advertisement, and must be worded that way.
Examples of newsworthy press releases:
• Company Launches and Mergers
• New Product Launch (consumer good, website, etc.)
• Joint Company Partnerships
• Staff Hiring/Appointment
• Public Company Performance (audience growth, number products shipped, etc.)
• Legal Lawsuit or Court Victory/Settlement
• Recall of Product and specifics
• Public Gathering/Convention Event
• Protest Rally (local news)
• Charity Event
• Political Announcements and Endorsements
Whether you are sending your own releases, utilizing a PR firm, or simply working with a press release distribution company, the only reason to send a press release is when you really do have something to announce.
It’s also paramount to be “relevant.” This means you would not send news about a new auto accessory to a fine cuisine publication, or a newspaper editor who only covers pet stories. Inexperienced PR folks, or low-budget press release services, often make the mistake of “blanketing” every publication under the sun, regardless of market segment, which can alienate editors. And, of course, your release will be round-filed.
It’s important to stress (again and again) that you should never send press releases to the media which amount to no more than an advertisement. The editors see right through these, and discard them. It’s not their job to advertise your product or website, that’s why they have an ad department. If it’s not news, it’s of no value to them. You must carefully craft your press release to make it interesting and “sticky” to a potential editor in your market segment, otherwise you’re wasting your time and theirs.
Make it Sticky
An effective press release must engage the editor within a second or two, before it is trashed. This requires competent writing, serious thought about your newsworthy elements, and making every word in the headline count. Without sounding like a TV commercial, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. This brings up the immense value of hiring an experienced PR writer, or proof-reader, to help compose the release. Remember that your results with a press release are directly related to the amount of effort put into writing one. If done right, you can get your release to stick with the editor, and they will consider using it for their editorial needs. If done badly, it will go in the round file, never to be seen again.
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As you can see from the above examples, the former entices an editor to read more in the body of the release — to see the meat of the news. The second one is an advertisement which an editor will discard immediately.
The Bottom Line
The one truism in PR is that you won’t get noticed unless you shout, and for the best media outlets, there are a lot of other people shouting just as loud as you are. This makes the value of your news, and the method in which you disseminate it, highly critical.
While you can disseminate your own releases, you may not wish to spend the effort to do so except for certain highly-targeted situations (see my separate article, “Effective Promotion Strategies” for more information). If you can’t hire a PR firm, choose a press release distribution service which has worthy credentials such as history, consumer comments, and a staff of media-savvy writers. Beware low-budget press release dissemination companies which all use a poorly-written off-the-shelf “spam” package, and which have no media experience (there are now dozens of them, unfortunately). If you can afford it, and you don’t have writing talent on-staff, always use a professional writer who will assist you in developing a proper headline and “sticky” message more likely to engage the editors you wish to reach. The results will pay for the expense of doing it right.
No matter what you are trying to manufacture, distribute, sell, or promote, your most effective promotion strategy should always include and begin with a press release. This promotional tool is inexpensive relative to advertising or product giveaways, and can yield tremendous results directly proportional to the effort invested.