Marketing communications, the business of letting people know about your products and services, can be broken down into two distinct parts: advertising and publicity. For more about the differences between the two, see Use publicity to get noticed.

As the earlier post says, advertising is straightforward. You pay money directly to a media company. In return, you retain control over your message and how it is presented. It’s a commercial transaction.

Publicity is different. It can still cost you money – there are plenty of businesses who will willingly accept payment for their promotional services – but in general you don’t pay the media to propagate your message and you have no say over timing, placement or presentation. You can’t even be sure it will run.

In theory, you should be able to get publicity when the story you want to tell is so compelling that journalists and editors will fall over themselves to ensure it appears in their publications, blogs or broadcasts. Just remember their idea of compelling is unlikely to coincide with your opinion.

Editors are driven by the need to provide readers, viewers or listeners with the hottest news, up-to-date information, the most relevant background features and the best stories. They may also be looking for something entertaining to brighten up their pages.

Contrary to what you may think, they generally don’t care at all about whether their stories help you or your business. Or at least they shouldn’t if they are doing their job properly. However, there are some, less than totally independent publications where this logic doesn’t apply.

Another common misunderstanding about publicity is that the best way to get it is to use something known as the press release. This is a pre-written version of the story you’d like to see in print. Press releases are often written in a highly stylised format, containing the basic facts together with some background.

Press releases can work, but in general they don’t. Many go straight into the bin. And rightly so. That’s the usual place for rubbish. Others are stored, maybe for future reference or to keep potentially useful contact information in a handy place. They mainly exist because clients like them – they create an aura rather than the reality of useful media activity.

In fact, there are publicity experts who believe the overwhelming majority of press releases are never read by journalists, let alone used as the basis for an editorial item.

Some of the best communications professionals – they may call themselves public relations consultants, press agents or even something ridiculously bombastic like media consul – will tell you that press releases are only one, not particularly useful strategy and account for a tiny fraction of their work.

We’ll look more closely at the mechanics of press releases another time.

Remember, publicity involves enticing the media to write or broadcast information about your company, product or services because you have something new, important, exciting or otherwise interesting to say.

Often the best way to do this is to call a journalist and tell them, quickly and concisely, just what your story is and why it may be of interest to their readers. Like everything else in business, this is largely a matter of forming the right relationships.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, get some media training or hire a press agent to do the calling on your behalf. Good public relations professionals know precisely who to call and how to pitch stories in a way that will make them more interesting to journalists or editors. They can introduce you to the right people, set up face-to-face meetings or organise phone interviews and help you prepare for these.

Occasionally when you have something particularly important to announce, you may want to hold a formal press conference or maybe host a less formal gathering of journalists for morning tea, lunch or afternoon cocktails. This kind of event works best when used sparingly, it’s not always the best way of telling a specific story, but it’s a great way to make or maintain contact.

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