A guide for business owners and others who want publicity. This is an updated version of a story first 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 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 different and work in parallel universes.
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 can be display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. All can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an app.
When you buy advertising you provide the content, or what advertising people 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 lots of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: 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.
Cost per reader, viewer, listener
Advertising costs depend on audience size: the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think about CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.
Publicity isn’t for control freaks
You have little control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions — they won’t consult you. They may listen to you or read your material, they may not.
In principle it depends on your message’s newsworthiness. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll listen.
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 to emphasise their independence.
Professional journalists don’t regard helping your sales as their job. Nor should they.
Media is a business
This may seem confusing. After media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a long-term view is good business. Media properties with a strong ethical code are held in high regard by readers, listeners or viewers.
This means more people get to see editorial. It also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, more involved or wealthier, customers.
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, maybe 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
Some media businesses might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. 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.
As a rule, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your 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 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 – expect to pay less for space in a publication that isn’t fully independent.
While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists.
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 help get the message to the right people at the right time.
Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.
Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should 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.