Free Advertising: The Magic of Getting Media Attention

Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch obviously didn't know about PR. A single public relations stunt can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in free publicity. No, I'm not suggesting you stash your son in a barn and send the National Guard on a wild balloon chase — that's dishonest.

But there are plenty of honest ways to garner media attention. I've run three businesses over the past 20 years. The first was a consulting firm that helped businesses find financing. The second was a vintage airplane "flight-seeing" operation (think Snoopy and the Red Baron). And the third is a telework research and consulting firm. Without the "free ink" in newspapers and magazines, none of those businesses would have survived, let alone prospered.

Newspaper and magazine ads, direct mail campaigns, and other conventional marketing tactics, meanwhile, are expensive and risky. I know. I've tried them. One $5,000 magazine ad, or rather the total absence of calls from it, was particularly memorable. A pre-show ad at the local movie theater seemed like a good bet for the flight-seeing business; after all, it’s a visual sell. Fortunately, a fire at the theatre allowed us to cut our losses on that contract. The aerial banner towed behind our biplane that read "R-I-D-E-S • 1-8-0-0-S-K-Y-L-O-O-P" felt like a sure thing too. Sadly, the only call we received was a noise complaint.

By contrast, PR efforts are cheap and effective. But your business is too boring to make headlines you say? I say "horse puckey." Financial consulting and telework research aren't exactly Barnum and Bailey, but we've scored media hits in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Washington Post, and other publications. Any business, no matter how boring, can be newsworthy when a bit of creativity is added to the mix.

Let’s say you own a neighborhood shoe store. The latest wingtips aren’t exactly headline material, but you can create your own with a bit of creativity. These ideas might get you a foot in the door at the local newspaper:

  • For Valentine’s Day, you could run a safe "socks" sale or joy of "socks" special.
  • Declare April (or May, or June, or...) Foot History Month and hold a contest for the best essay about feet that have made history. For example, did you know that Warren Harding, our 29th President, had size 14 doggies? How’d you like to fill those shoes?
  • Speaking of presidents, wait for the next political slip of the tongue (you shouldn’t have to wait long) and parlay that into a press release about famous foot-in-mouth moments.
  • Flip-flops can go on special when the local democrat turns republican.

Of course, not all PR has to be funny or even quirky. The possibilities are endless. Just about any holiday, any headline, or any historical event holds the potential for a story about you, your business, your customers, or even your suppliers. Just find the angle and make the pitch.

Best of all, PR isn't rocket science. It's something you can do on your own with very little training. You just need to find a hook that will reel the media in.

How has PR helped your business succeed? Do tell!

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