Publicity for beginners

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.

Journalist ethics

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.

Publicity specialists

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.

No guarantees

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.

Dealing with journalists when you want publicity

If you have a product or service to sell, you want customers to hear about it.

Word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping-off point when you’re starting out; eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience.

Popular web sites, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio have the wider audience. Publicity is an effective way of reaching it.

Publicity often means working with journalists. There are ways of doing this properly and there are traps to avoid. First the background:

Publicity isn’t advertising

Businesses can get media attention through advertising or publicity. They operate in parallel universes.

Advertising is a commercial deal between you and a media company. You buy access to consumers. You provide what the advertising industry calls ‘copy’.

If you’ve got a large budget, hire a creative team to prepare your copy. It is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: talented advertising specialists know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy runs. You control the message and the delivery. Up to a point. Some publishers refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.

Journalists control your message

In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make the important decisions. They may listen to you, they might not.

It all depends on newsworthiness. If your message strikes a chord, they’ll take notice. If the message is boring, they’ll ignore it.

To get publicity, you must convince journalists your story will interest their readers.

If publicity is that simple, why does it often go wrong?

No easy short cuts

Straightforward marketing messages are rarely newsworthy. Rather than working to find fresh, newsworthy angles, companies look for short cuts.

The most obvious is applying pressure. It can backfire badly.

Some companies imply they will place advertising with a media property in return for favourable editorial treatment.

At best this insults journalists or offends their professional pride. At worst ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story or they choose to take a more hostile approach just to prove their independence.

This is good business

You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance of promised advertising. As we’ll see in a moment, some will.

The best ones won’t. That’s because readers prefer editorial with a strong ethical code.

Not only do more readers read the editorial in an ethical publication; more readers get to see the advertising material. Better still, properties with strong, ethical editorial standards deliver better – more involved or wealthier – customers.

Advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Their story now

Even when a journalist responds favourably to your publicity pitch, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs. Their loyalty is to readers, not to you.

Journalists get to choose the angle. They decide how many words to devote to your message and they choose whether your rivals comment or not. An editor might use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

There are media properties that will ask for a payment to run your publicity material or agree to run it if you buy advertising elsewhere. You may be tempted. The audience won’t be as good and you may be disappointed by the results.

Using a specialist publicist

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialist public relations or PR consultants. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company will save you time and trouble. They’ll prepare your message and train you to handle the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.

They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each potential outlet.

Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should go out of your way to avoid PR operators making that kind of promise.

Checklist: Dealing with journalists

  • Publicity isn’t advertising. You’re not in control
  • Newsworthiness is everything.
  • Journalists want material that will interest readers
  • Journalists aren’t your sales people
  • Publications with strong editorial values are the best outlets
  • A PR or publicity professional can get better results

How bad press releases are a public relations own goal

News releases became an anachronism. Online news portals and email killed the underlying functionality of paper releases as a news dissemination tool. The internet delivered news faster, and this was a good thing.

Gorden G Andrew says the PR industry has effectively committed suicide by abusing the new release system to the point where journalists no longer want to listen. He argues public relations will cease to exist as a profession and as a function.

No big deal, you may think. But Andrew works in marketing and worries press releases and similar communications will come to reflect poorly on the companies paying for these services.

Death by Content: How Press Release Abuse Killed Public Relations | Marketing Craftsmanship.

Canned PR tweets insult journalists

I can’t be the only journalist offended when a PR company includes suggested tweets with a press release.

Earlier this week I received a dull press release about an even duller technology company. Something happened that doesn’t really qualify as news – I won’t bore you with the details.

Buried in the release was the message:

Tweet this:

Followed by a clickable tweet.

Clicking the item would open up my Twitter account and load in the company’s lame propaganda along with a hash tag for a targeted key word and a shortened link to marketing material on that company’s website.

I don’t like this for a number of reasons:

  1. If I clicked on the link I would effectively be providing the company with a free advertisement.
  2. Having the message go out under my Twitter name would amount to my endorsing the product. That’s not a good look for an independent journalist.
  3. The canned tweet puts words in my mouth – well at least metaphorically. Of course I could edit the words, but that’s not the point.
  4. The command to Tweet this is a bit rich. How about “would you mind tweeting this for us”?: No that wouldn’t change my course of action, but at least I wouldn’t come away with the impression I was deal with a bunch of bossy, arrogant control freaks.
  5. There’s a shortened URL embedded in the tweet. I wouldn’t be dumb enough to retweet the message without checking what’s on the other end of the link, but no doubt the PR company behind this thinks there will be people who would.
  6. Did I mention I don’t like being told what to do?

Getting a press release like this is insulting. Do some PR people think journalists are simply promotional drones waiting and willing to do their bidding? 

Illusionary power of the exclusive press release

In Dealing with grumpy editors, Dan Kaufman writes:

I don’t understand why PRs give editors exclusives – because for the most part it does the PR and their client more harm than good.

You see, if a story is newsworthy then it’ll run anyway – and if it isn’t then giving it as an exclusive isn’t going to make much difference.

Kaufman goes on to say if a PR gives an editor a decent story as an exclusive, it will upset other editors. He says piss off, but this is a family website.

This happens all the time here in New Zealand. The practice is counter-productive.

Waking-up, reading a so-called exclusive story then later in the day getting a press release covering the same ground happens often in New Zealand.

Often this happens when a public relations person thinks they might get sympathetic or splashy coverage of their story if they play favourites.

Often stories ‘leaked’ this way are rubbish – they read more like advertising than news. The editors giving the press release an early run have been manipulated into becoming part of a marketing exercise.

My response to this is to stop trusting the PR person behind the leak. This means they’ll have difficulty slipping any more of their propaganda past me. In extreme cases I’ve ignored any further communication from the source. And I’ve been known to make a formal complaint to the client. In one case I had to tell a PR’s other clients I could no longer work with their agent.

Predictable press releases

Press releases are predictable.

Although original ideas occasionally slip through the net, they generally follow the same pattern:

  • Headline. Should, but often doesn’t, include the most important or newsworthy point.
  • Optional second deck. Another chance to miss making the most important point. It can add facts to the headline.
  • Opening paragraph. A good press release encapsulates the entire story in the first paragraph. Some do. Half the time it will claim the company is a leader or even a world leader in its field.
  • Banal first quote. Almost inevitably the first quote is from the most important person at the company paying for the press release – possibly the person who signs off the public relations invoice. As a rule the first quote is instantly forgettable – most editors will immediately strike a line through it. It will generally be a variation on the theme of “we are so damn clever”, “we worked hard” or “we’re better than everyone else”.
  • Optional, press releases often use the third paragraph to waffle about something of no interest to any sane person.
  • Facts. If you’re lucky, the next few paragraphs will include facts. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Quotes. Next come quotes where people are in danger of saying something worthwhile or interesting – note this is also optional.
  • Partners. The press release then moves on to quotes from people who have important business relations with the company paying for the release. They can be interesting, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
  • Important stuff. If the press release is about a product, there may be price and availability details at this point. On the other hand there may not.
  • Ridiculous big noting. Press releases often end with unrealistically positive paragraphs explaining how the company would like the rest of the world to see it.