Some free newspaper publicity can expose you to potential new customers. But the quality of that coverage greatly depends on you.
It’s one thing to find out your local paper is writing a story on your small family-owned septic pumping company. It’s quite another to open your Sunday paper and find a huge front-page article, complete with a photo of your logo and phone number right behind your smiling face. Suddenly, every newspaper that had been chucked on the lawn of a homeowner in the wee hours of that morning contains an exciting glimmer of possibility — will it create a new customer?
Here’s how it happened for us.
We found the story
This was not a purchased advertisement. It was a human-interest news story. It can be seen online here. Key emphasis on “news” and “story.” In fact, much to the newspaper’s disdain, we have yet to do any paid advertising.
We did a few things to stand out from the cacophony of pitches, press releases and inquiries that reporters receive every day. But the most important element was creating a compelling story. Press pitches are not the time to detail your products and services. This is the time to wax poetic about the details that make your company unique. Without a story to tell, the article would read like an advertisement and no reporter is that desperate for content.
The ultimate goal is to get the reader to feel something, to get them to care about your company. A good litmus test, as you are brainstorming ideas for a story, is to ask yourself, “If I read this about someone else’s company, would I care?” A well-crafted story may cause a reader to feel fear, hope, joy, trust, sadness or any combination of emotions. Hopefully not disgust — steer clear of that one.
Two good sources for a story inside your company are your people and your mission. If one of your key employees or founders has a unique story, tell it. This can create a vulnerable feeling if it is a personal story, but it is also an incredible opportunity to connect on a human level.
If your company mission is unique, this can also be helpful. For us, part of the story was about bridging the generational and workforce development gap in the plumbing industry. It is central to how we run our business and means that we have a slightly unique model for our area. That was enough of a differentiator to break through the noise.
Other ideas that might set your company apart and be worthy of press attention are nonprofit partnerships, charity work, triumph over adversity, or a true innovation of product or service.
We made it easy
Our feature was written by an honest-to-goodness flesh-and-blood reporter. In our town, like many, these local beat reporters are becoming an endangered species. Fewer and fewer folks are available in the newsroom to filter through an ever-increasing amount of pitches, press releases and inquiries. You have to make your story stand out, not just with an original story, but a complete one. The reporter needs to understand the emotional hook immediately, but then you have to deliver with a cohesive storyline.
Make the reporter's job easy. They are overworked, underpaid, and doing you a favor.
To make sure you deliver them good content, it is often helpful to write your story down first. Then, give it a few days before you edit for clarity and brevity. Laser-focus on the key points that you want the story to convey.
Because your opportunity to talk to the reporter will likely be in the form of an interview, either in person or over the phone, it may be a good idea to practice telling your story out loud. You don’t want to send them a written manifesto, nor do you want to read that to them verbatim, but you’ll be happier with the end product if you can tell a complete and cohesive narrative.
The first time I ever spoke with a reporter, I was winging it. As a person who tends to go off on tangents and think out loud, I cringed at some of the direct quotes that I could blame on no one but myself. I didn’t convey the image I wanted to create because I hadn’t practiced my story. This could be your big chance for a public spotlight, so you want to get it right.
As much as possible, adjust your calendar to meet the reporter’s schedule. Don’t make them track you down. If available, provide photography for them. They may want to come take original pictures, but depending on the size of the news outlet and what they have going on that day, it may not be possible.
Also, if you discuss any information that is industrywide, be prepared to provide sources. That could be links, publications or documents, but a good reporter won’t just take your word on data from a third party. Don’t make them do that research, have your documentation prepared.
All of this increases your chances of getting a really good story written, which increases your chances of great placement. We could have just as easily been buried in a column on page six.
We hired a PR firm
Know when to outsource. Unless you are a great networker, a natural storyteller and have a way to personally connect with a reporter in your area, do what we did: hire a public relations firm.
We tried for years to get press coverage on our own. That is time that we will never get back. It is time we could have spent focusing on other parts of our business. Reporters are understandably cagey around people who clearly just want something from them.
A public relation firm’s job is to have those connections already in place and to know how to package these stories for maximum impact. If you’ve never worked with a PR firm before, here are a few things to consider when hiring one:
- Have very specific goals and deadlines in mind for your engagement period. Communicate those goals prior to hiring them.
- Find out what previous successes they have had with similar clients and similar press placements.
- Ask for a few samples of their work. Read it and decide if the style and quality meet your needs.
- Shop around and find a firm that is in your budget. We talked to three different agencies and the difference between the highest and lowest price point was $1,500 each month.
- Don’t expect immediate results, but hold them to their deadline promises.
- Expect to sign an agreement anywhere from six months to a year.
While it is not strictly necessary to go local with your PR firm, it made sense for us. We have a fairly small service area that is served by roughly seven major publications. Because our goal was to increase local brand awareness, we only cared about placement in these seven publications. Hiring a PR company with connections to those specific publications was essential to the success of our venture.
The response we saw
Once the initial excitement of that Sunday morning wore off, reality set in. We had just been exposed to thousands of potential customers very quickly. All we could do was brace ourselves and hope that we were ready for the volume increase.
Immediately after the article, we saw a huge spike in website traffic and phone calls. This did ebb over time, but now even months later when we poll our customers about how they heard about us, we hear about that article. It created an excellent first impression for many new customers who may not have otherwise heard about us.
I’d be remiss to not mention some of the downside. There isn’t much, but it is noticeable. First, the calls from salespeople increased as much as the customer calls. People equate that kind of press attention with success and revenue. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Other than getting tired of saying, “Not interested,” it is your time that you have to be most careful of. The praise will feel good, but don’t let a little flattery trick you into way too many coffee and lunch connections that won’t ultimately increase your bottom line.
Other ways to get press
If you don’t feel comfortable telling your “story,” that doesn’t mean that a public relations strategy can’t help your pumping business thrive. It is possible to get press coverage in other ways, such as being an authority source for different topics.
The most obvious and well-known version of this in our industry is taking advantage of timeliness during weather-related events. For instance, a frozen-pipe prevention story just before a major freeze event or a WaterSense story during a drought.
If you don’t want to wait for a major weather event, keep an eye out for industry news that you can relate back to a local effect. Maybe that is workforce development-related or new technologies that are perfect for your market. This takes much more ongoing and consistent effort, but can be well worth it.
Just one positive press event can make a huge impact on your business. Public relations is a marathon, not a sprint, so make sure you are ready to dedicate yourself to the strategy and find someone you trust. Done well, it can be the secret weapon that builds your brand in the local community.
About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.