Local newspapers can help you to promote your products and services, boost your profile within the community and even help to keep up staff morale – for free!
However, few small business owners are good at exploiting this potential. Here, a former journalist, tells you his dos and don'ts for dealing with the local press. In my previous job, I worked as a journalist for several regional newspapers and, I have to say, often dreaded dealing with local business owners.
That wasn't because they were nasty or unpleasant people, far from it. It was because what they were hoping for and what I could provide were two very different things. But by following a few simple tips, I believe any business can build a rewarding and mutually-beneficial relationship with the media.
Advertising vs. editorial
Firstly, you have to appreciate the difference between advertising, which is paid for, and editorial (i.e. news) content, which is not. When you pay to advertise in a publication, you can dictate what is written about your business. However, if you want to get free editorial coverage, you have to accept that you have little control over the resulting article. As long as it doesn't state anything which is false or malicious, you can't complain. Even if you do regularly advertise with a newspaper, you can't expect preferential treatment when it comes to editorial.
Secondly, you have to realise the distinction between commercial messages and news. News is anything that is reasonably interesting to the general population. A veteran hack who led my journalism training course summed news up as 'anything you would tell your friends about down the pub'. This is a good rule to bear in mind when considering what aspects of your business you intend to put forward to reporters – and what bits you might have to pay to advertise instead.
If you recently took two weeks off running your business to help rescue people from the rubble of the Haitian earthquake, it's news. But if you bought a new van, it's advertising – even if it does mean you can make deliveries to twice as many households in your area!
A key part of journalists' training is to filter out information purely intended for commercial gain and ‘plugs' for your business are unlikely to make it to the news pages. Of course, it's not always easy to make the distinction, particularly when, as a small business owner, you're trying to promote your ‘baby'. But try and look at it from the outside. Would a complete stranger, with no particular interest in what your business does, be interested in whatever it is you want to promote? With these pointers in mind, you're ready to get in touch with your local media.
The following tips should stand you in good stead:
- Get in touch by email. Include a press release with all the relevant facts included.
- If you have a digital camera and can take a good picture, send it in with your press release. A good accompanying picture will generally mean a story gets used in a more prominent position within the newspaper. Make sure each person shown is identified by a caption.
- Follow up your press release with a phone call. Emails can easily get lost and a brief conversation will give reporters chance to ask you for any additional information.
- Foster good relationships with reporters. Be as obliging as possible and tip them off about you see or hear about which they might be interested in. This will increase your chances of getting positive publicity, but don't expect any special favours. Reporters will always try to help out a good contact but their copy has to go through news editors and sub-editors tasked with quality control. Similarly, there's very little reporters can do to stop a negative story from affecting your business.
- Always look for ‘human interest' stories within your business. Newspapers love stories involving families, births and funny situations. If something of interest happens to one of your workers and they're happy to share it, why not tell your local newspaper?
- Be offended if your requests for a face-to-face meeting are turned down in favour of a brief telephone conversation. Most newspapers are run on a skeleton staff with reporters working anything up to 14 hours a day, only leaving the office for face-to-face meetings when absolutely essential.
- Try and dictate the exact wording of an article. By all means, highlight the things about your business you think are the most interesting or newsworthy, but appreciate that it is the reporter's job to write the story. Similarly, it's highly unlikely that you will be able to see the article before it is published. ‘Copy approval' is rarely practiced in the industry – if it was, newspapers would grind to a halt overnight.
- Be frightened by not having complete control over what is being written about your business. Contrary to common perception, reporters, especially those in the local media, are not out to twist your words and make you look bad.
- Be too brand-conscious in your dealings with the media. Of course, be professional and consistent in what you say, but few people care about the exact wording of a quote or whether or not the shiny new company logo is visible in the background of a staff picture. While you're agonising over the fonts and colour scheme on your press release (which will be completely ignored by reporters anyway), your rivals could be enjoying a constant stream of free publicity by dealing with the media in a relaxed and confident way.
Forum members can download a free PR toolkit or call us on 0845 130 1722 for further advice.
Local newspapers can help you to promote your products and services, boost your profile within the community and even help to keep up staff morale – for free! However, few small business owners are good at exploiting this potential and often have less-than-harmonious relationships with the local press.