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Get Your New Business Noticed Without Paying a Dime for It

Share your story with media outlets for free publicity


The other day I picked up the newspaper and read the headline, "Ex-High School Teacher Helps Struggling Students Improve Their Grades." The headline immediately caught my eye because I recently developed a system for high school and college students to improve their academic performance.

In the article it talked about a Houston woman who retired from high school teaching and now holds study skills workshops around town for high school students that need academic help. It included her contact information and web site address. It was a quarter page article in the Houston Chronicle with over one million circulation. When I saw the article I wondered to myself how much that same article would have cost her if she had paid for it. LOTS!

The power of the humble news article

There is only two ways to land the name of your business in the local newspaper, by paying for an advertisement or by having a newsworthy event that is covered by the local press. Both can be very effective but the all-mighty news release can provide the level of credibility and respect that can spark on-the-spot sales for your business. Advertisements contain information that people know are biased. Surveys have shown that the vast majority of people believe that all advertisements contain false or misleading information.

News articles, on the other hand, are written by third-party news organizations that have nothing to gain by endorsing your business. Hence, their believability is high. That’s exactly why your print ads should use an editorial style format. People read editorial style (news article format) seven times more than an advertisement!

Why are some news releases chosen and other not?

Knowing how the press chooses one news release over another will give you an advantage in getting the coverage you’re looking for. Most large pressrooms get hundreds of news releases a day. When yours comes in, it competes with all the others that come in with it. Typically, an "Assignment Editor" is the person who has the responsibility to determine what is "news" and what isn’t. This person is in charge of reviewing the incoming releases and either assigning them to editors or trashing them. Typically, an Assignment Editor will sift through press releases like you go through your mail…over a wastebasket. If a news release doesn’t catch their eye they immediately trash it.

The first item on the press release that is read is the headline. If you don’t have a catchy headline that grabs the editor’s attention then it won’t stand much of a chance making it to the next step, which is the first paragraph. Your first paragraph should tell what your news is, whom it’s about, where it will be, why it’s important, and when it will be held. The opening paragraph needs to get to the point fast with no fluff. If it’s as compelling as the headline, you have a good chance of having the entire release read.

What news stories get covered?

To give your business the best chance of being covered by the local news media give them what they are looking for. Generally speaking, each of the different media is looking for specific types of news events. Newspapers want information that is interesting and informative.

Newspapers like to educate their readers with timely news and articles that people will find interesting and educational.

Radio is a bit more loose and has an "anything goes" type of style. Radio stations like information that is controversial, funny, or weird. One of the most popular five minutes of a local radio station here in Houston is the "Birthday Scam," in which the DJ’s call up an unsuspecting person (on their birthday) and proceed to create a combative and hostile conversation full of accusations and lies. The sparks start to fly and so do the ratings.

Television gets excited about anything that can provide great visuals. Sponsoring a local high school reading contest in which the principal gets dunked in a tub of kool aid will get the T.V. station’s attention. All media love human interest stories. They know that people like to know about other people. In fact, the number one topic of talk radio is relationships. If you have a good human interest story that others would find interesting you’re on your way to getting lots of free publicity.

Lastly, the biggest mistake that most PR novices make is to pitch an advertisement for their business. The media publishes news…they are not your personal marketing department! You must be newsworthy!

How Muhammad Ali landed in Life magazine

Getting free publicity is more about making yourself newsworthy than being newsworthy. As George MacKenzie, a publicity expert, once told me, "There is no boring stories, just boring approaches to interesting stories." With creativity and a little effort you can make almost any situation newsworthy. The following story is a perfect example of what I mean. It’s a story about how boxing great Muhammad Ali received massive amounts of free press in Life magazine, the biggest magazine in the country in those days.

After Muhammad Ali turned pro, Sports Illustrated did an editorial piece on him. During the photo shoot with the Sports Illustrated photographer, Ali asked whom else the photographer did work for. He replied, Life magazine. But quickly told Muhammad that he didn’t have a chance of being covered in the popular magazine. Muhammad knew that if he made himself stand out somehow, that the magazine might write him up. After a few minutes of consideration Ali asked the photographer what other kinds of photos he took? The photographer responded, "All kinds, but my specialty is underwater photography." So the quick-thinking Muhammad Ali said, "Did you know that I’m the only fighter in the world who trains underwater?" The photographer immediately got interested. Ali then told him that he’d do an exclusive if Life wanted to do a story about him.

Before you knew it, Ali was in a pool up to his neck in water dancing and throwing punches with the photographer reeling off pictures. It wasn’t long after that Life did a huge spread on Muhammad Ali. He gave the photographer and Life magazine what they wanted, and in turn, received massive free publicity.

20 ways to make your small business newsworthy

As I previously mentioned, the key to getting publicity for your business is to make yourself newsworthy. The Muhammad Ali story is a good example of how one man made his own publicity opportunity by being creative and interesting. To get your creative juices flowing let me suggest 20 ways you can make your business newsworthy.

  1.     Do a customer survey and include controversial questions. Write articles about the results of the survey. The media loves survey results.
  2.     Create a top ten list about something in your business. If you’re a beautician, write an article titled, "Top Ten Most Popular Hairstyles for Women." Top ten lists are very popular, just ask David Letterman.
  3.     Develop an annual award that you give out to someone in the community or a business in your industry. For instance, give an award to a local outstanding teacher that has gone above and beyond the call of duty. Or if you’re a supplier you can give an award to the "Best" business (customer) in the industry your service.
  4.     Offer surprising facts about your industry or business. For instance, if you’re a recruitment firm write an article titled, "The Average Starting Salary of An MBA Graduate is 40 percent Higher Than Their Pre-MBA Earnings."
  5.     Piggyback off a national story. For example, when the rumors of a recession hit one business wrote a story about how their business actually improved as a result of the recession (It was a utility expense auditing firm).
  6.     Tie your business in with holidays or special days. For example, tell the media how your massage therapy business helps to reduce stress during the Christmas season and provides gift certificates for welcome relief.
  7.     Give a rags-to-riches story about yourself as a high school nobody that starts her own business and becomes successful. Remember, the media loves human interest stories.
  8.     Tie your business into something that took place in the past. Go to your local library and find articles from 50 years ago that may somehow tie into the product or services you provide.
  9.     Be first. Be the first to offer a 200 percent double your money back guarantee. Be the first to offer an on-site car wash with every sale. Be the first to give your employees ownership in your business. Think of something at which you can claim to be the first.
  10.     Host a "Kids are the Boss Day!" Hand your business over to your 14 year old kid or one of your employee’s young children for the day.
  11.     Run a "silliest thing" or "dumb mistakes" contest with your customers. For instance, if you’re a shoe repair shop, ask your customers for the silliest things they’ve ever done with their shoes. If you’re a sport goods retailer ask your customers for the dumbest mistakes they’ve made while camping. These are great human interest stories that the press will love.
  12.     Sponsor a local community service project. For example, if you’re a dry cleaner, clean the clothes for all the visitors of the local food shelter. If you’re a fast food retailer, hold a free lunch day for disabled children. If you’re a car repair shop, offer oil and lubes to the parents of boy scouts and donate all the proceeds to the Boy Scouts of America.
  13.     Throw a one-of-a-kind customer appreciation theme party such as a luau with Polynesian cultural dancers or a magical theme party in which customers can bring their children to watch a magician do incredible tricks.
  14.     Do you have a customer that uses your products in an unusual way or uses your product to become a high achiever? If you run a gym is one of your customers a bodybuilding champion? If you own a bike shop is one of your customers a champion trial racer? If you manage an electronics store do you have a customer who has invented a whiz-bang contraption?
  15.     Take on the sacred cows of your industry and challenge them. If you’re a human resource consultant, give employee-of-the-month programs a severe drubbing. If you’re a Taco Bell manager, tell consumers how "real" Mexican food actually tastes bland and boring. If you’re a home-based business person, write about how corporate America is suffocating good people.
  16.     Close down your business for one day a year and have your entire staff do a day of charity work. Headlines would read, "Local Print Shop Closes Doors to Help the Needy!"
  17.     Recently I had a client whose business burnt down last year. He built it back up and is doing more business than ever. Has your business survived a tragic incident (like the recession) and made is through with flying colors?
  18.     Write a general interest story about the problem that your product or service solves. If you’re a car detailer you could write about how oxidation and rust destroys the integrity of your car and makes it unsafe to drive. If you sell website services write about hosting problems or the effects of poor website design and how to solve it.
  19.     Why did you start your business? If you started your business because you were dissatisfied with the provider you were using (or the employer you worked for), let the press know. For instance, you went into the Italian restaurant business because the Italian food in the local area wasn’t authentic. Maybe you started pool cleaning service because of the lousy job service providers were doing on your own pool.
  20.     Prove a myth or stereotype in your industry wrong. For instance, if you’re a hot tub dealer, show a man who sits in his hot tub every night and has 12 children (meaning the hot water really doesn’t kill your sperm!).

How you make your business newsworthy is only limited by your creativity and ingenuity. Remember, there are no boring stories, just boring approaches to interesting stories.

David Frey, President of Marketing Best Practices Inc., a Houston-based small business marketing consulting firm. and is the senior editor of the Marketing Best Practices Newsletter featuring small business marketing best practices.

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