Earl Ross, a graduate of New York University with a degree in journalism, has over 32 years experience in public relations, including 27 years as a media specialist with a major trade association.
Earl can be reached by phone at 301-384-0769 or by e-mail at bronx1
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Small Business PRby Earl Ross
When you think of public relations - if you ever do - do you conjure up visions of Armani-clad, Gucci-shod individuals attempting to influence public policy or trying to get their clients on Good Morning America or on the cover of Time ?
To be sure, a good deal of PR is like that, but there is another dimension to it as well. In a nutshell, public relations can be of great help to the small businessman.
Large organizations use in-house PR staffs or outside agencies or both, to carry out their PR programs. For a small businessman, the cost of doing likewise would be prohibitive and would be a case of overkill.
A small businessman can carry out an effective, ongoing PR program all by himself!
To begin with it is important to determine what public relations is and what it's not.
It is not advertising. To advertise, the small businessman must write copy - or have it done by an agency - and pay for the space to run it in a print medium or for the time to have it run by an electronic medium. Advertising is an effort to get someone to buy a particular product or service offered by the advertiser.
It is not sales promotion. Sales promotion is a marketing tool which also aims at getting a customer to buy a particular product or service. An example of a sales promotion with which we are all familiar is the old "buy two and get one free" sale.
Public relations, on the other hand, is more subtle. It does not aim directly at getting anyone to buy a product or service. The goal of public relations is to present a business in the most favorable light. In other words, it is an effort to put your best foot forward. The eventual goal, is, of course, to increase your business.
To illustrate how a small businessman can increase his business, let us use the proprietor of a dry cleaning store as an example and show some of the ways he can use PR with a minimum of expense and effort.
The dry cleaner knows a lot more about fabrics than the average person. To enhance his reputation as an expert, it would be worthwhile to contact - preferably by telephone - the editor or consumer interest reporter if the paper has one - and tell him you'd like to send him a series of small items called "filler material" by newspapers on the proper way of caring for various types of clothing fabrics. If the editor agrees, it should take little time and effort for the cleaner to crank out short pieces on caring for wool, caring for synthetics, etc. All of this advice would be attributed to Joe Doaks of Doaks' Cleaners.
To illustrate how effective such fillers can be, some years ago I was doing product publicity for a major manufacturer of building materials. Each week I would send out to real estate editors all over the country filler material, which was attributed to the manufacturer. Most of the material was of the "Did You Know" variety. One time I sent out a filler saying that metal pipes can rust out, but those made of plastic can't. The headline on this piece written by me, was "Pooped Pipes." Would you believe that I got back more than 200 clippings of this little article?
Getting back to our friend the dry cleaner, I'm sure that quite a few of his customers would be interested in seeing how the whole dry cleaning process works.
Setting up an "open house" at his facility could help give customers and -- potential customers -- a greater appreciation of all that goes into the cleaning of garments and insuring that the right clothes get back to the right customers. Such an open house could be held on a Sunday (first making certain that no other events are scheduled for the neighborhood). A garment could be taken through every step of the cleaning process while the attendees watched. Some cookies and Cokes and a few balloons or streamers could serve to make it a festive occasion.
Another positive PR project could be the donation of unclaimed clothing to some high profile group, such as Goodwill Industries. Information about such donations should be sent to the local newspapers.
Thus far we have looked at some positive PR programs. There is also another side to public relations, which we might call "cleaning up the mess."
Sooner or later, chances are every business is going to do something wrong. What can PR do then?
Here are the first ten rules to follow when something goes wrong:
1) Own up to your mistake and try to rectify it ASAP.
To illustrate, here's an actual example. It happened to my wife. She had purchased a fairly expensive skirt from a local department store, wore it once and took it to a nearby dry cleaners. A week later, she returned and found that her skirt had been ruined. Instead of admitting she had made a mistake the cleaner asserted that the skirt was a cheap one and that is why it had come out so poorly. Despite my wife's remonstrations the cleaner remained adamant -- she would take no responsibility for the ruined skirt. My wife walked out of the store, never to return. By trying to save a few dollars, the cleaner had lost a valuable customer. Apparently, my wife wasn't the only one to have had difficulties with this cleaner. Her attitude toward all her customers was surly. Moreover, she generally waited on customers clad in a housedress and with a head full of curlers. Clearly, a walking example of the worst in public relations. The proof of the pudding was that within a few short months, she was out of business.
To continue the saga of the skirt, my wife took it back to the store where she had bought it. She explained what had happened to it. Lo and behold, they gave her a new one. An outstanding example of good PR.
Another example of doing the right thing to overcome adversity, was afforded by a major oil company. One of its offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire. The company soon determined that if they attempted to put out the blaze, a strong possibility existed that there could be a major oil spill - an environmental disaster. The company wasted no time in deciding to let the fire burn itself out rather than making any effort to extinguish it. The net result was a loss of oil that amounted to some $25 million, but no environmental damage. The company was praised for its effort by the public and press. Indeed, there was a highly favorable article in The Reader's Digest, perhaps the most widely read publication in the world.
Summing up, there are a number of ways that the small businessman can carry out a successful public relations program. But, should adversity occur as a result of his error, he should face his responsibility in a forthright manner. Nothing will poison the wellspring of public opinion more than stonewalling and/or evasion.
Copyright © 1996 Earl Ross
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