Fred Dunayer: Welcome to the SCORE Small Business Success Podcast, Been There, Done That. To get free mentoring services as well as to see the wide variety of resources available for small businesses visit our website at www.score.org or call 1-800-634-0245. Now here’s your host, Dennis Zink.
Dennis Zink: Episode number 15, Public Relations. Fred Dunayer joins me today in our studio as co-host, SCORE mentor, and our audio engineer. Good morning, Fred.
Fred Dunayer: Good morning, Dennis.
Dennis Zink: Our guest today is Susan Hicks. Welcome to “Been Here, Done That.”
Susan Hicks: Thank you, Dennis, I’m glad to be here.
Dennis Zink: Susan, if you would begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Susan Hicks: Well, I started Precise Communications in 2002 to offer public relations and writing and editing services to small businesses, non-profit organizations and authors. I belong to the Florida Public Relations Association, which offers ongoing training and P.R. methodologies and up-to-date information on issues that are going on in the field. And I belong to the Advertising Federation of America. I know there’s a lot of crossover between those fields and it helps to be current in both.
Dennis Zink: Great. Public relations is not that well understood. How would you define public relations?
Susan Hicks: Public relations is communications with all the publics that will help your business to succeed. The goals are to build and maintain a positive public image, and to create strong relationships with your customers, clients, prospects, employees and the public in general.
Dennis Zink: And how is P.R. related to advertising?
Susan Hicks: Well, they need to work together and they actually are a part of each other, they claim each other, P.R. says marketing is a part of us and marketing says P.R. is a part of them.
But they are completely different things with completely different goals. Advertising is focused on promotion of products or services with an aim to encourage a target market to buy. Whereas, P.R.’s aim is to give your target audience information about your company, your activities and your products or services.
Dennis Zink: And what would you say are some of the advantages and disadvantages of both advertising and public relations?
Susan Hicks: Advertising is paid media, you have control but you pay for that control, you can decide what the message is going to be, what it’s going to look like, when it’s going to appear. And so there’s a great deal of benefit to that but there also is the cost involved. And there also is a little bit less credibility than P.R., which is called earned media, in which you have direction, you can turn over information and you can ask for some coverage of an event or news, but you have no control over it. The media has complete control over how it’s used once it leaves your hands. It’s often viewed as more credible and maybe more widely viewed if somebody’s thumbing through a magazine or a newspaper, sometimes they pay more attention to the news and less attention to the advertising.
There’s a good example of the difference between the two, McDonald’s does an awful lot of advertising, billboards, print, T.V., everything. And a good example of their P.R. is their Ronald McDonald House. The message is, “We care about children and their families.” Now no amount of billboard advertising, T.V. Advertising, would ever get that message across like their actions and financial support of their Ronald McDonald House.
Dennis Zink: Of course, you know, McDonald’s is probably one of the largest advertisers in the United States, if not the world. And a lot of our clients are small businesses. How would you relate public relations to a small business as opposed to some company like McDonald’s?
Susan Hicks: Well, in a small business you’re going to want to put out information about where your business has improved or changed or grown, who your staff have been trained in, what they’ve been trained in, what they have accomplished. It’s more information and the advertising is going to be local advertising probably for a small business, which would be T.V. or print in a local area.
Dennis Zink: Often times, public relations is used to cover up or spin a problem that may have come up. Can you explain how good public relations can help avoid bad press?
Susan Hicks: Well, to go back to McDonald’s just for an example, they survived the crisis of the hot coffee on someone’s lap and the lawsuit that came up, primarily because they had great P.R. to begin with. It didn’t do it nearly as much damage as it would have without that P.R. background.
But the thing is for a problem to be addressed, the idea is to get your ducks in a row before the problem happens. Crisis communications is what that’s called, and it’s a part of public relations that needs to have a plan in place and your staff trained. Who is going to speak to the press if there is a crisis that comes up, who is authorized to speak to the press? And do they have some training and experience in it? There are good crisis communications trainers who can offer not only advice, but also role playing experience in addressing what kind of sticky questions might come up from the media in the midst of a crisis.
So there are a couple of very important things to keep in mind when you’re facing a crisis, and one of which is never say, “No comment.” If you are asked a question by a reporter that you can’t address immediately, make some sort of statement that you will get back to them with the answer to that and when do they need it by?
The other thing is to always be honest. Honesty is the best policy. P.R. professionals have very strong ethical standards and if you’re not being honest it’s going to cost you in the long run.
Dennis Zink: Just recently in the news, General Motors has had a real problem with recalls, and I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts about the way they’ve handled their public relations effort to put a positive spin on, or at least to lessen the negativity of that issue.
Susan Hicks: Well, first of all they have a new front person, the woman who’s answering all the questions, was not there in the throes of the crisis developing, I don’t think. And it’s a new face and she’s trying to be honest and she’s trying to address things as well as she can. That’s a great example where, had those situations started to develop and a P.R. person been in on the discussions when they first came up, the advice would have been to address it immediately, handle it immediately, take care of it, so that you don’t wind up with this maelstrom later on of problems.
Dennis Zink: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.
Susan Hicks: Exactly, exactly.
Dennis Zink: Mary Barr was kind of thrust into that, she’s the new top person. So do you think she’s doing a good job succeeding it, is she succeeding at lessening the effects, in your opinion?
Susan Hicks: I think she’s doing the best that she can, and I think that they are really making a very public statement right now, that they are going to dig deeper into every problem that has been reported and really try to find out what’s going on and address the situation. Which is what they should have done in the first place.
Dennis Zink: And again, they’re a very large company, kind of like McDonald’s, obviously GM is one of the larger companies also in the world. So they have the ability to have a person on staff, I would think, in terms of P.R., they probably have a whole department. Again we’re dealing a lot with the small business. How would you compare that, is it better for … when can a small business, or should a small business, have a person on staff versus hiring on the outside, a freelancer or an outside agency? Does it depend on the size of the company and what is that cut off, in your opinion?
Susan Hicks: Well, it definitely is influenced by the size of the company because the budget has a play in it. Most larger organizations, as you said, have a P.R. person. Some of them try to crunch together the advertising and the P.R. person, but realizing that they’re separate efforts that doesn’t always work as well as it should.
A small company can hire an outside agency or a freelancer to work with them. The problem is when you have nobody paying attention to P.R. Sometimes small businesses are so busy running their business, and growing their business, that they don’t stop to think about P.R. opportunities that are going by the wayside. Those can be taken advantage of with a freelancer hired to do a one-off press release when something happens that’s newsworthy and that will get the name out in the public eye.
Dennis Zink: Of course, the problem there is usually that’s in your crisis management mode is when they start thinking about having a public relations person. I think what you’re suggesting is that you want a P.R. person involved early to get some positive things going long before any potential crisis might arrive.
Susan Hicks: Exactly. I met someone last week who has a client who has, doing some marketing, doing some great work in the community, but has no P.R. going on. Nobody is being told about the wonderful things that they’re doing and he really wants them to start bringing in P.R., as a part of their marketing in a sense because it lets the public know the great things that they’re doing. They’re doing a lot of donations and they’re just letting that go. They have great staff that have done some wonderful things in the community, that could be receiving, for example, an employee of the month award that would get the word out about that.
Dennis Zink: Susan, you do a lot for our local chapter of SCORE. And you do a fantastic job …
Susan Hicks: Thank you.
Dennis Zink: And everyone’s really please … you’re welcome … with the job that you’re doing. What kind of input would you say that you get from us that’s positive and what don’t we give you enough of?
Susan Hicks: You provide an ongoing list of events that can be promoted within the local media for workshops and things like that. And the local chapter has done some good special events, the Intellectual Property Workshop series. The awards that are given on an annual basis and you have brought in some great speakers from national SCORE in the last two that have garnered some interest from the local press, and some coverage from the local press.
This chapter, its podcast series and the Meet Up (MeetUp.com) series that you’ve started have given it a different light and a more modern approach to some of these things that have really helped arouse the interest of the media on what’s going on in the local chapter.
Dennis Zink: Press releases are usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about public relations. What can you tell us about writing a press release?
Susan Hicks: A press release should be really well written. There’s a format that can be followed, there’s variation of formats that can be found on line. But the first thing is to make sure that what you’re wanting to put out there is newsworthy. The last thing you want to do is to try to feed the media a bunch of things that they’re not going to be able to use.
Moves or expansions of your business are good things for a news release. Milestones. Have you just past a tenth anniversary or a fifth anniversary? Is your sales incrementally larger to the extent that that’s newsworthy? Who are your people and what are they doing? Do you have additions to staff, do you have awards or certifications that they’ve received? And also, have they been promoted recently? Those kinds of things can go out there.
Partnerships, product line additions. You’re a company that’s installing windows and all of a sudden you’ve been chosen to install a whole new line of windows, that kind of thing can be put on a news release. And events.
There’s a lot of P.R. opportunities that can slip away if no one is paying attention and bringing them to your attention.
Dennis Zink: Do you find, just from your experience, that you get better response from the newspapers, the magazines, radio, T.V., which media are most receptive to press releases in your opinion, or does it matter on the subject?
Susan Hicks: As far as press releases go, definitely the strongest is the local newspapers. The magazines, you have to have a couple of months out and you have to have a story that has enough meat and substance that a reporter, a writer can get in there and really dig and get some substantial coverage.
Dennis Zink: What are some of things that should not be included in a press release?
Susan Hicks: Simple sales information. If you’re having a 10 or 25 percent off sale, that’s not a news piece. And also, you don’t want to write the whole article, you don’t want to write the whole story. You want to give enough information that a newspaper could put out a small piece on it but if a reporter sees it and is interested in it, they don’t want the article already written. They want to be able to come in and do their own interviews and write their piece.
If a company does want the whole article written, then it should be put in as a guest column or asked to be put in as a freelance article.
Dennis Zink: What do you think a company should do if it’s in the news, the release was successful, they did a little write up on it? Should they copy that and send it out to people who may not have seen it, to their clients, to their employees? What’s your suggestion on that?
Susan Hicks: Definitely, that should be sent out to all of the people who have interest in your business. And it should be linked to on your website, there should be something on your website that’s putting the news up on a regular basis. If you’re on social media, it should be put in onto your LinkedIn page and if you have a Facebook page for your business to put it in up there. Take advantage and link to that article, because that gives more authenticity to anything you’re going say.
Dennis Zink: Do you need permission from the publisher to copy the article that they were mentioned in and send it out, or is it accepted because you’re in it?
Susan Hicks: If you credit where it came from, you can send it out. You have to say, that’s why every clipping that I do, I put the name of the publication and the date and the page. So if you’re going to send it out just give credit to the author and the source that you’re getting it from.
Dennis Zink: Besides writing a newsworthy press release, what else can you do to help gain the attention of the media?
Susan Hicks: Hosting an event. The SCORE annual awards is one thing that definitely brought in some attention from the media. In that case, you send the media a news release that it’s going to happen, you send them a media alert right before it’s going to happen, and you send them an invitation that says, “If you’d like me to help you arrange a photo op, or an interview, let me know and we will help you set that up.”
A couple of other things, is to select your targets. If you’re sending out a press release, don’t blanket, don’t shotgun approach it. Even if you send it out through a Chamber of Commerce, and a lot of chambers do have an option to send out a press release, I believe there’s a selection where you can say, Select All. You don’t want to Select All because it may be a very regional publication and they may have absolutely no interest in what you have to say. Down the line, you may want to send them something and you don’t have to have them already turned off to that kind of thing.
You can always pitch a good story. If I have a really good story coming up, and sometimes not even a news release, I’ll call a media person that I have and say, “Listen, this is going on, I think it’s something you might want to be paying attention to,” or I’ll make that kind of a call before I send out a release. And I’ve had some good results with that.
Dennis Zink: Do you typically coordinate the photography effort, and when do you bring in the T.V. stations?
Susan Hicks: T.V. is pretty hard to get. A lot of times they are very tight in their budgets. And they want visuals. So it has to be something where you’ve got something going on that they can bring in a camera crew, and their camera crews are very thin these days. So that’s a kind of a tough thing.
A photographer, it depends on the event. A lot of times the media is going to want to bring in their own photographer, although it, I was at an event recently, we brought in a professional photographer to take a really good group shot of a bunch of scholarship recipients, and that got great play in the paper. Providing the head shot, providing the image is a good idea.
Fred Dunayer: It sounds like the best things to do is start a fire in your office. (Laughter)
Dennis Zink: It’s been done. Besides the media, who needs to be kept in mind for public relations efforts?
Susan Hicks: All the publics that will help your business to succeed. Your target audiences, you have to identify them. Who are your prospects, who are your current clients, who are the general public that need to know what you have to say.
Dennis Zink: And how would public relations apply to your own employees?
Susan Hicks: Internal communications are really important. The more your employees feel like you are caring about them, they’re going to do a better job of representing your company in all their actions and interactions with customers and clients. They create the products and services that you’re selling and they need to believe that you’re a good company, that you care about your products and customer service and that you care about them.
For little cost you can do a lot internally to develop the kind of climate you want that’s going to be good for your outside view as well. Awards and recognitions, which can be virtually free and not only help promote good feelings internally but are also newsworthy for a little press release. Sharing company and employee news, if you have a bulletin board where they can put up so-and-so had a baby, or so-and-so’s son graduated from a college, that kind of helps build a camaraderie that’s good for public relations.
And perks, you can have gift cards or meals or whatever. Then it’s big benefits. For an example, my brother’s company has been the small business person of the year in Delaware two times and they have grown their staff to about 40 people. They have two parties a year, one is totally for their own employees. And the other is for their employees, their clients, their prospects and the local politicians.
Another example is, the NASA launch of the last shuttle where everybody from the top of the line down to the people who emptied the wastebaskets really cared about what was going on there. They all felt included and a part of the team.
And one final example is Bob Theis, who’s a SCORE mentor, brought up a company that he worked with and he developed a quality analysis that looked at everything from the way the phone was answered to how the product was delivered, and made everybody a partner in the operation. What was it … MOPS … Make Our Partners Succeed.
Dennis Zink: Successful.
Susan Hicks: Successful, right. Everybody succeeds and then that just grows the business and it grows the reputation of the business.
Dennis Zink: Yeah, it’s better to do that than mop up the floor with the mess.
Susan Hicks: Exactly.
Dennis Zink: I was wondering, as far as the Internet goes, sometimes I’ve come across where, I forget if it’s called glass ceiling, whatever, there’s different sites that are very … they discuss companies but there’s positives and negatives. A lot of times it’s disgruntled employees that have left and write really negative things. How can you overcome that kind of public relations, that bad P.R.?
Susan Hicks: I think the only thing you can do is to put out as much as you can on the positive side and there are sites that you can send people to, to put good things up. The other thing is to develop some public relations strategies that are going to gain more attention than the gripes from a few people.
Fred Dunayer: In fact, I’ve seen a couple of T.V. shows recently, one to do with hotels and another dealing with restaurants, where the business in question decided to try and fight with the social media bloggers or the people who were writing the messages. And that never works. You can’t fight with them, you have to just try to resolve the problem because if you do start getting into a fight then everybody wants to join in.
Susan Hicks: That brings up a really good part of public relations that’s often overlooked, which is called environmental scanning, which is trying to pay attention to what’s going on in the outside world that relates to or is talking about your business. That’s where a P.R. person getting on once in a while and Googling and finding out what’s going on and paying attention to the local media.
The two things that happen is it does alert you if there’s a problem going on that you can start to bring into your thinking process. And the other thing is it might instigate some ideas about how you can improve your own P.R. by looking at what other people are doing out there.
Dennis Zink: How does social media fit into public relations? Elaborate on that if you would.
Susan Hicks: LinkedIn, every professional should be on LinkedIn at this point in time. There’s been some discussion, “Do you think it’s passe?”, well, LinkedIn is not only a good thing for getting your professional credentials out there on line, it’s also a good way to connect with other people. You can use it as a contact base. You hear someone’s name and you want to try to connect with them, you can find them on LinkedIn and send them a message through LinkedIn.
Facebook is really good. The thing with … for certain businesses. You have to understand where your clientele and your prospects live. If your prospects are all professional people they may not be doing that much on Facebook. But if you’re a restaurant and you’re trying to catch people’s attention before they go out to lunch or before they go out to dinner, you definitely have to be on Facebook.
The thing with Facebook you have to realize, and any of that social media, is it is social first of all. So you can do it to inform people but it’s not a real marketing tool, it’s best to keep your marketing down to a minimum when you’re using social media.
Dennis Zink: And in general how does public relations fit into a company’s overall business operations?
Susan Hicks: It should be a part of your overall management focus and your P.R. person should be a part of your management team. Back to the GM (General Motors)… had the P.R. person been more involved in the management team at the point when those problems first started to be discovered, they would have shined a light on it and said, “We need to address this right away.”
Internal, at meetings, external, if you have an external P.R. person, you should have meetings with them occasionally and talk about your business and what’s going on. Don’t just call them when there’s a news release that you see but make it a relationship where they’re helping you to find information that would be good material for P.R.
Dennis Zink: I know one of the things that we do is to bring you in on different meetings that we have, if we think it’s significant for you to know what we’re going to be doing. And I think that’s been a good thing.
Susan Hicks: It has been, it’s been a very good thing.
Dennis Zink: If you could share a few stories, positives and negatives, of your experiences in public relations that you think our listeners would want to hear about.
Susan Hicks: The stories that I want to share with you, the message from it is that you don’t always have to catch a whale. There was one time when I sent out a news release on a client and a local business newspaper picked up on it and wrote a full page article on it, it was great. But a lot of times it’s the little fishes that keep things going, the little releases that keep your name in front of the public.
It was a SCORE client, I was working with it as an independent P.R. person, but it was called Laptop Butlers. It’s an invention that this silver entrepreneur made that has a clasp thing that fits onto your laptop computer and a cup holder so that if you’re juggling your computer sitting at a stool or on a train, which is how they were actually thought of in the first place, and an airplane, the cup would be stationary and not likely to spill on your keyboard. So he designed it and developed it and is promoting it at this point in time. And a local business newspaper, magazine, weekly newspaper, picked up on it and did a full page article on it. And it was great.
That doesn’t always happen. And it doesn’t always happen quickly. The thing is to keep putting the word out. I have another client that I’ve been talking to that same reporter about for two years. And I keep bringing him up and sending him news releases about him and he interviewed him about a month ago and there will be something coming out within the next couple of weeks.
So the idea is to stay with it and don’t expect immediate great results from one release. It’s putting your public, making your public aware of yourself and your business time after time so that it becomes engrained in them, “Oh, yeah, I know someone who can do that, and I’ve heard good things about them.”
Dennis Zink: If you have strong feelings about a company’s release and you think it really should be included in your opinion, would you call up the editor? Do you do that, and do you try to push it and has it helped in the past?
Susan Hicks: I’ve called them sometimes to do follow up calls, and it does help. Sometimes it may get lost in the list of emails. But I don’t usually, I’m not a pushy kind of person on that regard. I will offer them, “Is there something else we can give you that will make this more useful to you?”, or if you’re talking to a reporter, instead of always saying what you want them to know about, to ask questions, “What kinds of things are you working on, what kind of specials, what kind of articles, are there things that I can bring you?” And that’s a good thing to do is to just bring them what they need.
Fred Dunayer: It sounds like that it’s very important to have empathy for the folks that you’re dealing with, to understand their deadlines and their need to get subscribers or advertisers or whatever, and to really put yourself in the editor’s position in order to help them.
Susan Hicks: Exactly, exactly. You need to know what they need to do to do their job. Your job is to feed them information that will help them do their job. And thank you’s are always well appreciated. These are people and you’ve got to treat them as people who are doing you a service and they are getting a benefit from it, yes, but a thank you and a little personal note attached to your press release if you know that media person. I always do that, a little hi, just a little note if you get a chance.
Fred Dunayer: Susan, is there anything that we didn’t talk about, perhaps something that you feel strongly about that we didn’t talk about in the course of this discussion that you would want to summarize here?
Susan Hicks: Try to keep in mind who’s attention you’re trying to get. When you’re trying to get the attention of the media, you want to pay attention to what it is that they need and what you can feed them and how best to get that information to them.
But the ultimately goal, of course, is to get the attention of your customer or your prospect. And so what kind of information do they need and what’s the best way to get to them? It may be something entirely different.
If I can give an example from another big company. Universal Studios, when they were introducing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I was at an F.P.R.A. (Florida Public Relations Association) conference and the woman came in and told us how they did that. They didn’t put out a press release, they didn’t do anything but call in a bunch of bloggers, that’s a very blogging kind of audience. They brought them in a midnight, they did a reveal at midnight, the bloggers were on line doing it live, and by the next morning they were on Good Morning America.
So it’s an example of knowing your audience, knowing how you’re going to reach them, and doing the best way to get the information to them that will help you in the long run.
Dennis Zink: Well, Susan, thank you for being our guest today on “Been There, Done That.” How can our listeners reach you if they had any questions or want to get in touch with you? If you could leave your name of your company, your email address and your phone number it’s be great.
Susan Hicks: The company is Precise Communications. The email address is email@example.com, that’s my website. And the phone number is 941-925-3602. And I thank you again for having me on the air.
Dennis Zink: Our pleasure. Thank you.
Fred Dunayer: Thank you Susan.
Fred Dunayer: You’ve been listening to the SCORE Small Business Success Podcast, Been There, Done That. The opinions of the hosts and guests are theirs and do not necessarily reflect those of SCORE. If you would like to hear more podcasts, get a free mentor, view a transcript of this podcast, or would like more information about the services we provide, you can call SCORE at 800-634-0245 or visit our website at www.score.org. Again, that’s 800-634-0245 or visit the website at www.score.org.