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PR Basics: Public Relations for Small Businesses

What it is, what it isn’t, and why your small business needs it.

Public Relations for Small Businesses Hero Illustration

Public relations, or PR, refers to anything you do to garner attention for your business. PR is used to generate interest, whether by sharing information about the people behind your business or offering more details about what you sell. Successful PR increases awareness, builds relationships, cultivates positive sentiments from the general public, and—at its best—directly drives your company toward its objectives.

Many people think PR is only about media relations, or telling your story to a journalist. Although this tactic spreads awareness, it’s not necessarily a silver bullet to drive sales. Instead, PR can be your biggest asset to stand out from the crowd and gain a competitive edge.

Why is PR important?

You can use PR for exposure and to create emotional connections with your audience. This key can open many doors by positioning you as a go-to industry leader, presenting opportunities to speak, teach, or write about what you know best—your business.

It can also give you the chance to collaborate with other brands, help retailers or suppliers learn about your products, and reach a wider audience. It attracts new business leads as well as stellar talent for future hires. And although reputation management can be cheap to practice, it’s expensive to get wrong.

PR efforts take many shapes, but here are a few things you might do:

  • Host a networking event.
  • Post on social media channels.
  • Create a customer-facing strategy for launching a product.
  • Grow your email audience outside your website.
  • Write a company blog.
  • Create an industry report or whitepaper.
  • Speak publicly about your business or industry.
  • Seek inclusion in digital and print media, TV, and radio.
  • Interview key stakeholders on podcasts.
  • React publicly to the news when it’s relevant.
  • Work with influencers.
  • Create an experiential event.

Debunking common myths about PR

Myth: PR is the same thing as advertising, but less glamorous.

Truth: The fundamental difference is that advertising can be expensive and only exists for as long as you pay for the ad to run. PR is about wielding positive influence—it can be accomplished through inexpensive means and doesn't have an expiration date.

Myth: Every business needs a whole newspaper or magazine article written about them.

Truth: Usually, there are more small businesses in a town than there are local newspaper or magazine spots available to feature articles about them. This kind of coverage can be hard to obtain. But with the right PR efforts, it’s certainly possible to get media attention.

Myth: PR agencies are too expensive for small businesses.

Truth: Large-scale, high-priced PR agencies provide value for enterprises, but they don’t typically suit the needs of everyday small businesses. However, many boutique or independent PR companies and specialist freelancers work in niche sectors and provide affordable services. You can also work with publicists on a coaching or freelance basis to learn what you need to handle PR yourself.

Myth: You have to be a well-known business to be great at PR.

Truth: Successful PR means different things to different businesses at different stages of their growth. Your business doesn’t have to be on prime-time television or the topic of household conversations to do PR well. Focus on attainable goals and the steps needed to get there.

Myth: You should send press releases as far and wide as you can.

Truth: In lieu of having press contacts, many small business owners adopt a “spray and pray” tactic. They purchase a list of journalists who may be somewhat related to their industry, and they bombard them all with a press release. To most writers, this is spam. It’s wiser to build real relationships with people in the media by sending thoughtful, personalized releases to those in your circle.

Myth: You need a “black book” of contacts.

Truth: Contacts are always useful, but focus on the message before focusing on building contacts. Learn how to pitch your story, emphasizing the benefit it offers to a publication’s audience. Be responsive and accommodating to journalists so that you gain a reputation of being easy to work with. This will help you build press relationships and get more coverage.

Myth: You can buy great PR in a newspaper or magazine.

Truth: This is called advertising. You can’t tell a journalist what to say or ask to check their copy before it appears in print, but you can seed the idea of a story by pitching story angles. If you want to control exactly what’s written about your business, you’re better off paying for advertorials or distributing marketing materials.

What you can accomplish with PR

Check out the many benefits of using PR to generate a buzz about your small business.

  • Stay top-of-mind. Unlike advertising, in which your business is only visible for as long as you pay for it to be, publicity has no shelf life. Once mastered, PR is a brilliant free tool that can help raise a profile, expose your business to a new audience, and drive sales—costing only time and effort.

  • Boost your search rankings. When customers search for a business, they should find yours. PR can play a big role in search engine optimization (SEO). It creates the opportunity to boost your search engine rankings and to ensure that the content associated with you is positive.

  • Become an industry leader. Many businesses want to be seen as leaders in their field. Publicity can easily cement an expert profile.

  • Be prepared for a crisis. In the event of a business crisis, having a publicity backup plan in place ensures there’s no irreparable damage. If a negative situation is handled correctly, a business can actually come out better off.

  • Tell your story. A great publicist will work with a business to identify its best stories and communicate them to the public. But you’re the best person to share your own personal business journey. In fact, journalists typically prefer speaking directly to business owners than to press officers.

  • Raise your profile. In the past, only a few entrepreneurs became the public face of their business (think Richard Branson and Steve Jobs). But in the age of social media, it’s expected. Let your audience see the people behind the product; it helps build loyalty.

  • Build emotional connections. By sharing your story and inviting people to learn about your business, you’ll connect with your audience more deeply. These connections last, and they can mean a major boon to your business.

Master even a few tricks of the PR trade, and you’ll have an edge over your competitors. With dedicated time and consistency, you can achieve long-lasting results that pay off.

Written by Lucy Werner for Mailchimp. Lucy is an expert in PR for small businesses.

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