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Small Businesses Also Needs Positive PR

by Alf Nucifora

As a retired ad agency practitioner, I've always maintained allegiance to the profession. The value of advertising as a marketing weapon will always remain evident. Even in these days of rampant online marketing activity, the dot.coms have found, much to their dismay, that building awareness and visibility can't be done, at least not quickly, without a heavy infusion of advertising dollars.

But, marketing times have changed. Integrated marketing is now the norm and even the small business must be cognizant of the need to integrate every element of the marketing communications mix so that each builds upon the other... almost like nuclear reaction achieving critical mass. One of the key elements in that mix is public relations, for far too long the province of the big corporate marketer. But, times are changing in the PR world.

The discipline itself has become much more sophisticated in its approach. Smart practitioners and clients now view PR as a strategic marketing weapon, as opposed to just a tool for soliciting media coverage. Event marketing, whether cause or sports related, has become an integral element of the PR portfolio.

Smaller, younger, bright PR agencies abound, many the progeny of the international PR giants. And, they're affordable for the average small business, somewhere in the range of $3,000-$10,000 per month on a retainer basis. For the singular, independent contractor, primarily a retiree (young and old) from an established firm, the monthly rate may be even less.

What should you look for?

In selecting a PR shop, look for a full palate of services, but with a clear understanding that there will be strengths and weaknesses depending on the background and experience of the principals.

Media Relations: At a bare minimum, the agency should have ready access to key media based on relationships that have been established over a period of time. Good writing skills, development of media kits and a knowledge of electronic media relations, e.g. video news release, go hand-in-hand with high impact media relations.

Investor Relations: For the publicly traded company, financial media relations and the ability to impact shareholder opinion is essential. The more sophisticated, financial specialist agencies will include market research capabilities, knowledge and experience in corporate restructuring and strong contacts with the investment community, particularly with analysts, money managers and retail brokers.

Public Affairs: This normally applies to the larger corporation, but even the local real estate developer may have need of these services which run the gamut from government affairs, e.g. lobbying, to community relations, e.g. influencing opinion and decision making with respect to community groups and key influentials on matters of public and private policy.

Special Events: It's everything from a new store opening to trade show marketing and involves theme/concept development, event planning and execution, and the surrounding promotional activity that guarantees that the event is seen and heard.

Crisis Management: This is normally issue-specific from a bankruptcy filing to a matter involving crime or indiscretion of the part of a senior employee. Nowadays, a growing number of small businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups are candidates for this service which involves crisis plan development, rapid decision making, copious hand holding and sensitive handling of the press and public.

In addition to the above core services, the more aggressive PR agencies are now becoming more heavily involved in true integrated marketing communications including brand positioning, market research, advertising, graphic design and identity, video production and Internet/online strategy.

Remember, many PR firms will specialize, e.g. hi-tech, financial services, retail, hospitality and entertainment. The average small business would be well-advised to invest its precious PR funds with a matching specialist firm.

Maximizing the Relationship

The worst client/agency relationships are those where the client steps away from responsibility and treats PR as just another vendor function. Conversely, the best relationships are those where the client and its principals form an intimate working partnership with the PR counselor. In the best of those relationships a simpatico is developed whereby both parties understand and work toward achieving a PR objective that at times can be ill-defined or difficult to articulate. Developing a smart PR strategy and executing it successfully requires a proper gestation period on the part of both parties, as well as a serious amount of energy and time spent in making the strategy work.

Why is PR growing in value and importance?

For one thing, advertising has become an expensive commodity for many small businesses. More importantly, as ad spending continues to increase, the marketplace becomes cluttered which, in turn, requires an increasing ad investment in order to be seen and heard. Effective PR is not the lone answer. But, in combination with other communication elements, e.g. advertising, direct response, Internet, etc., it can be the platform on which brand identity is built, credibility established and the consumer persuaded to buy.

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