Public relations, the term used to cover the securing of press coverage in targeted media outlets (publications, newspapers, TV or radio shows), is absolutely the single best value marketing tool on the planet. When a reporter writes about your company, it provides third party credibility, it enables you to get your story out, it provides more information than an ad could provide - and it's significantly less expensive than an ad (unless, of course, you're with a really pricey, ineffective public relations firm, in which case, it's a good thing you're reading this article!).
The way you use this impressive tool will determine just how much value you and your firm get out of it. And there are definitely unique characteristics of hi tech companies - and the media that cover them - that plays into how your public relations effort should be structured for maximum effect.
The basics: Plan and Prepare
A key element to any successful business effort - be it sales, human resources, or public relations - is preparation and planning. Think through what you're trying to accomplish with your public relations effort: who is your audience, what media do they pay attention to, what do you want to tell them. Your public relations and marketing plan should be closely tied to your business plan - these should be interrelated and support each other. And both plans should be strategically crafted, focused on what goals and objectives do you want to accomplish, then drilled down to what actions do you need to implement to get you there. Your strategic vision should drive what media outlets you target when, and what your key messages are for the different media outlets targeted.
The strategic plan will also help you define what really merits attention - what's newsworthy about your company? Really - not to your mom, but to the readers of your tier one publication! What's your differentiator? Why should anyone care about what you're doing? How will it help improve your customers' lives? What are you doing to make sure it does somehow improve your customers' lives?
And once you have the plan, you prepare. Pull together the information you need to support your claims. Lock in customers who are willing to talk to the press about how they use your product or service and how it's improved their lives. Choose your media spokespeople and have them go through media training so they're well prepared to work effectively with the media and deliver your key messages effectively. Get professional photos taken of these spokespeople. Create a basic press kit that provides background information on the company, your key products or services, and your spokespeople. Think through what a reporter is going to need from you to be able to do a great story on your company, and make sure you have in-hand what he'll need - before you ever pick up the phone or send out your first press release.
This isn't as daunting as it sounds; a good pr firm will work this startup phase into any contract, devoting the first 2-3 months of a relationship to creating this solid foundation of strategy, planning, materials, and information.
Beware the lure of the 'release-a-week' approach
Nothing turns a reporter off faster than being inundated with information they don't want, don't need, aren't interested in. Repeatedly. From the same company. Guess what they begin to automatically do with information from that company? That's right - first stop, trash can, without even scanning the headline.
We used to just laugh at pr firms that sent out too-frequent releases on their clients, whether there was actually anything newsworthy or not, desperately trying to paper the world in the hopes that something somewhere would stick. Of course it doesn't work - of course releases that are churned out without much thought to the audience, the value of the message, or the uniqueness of the message aren't going to result in strong features of value for the client. So of course this just made us - and other pr firms that actually use releases only when there's something truly newsworthy -- look good.
But it also hurts some really good companies -- companies who do have interesting messages and unique offerings, buried somewhere in one of the seven releases ignored by the press. And it hurts the press, by bombarding them with useless information, making it harder to get through the clutter and catch their attention with the really good stuff.
Hire smart, and heed their wisdom
Using a public relations consulting firm is a very smart move, especially for a company that offers a complex solution and faces fierce competition, as most high tech firms do. Smart businesses are focusing on their core capabilities and outsourcing other activities to help them keep a competitive edge. But just as you shop carefully when you outsource your call center or any other piece of your business, shop carefully when you choose your public relations firm.
A great one will help you be great: they'll help you target the right audience, and reach that audience with the appropriate message in an innovative manner. They'll work with you as your company changes and evolves, keeping your public 'face' in step with your changing direction and focus. They'll help you anticipate changes in the marketplace and accommodate those changes effectively. But only if you hire a smart firm -- and then listen and follow their advice. You hire them because they have expertise -- use their expertise to your advantage.
A client paid me a very high complement the other day - he introduced me as his public relations consultant to a business associate, and then said, "I just do everything she tells me, and it works out great!" There's a lot of give and take with a client and a public relations consultant, and the best relationships are long-term, ongoing relationships where the pr consultant becomes an integral part of the business planning process, and a trusted advisor for pr and marketing-oriented efforts and initiatives. That's when you see the really impressive return on investment.