When the economy is slow, it might seem prudent to hold on to what you have rather than try to expand. Fearing recession, small-business owners might worry more about cash flow than about generating media buzz for their company.
But PR and marketing are different from other kinds of expansion. They don't always require a lot of money—just time and effort. U.S. News spoke with Kevin McLaughlin of Resound Marketing in Princeton, N.J., about how small-business owners can put themselves on the map and, once on it, stay there. Excerpts:
Why not cut back on PR and marketing when the economy is bad?
When your business has seen better days, cutbacks are necessary. But we've seen situations where people want to cut back completely. Instead of eliminating your marketing activities, you can be smart about how to cut it back. Marketing is very hard to turn on and off like a faucet and keep that same flow. You really have to build and maintain some sort of momentum. That's hard to do when you're picking it up every now and then.
PR and marketing seem much easier for big companies to do. But do small companies have any advantages they can use?
Large companies are trying to manage inquiries and control the news. Small companies have much more of an emphasis on getting on the radar and staying there. They don't have that brand name to start with. They have to rely less on news, and they really have to focus on leveraging their thought leadership—sharing their expertise and their point of view.
You have this in-the-trench experience. Share that expertise, and become a resource. Not everything has to be about company news, but instead it can be about demonstrating your understanding of a particular topic or trend that will benefit your company in the long run by getting that third-party validation that you are an expert in the field and that you will bring value to the customer. You have a better chance of building a relationship with editors when you're less about pitching to them and more about being a resource for them and you don't rely on news.
How do you develop that relationship?
As an entrepreneur, what you have to do is develop your foundation—finding your message, pinpointing the audience, and forming your media list. That might be TV shows, trade magazines, newsletters, or blogs. Once you have that foundation in place, then you develop your plan. That includes picking a relevant topic, crafting your pitch so you tell a story, and then your working media plan, which is identifying the right contacts—people who have a specific interest in what you're doing. It doesn't cost any money. It's just a matter of time and resources.
Most media post their mastheads online. You can a lot of times just call the editorial room and talk to somebody. The list you can create on your own.
So this concept of "thought leadership" should take precedence over publicizing specific accomplishments of your company?
We've had clients come to us and say they dropped a press release on a newswire, but their PR didn't really produce much. Don't rely too much on milestones, and think more about expertise. There are market leaders where you own a particular share. Then there are thought leaders where it's the innovative ideas that are of real value.
And owning an idea doesn't require much money.
Exactly. You're leveraging your expertise and experience in an industry. That's using brainpower rather than your bank account. PR is a good example of an activity that can be done with little to no fixed assets.
So once you start getting attention as a thought leader, how do you continue that momentum?
Small businesses look at a press clip, and they say, "We got a few leads," and that's it. They don't utilize that clip further. We have our clients update their personal biographies and update their website with the logo of that publication and the quote from the particular publication they got coverage in. Building up your profile a little bit more helps you with speaking opportunities. You can get in front of your peers as a speaker at an event.
You have to be very proactive—those agendas go out six to 12 months before an event. If you pinpoint the events you'd like to be involved with, you can reach out to a conference organizer in advance. Send a pitch or abstract out about what you can speak on about a topic. The strong events are regular and in your community. If you look at last year's calendars, then you can know which events will be happening again. If you monitor your key event organizers like your chamber of commerce, then you will get an early notification.
How have changes in the Internet—more of a focus on blogs and social networking—changed PR and marketing for small companies?
I think it's intimidating because there is so much out there. If you start small and then think to grow it, then you can do it. It's hard to go to the New York Times when you're a small-business owner. But with blogs, what they've done for small companies is that they've given them better access. There are more niche-oriented blogs so you can find a blog in your niche that attracts a high-quality audience.
The same goes with social media. It gives you more touch points with your customers. We have customers who have created a strong following of fans, whether through MySpace or Facebook. By interacting online, you can use your customers as ambassadors.
So where do you begin in the massive world of blogs?
Start with a more refined list. If you look at, say, all the blogs that cover consumer electronics, it's going to be monumental. But if you looked at them and said, "I want to reach the top five in online music," you can whittle down the list.