At a time when entrepreneurs are trying to keep costs low, consulting the services of a PR agency may be out of the question.
But you can still shout about your business.
Entrepreneurs wear many different hats. And no, we’re not talking a preference for either a flat cap or a bowler. Running a new company will require a business owner to become an expert in disciplines they previously knew nothing about; from operations to accounting. PR is one domain where entrepreneurs are often ignorant initially. Writing a press release? Impossible. Picking up the phone to journalists? Terrifying. But, at a time when securing start-up capital is trickier than ever, more businesses are starting on a shoestring. And that sometimes means undertaking a little DIY PR...
When initially considering PR options, business owners should consider three things, says Ella Gascoigne, who runs StartUp PR. The first to take into account is the all-important cost factor. “For a launch of a business you will be looking at anything from £800 to in excess of £4,000. There’s no point trying to see what you can for just a few hundred pounds, as you are likely to be disappointed with the results,” she advises. “And if you go down the agency route, check approximately how many pieces of coverage you could expect to get for the money.” The second factor is time. “Ask yourself how much your time is worth and if you have any to spare. There is no point doing your own PR if you don’t have the time to do it properly,” says Gascoigne. And third: “Do you have the skills needed? Are you a strong writer and do you know how to structure a press release?” If not, she adds, help is at hand. “There are loads of books and online articles,” Gascoigne continues. “If you find writing isn’t your strong point, you can get an agency or freelancer to help you.”
What’s more, if entrepreneurs find themselves all at sea with their PR strategy, but don’t want to pay a PR firm a retainer, they can enrol in workshops to help equip them with the necessary skills. Gascoigne runs PR Toolbox, which offers clients monthly one-to-one sessions with an experienced PR professional to help them with their media relations. Paula Gardner has worked in the PR industry for two decades. Beginning her career in music PR in the early 1990s, she encountered clients including Sonia, George Michael and Bananarama, before moving into restaurants. Now Gardner works with small businesses, advising them on things including writing a press release, using social media and how to approach journalists.
“I think a lot of people are nervous about talking to journalists, but when they do it, it’s not usually as bad as they thought it would be. There’s an image that journalists are going to snarl at you when they pick up the phone,” says Gardner. “The one thing I always try to instill, is don’t call to ask if they got the press release. Phone up with an idea because you’ve looked at their publication, and have come up with an idea that’s relevant.”
Julie Woodward, however, founder of the Moroccan interiors company Maroque, knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the sharp tongue of a journalist. “A little while ago, I brought in some body products and I phoned beauty editors of magazines like Vogue. It was just like the Devil Wears Prada,” she recalls. But fortunately that hasn’t dissuaded her from carrying out her own PR, with support from Gardner. “Now I tend to do a product shot every month; so I’ll send a lamp, a piece of crockery or a particularly pretty cushion,” she explains.
At gadget e-tailer Prezzybox.com, PR has always been done in-house. “We knew that we could make a better job of it,” says Zak Edwards, the company’s founder. Edwards says that approaching journalists with not just relevant, but quirky, material is absolutely vital. “Try something a bit different,” he advises. Last Mother’s Day, for example, instead of doing a standard release about top 10 gifts, Edwards penned an article about ‘The value of mum’. “We found out that if you were to employ a mum to do all the jobs she does throughout the week, it would cost you about £90,000 a year,” says Edwards. He’s also launched viral campaigns, such as www. pleasedontcancelchristmas.co.uk, which featured a letter from the Department of Christmas about how festivities were due to be cancelled due to the financial downturn. Indeed, the internet is playing an increasingly important role in companies’ PR strategies. Launching viral campaigns, posting videos to YouTube and maintaining blogs are all relevant parts of a joined-up approach to getting your brand out there. And so too is social media: ignore it at your peril, says Mark Dye, MD at Press Express, a PR and social media agency. “Social media has actually been fantastic for SMEs, entrepreneurs and start-ups in giving them wider visibility, both locally and globally,” he asserts. Additionally, Dye believes that social media can enable small companies to look and feel much bigger than they actually are. “This means they can compete with larger competitors now on their own ground,” he says.
Where then, should a social media virgin begin? Stop, look, listen, says Dye. “The important thing for these firms is to have a good listen to what’s happening around them in the first instance, and see who’s using what. This will help to give them a better idea of where to engage and who to engage with.” This means choosing your medium carefully. “Depending on which business you’re in, you might find that LinkedIn and Twitter may be more useful than Facebook and Pinterest.” Next: drop the hardcore sales act, advises Dye. “Post links to useful items, share news and be helpful to others where you can, whilst avoiding the hard-sell will put you on the right path. The occasional product push and bit of self-promotion is fine and more often than not, those within the SME and start-up community tend to help one another out.” Inevitably, as in all aspects of business, PR can go wrong. Edwards recalls a time when Prezzybox sent out a press release urging shoppers to buy online instead of heading for the high street - including a few lines about the outbreaks of violence in America on ‘Black Friday’, the biggest US shopping day. “We got absolutely slated by journalists on Twitter,” admits Edwards. So what should entrepreneurs do if they find themselves on the wrong side of the PR rumour mill? “Don’t panic,” says Gardner. “Look at what’s been written. If you do think they’re being unfair, rather than just writing a story, then consider what to do about it. But sometimes it’s best just to let these things die.” Dye agrees that sometimes it’s best not to “become embroiled in a debate.” However, he also says that entrepreneurs should be prepared to put their heads about the parapet, if and when it’s required. “Don’t shy away from handling the bad press by burying your head in the sand; that’s only going to make things worse,” he warns. “Social networks and consumers are very unforgiving of brands who do this. People will respect you more for honesty and an apology (where you can), so you should always look to respond to bad press as soon as possible.”
Businesses should also take heart in the fact that today’s news is lining tomorrow’s wastepaper bins, says Gardner. “Most people won’t remember that you were in a not-so-positive story in Grazia; they’ll just remember you were in Grazia to begin with.” So the old adage that all PR is good PR may well be true...