A basic guide for business owners and others who think they may want publicity. This is an updated version of a story originally posted in 2008.
If you have a product or service to sell, you want the greatest number of potential customers to hear about it.
While word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping off point when you’re starting, eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience. This means working with blogs, web sites, newspapers, magazines or broadcast media.
There are two ways to get attention; advertising and publicity. Newcomers often confuse the two. That’s a mistake, they are radically different and work in parallel universes.
Advertising and publicity are different
Advertising is always strictly commercial. You buy a fixed amount of space in a printed publication or air time from a radio or TV broadcaster. Online advertising generally comes down to display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. Both can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an application like Gmail.
When you buy advertising you provide the advertising content, or what people in the business call copy, at your cost.
Use advertising professionals
If you’ve enough budget you can hire a creative team to prepare the copy. This costs money, sometimes a lot of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: clued-up advertising professionals know how to press the right buttons and get results.
Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy will run. You have complete control over the message and its delivery. Well up to a point; some publishers will refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.
Cost per reader, viewer, listener
Advertising prices depend on the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think in terms of CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.
Publicity isn’t for control freaks
In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions – they won’t consult with you. They may choose to listen to you or read your material, they may not.
In principle it all depends on your message’s newsworthiness. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll take notice.
Surprising though it may seem, journalists have an ethical code. They are not for sale. Their job is to keep readers informed regardless of commercial considerations.
This is why you should avoid applying commercial pressure when seeking publicity. Don’t imply you will place advertising in return for favourable treatment.
At best you will insult journalists or offend their professional pride. At worst you will create a situation where ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story. They may even choose to take a hostile approach just to emphasise their independence.
Professional journalists don’t regard aiding your sales as any part of their job. Nor should they.
Media is a business
This may seem confusing, after all media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a longer term view makes good business sense. A media property with a strong ethical code will be held in high regard by its readers, listeners or viewers.
This not only means that more people get to see editorial; it also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, i.e. more involved or wealthier, kind of customer.
At the same time, research shows advertising works best when the editorial is credible.
Who controls the message?
Even when a journalist does respond to your publicity in a largely favourable way, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs.
They choose the angle. They also get to decide how many words to devote to your message and they can choose whether your rivals get to comment or not. An editor might choose to use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.
You wouldn’t normally expect to pay money to a publisher when they use your publicity. However, there are some media properties that will ask for a payment in return for running it.
We call it advertorial
Alternatively some properties might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. In fact there’s a whole spectrum of arrangements from total separation of editorial and advertising all the way to properties that are, in effect, nothing but paid advertising.
At the extreme end of the scale you are dealing with vanity publishers – people who will take your money and make you look good. Your mother may like the result, but you won’t sell much this way.
As a rule of thumb, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your prospective customers. Experienced publicity people discount the value of these publications.
Apart from anything else, readers tend to know when they are looking at paid-for editorial and learn to trust it less than truly independent content. In particular, younger, media literate, people are especially cynical about this kind of material.
One commonly used measure is that four of their readers would be worth one reader of a more prestigious, editorially independent title. That also applies to advertising in these publications – you can expect to pay less for space in a publication that isn’t fully independent.
While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists to do it. The most common arrangement involves hiring a public relations or PR consultant. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.
A good PR company can save you time and trouble. They’ll help you prepare your message and train you in the art of handling the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.
Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. Other operators keep all this information in their heads, Palm Pilots, even on paper. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.
Be warned that public relations companies rarely guarantee results. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid any PR operator who makes that kind of promise.
One misconception is that publicity is all about issuing press releases or holding press conferences. Both can have a role to play, but most important PR takes place out of sight.