Public relations! The phrase conjures up images of spin doctors working for evil megacorporations or politicians conspicuously pretending to be folksy in an effort to win voters.

That first impression is definitely not wrong, but it’s for sure not the whole picture either!

At its heart, public relations (PR, for short) is about guarding your company’s reputation. Every business, no matter how big or small, can engage in basic PR tactics.

In this article, I’ll talk about what PR is all about, why it matters, how it differs from marketing, and basic PR objectives. Then I’ll wrap it up with a list of basic tactics that you can implement into your small business plans today.

The basic idea of public relations

To understand public relations, we first have to dispel a simple rumor: it’s not advertising. That’s an entirely separate discipline. The Public Relations Society of America uses the following definition of PR, and I think it’s a pretty good one:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Put another way, the whole idea behind PR is to cast a company, organization, or person in a positive light. The idea is to create a positive narrative that gets spread around – be it through referrals, the media, what-have-you – all to help the company accomplish its objectives.

Ever have a job interview? The basic idea is the same. You dress well, you rehearse answers to common questions, and generally try to exude an air of affability and competence.

Companies need to do that too.

Why public relations matters

Ultimately, every business wants to make sales. Financial solvency is the bedrock upon which all great businesses are built. Pretty much every business decision has to run by the filter of “will this make money or support the making of money?”

But public relations work doesn’t have a clean line to sales, at least not in the way that some marketing efforts do. Rather, PR is important for “softer” but no less important reasons.

First and foremost, PR is necessary to looking professional and keeping a good reputation. By proactively managing your company’s appearance online and in the media, you can make sure that people associate your company’s name with good things. Otherwise, you could be turning away prospective customers before you ever meet them!

Another reason you might want to work on your PR is to increase reach. The basic idea behind marketing reach is the number of overall people who are aware of your products, services, or brand. Even a short segment in the local news, for example, can do wonders for the number of people who have heard of you. The right kind of PR can really help your business build a brand in the eyes of the public.

Lastly, good PR can help you provide a better user experience or customer experience. This can help you to retain customers, which is much cheaper and more cost-effective than acquiring new customers.

The difference between public relations, advertising, and marketing

In advertising, you purchase media. In public relations, you earn media.

This is a very important distinction, and it really goes to show starkly the difference between advertising and public relations. The goal with PR is to get as much positive news or chatter about your company as possible without having to pay someone directly to parrot your messages.

Marketing, on the other hand, is much broader in scope. It involves everything from product creation to pricing to promotion, and much more. Advertising and public relations are both subsets of marketing in general.

4 basic PR objectives

I’m going to narrow down the objectives of PR in to four basic categories in a moment, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t issue a bit of disclaimer.

Before you can effectively engage in public relations, take a moment to think about your audience. What are they interested in and how can you reach them? Once you know the answers to these questions, the whole process becomes much easier!

Additionally, before you pick a PR strategy, think about your general marketing strategy. Do you want to spread the word of a new product? Are you trying to remind people you exist? Are you trying to recover from a mistake? The answer to these questions, and others, will determine how you should approach PR.

So, with that in mind, here are four basic PR objectives you can pursue.

  1. Spreading word of your company, its products/services, or your brand to as many people as possible.
  2. Reminding people that your company, its products/services, or brand exists.
  3. Proactively making your company look good.
  4. Recovering from a public-facing mistake.

14 ways your small business can use PR to its advantage

With the core concepts of PR spelled out above, I’ll now move on to a list of tactics which your small business can use. Most of these are not difficult at all, and some you may already have done!

1. Hone your pitch.

Before you start taking dramatic actions, the single most important way you can improve your PR is hone your pitch. Think about who your target audience is, what they find interesting, and how you can reach them. Can you explain what makes your company special in a few seconds?

If your answer to the above question is anything but an unambiguous, enthusiastic “yes,” then change your pitch until it is. The most important factor in getting a message to spread is having a message that’s worth spreading in the first place!

2. Issue a press release.

One of the easiest ways to engage in PR is to write a press release. The basic idea of a press release is to create a short, interesting story that the news media can pick up and run with. You can read more about how to make a press release here.

Once you have a press release written, you can email it to different news organizations by searching their websites and figuring out the right contact. Better yet, you can pay for a service such as PR Fire to do that on your behalf! (PR Fire even has an option to have your press release rewritten by a professional journalist.)

3. Reach out to your local news.

Getting in the national news isn’t easy, so getting local news coverage is much more achievable for many small businesses. Ask around your community or look online for the contact information of the people who handle the local news in your area. Your best bet is to try to make friends with a friend of the news station you want to be featured in.

This can be a great way to increase your company’s reach and improve your reputation within your community. If you want to eliminate some of the guesswork that comes with finding media contact’s, check out Prowly’s media contact database.

4. Stage a publicity stunt.

Remember when Elon Musk shot a car into space? This is a classic example of a PR stunt. The whole purpose was to do something creative, clever, and weird so that Tesla and SpaceX would dominate headlines for a little while.

It worked! But you need not think so grand when doing your own PR stunts. Here are a bunch of PR stunts used by startups in the early to mid-2010s. All you really have to do is something strange enough to make news, if only in niche or local media.

5. Reach out to online influencers.

We’ve talked a lot about influencer marketing before, but as a refresher: influencer marketing is getting popular people on social media to talk about you. One very simple but effective PR tactic involves sending your products to popular people online to generate “buzz.”

6. Create advertorials.

I like this suggestion from the Queensland, Australia government website.

Advertorials are advertisements in the form of news stories or reviews in newspapers. Advertorials allow you to associate your advertising with the credibility of the newspaper.

Many businesses employ advertising or marketing professionals to help them develop TV advertorials — which are commonly used as a form of advertising and product placement.

In short, find a journalist to write about your product in a positive light to create an editorial that doubles as a form of advertisement.

7. Stage events.

As we found out in the long year of 2020, people love going to events. Taking the time to stage or even participate in an event can bring your business a lot of attention. At the most basic level, you can go to trade shows and exhibitions.

If you want to go one step further, though, thing about what kind of events your customers would like to participate in. You could throw a party or start a sweepstakes. I even one time created a board game design contest in which participants had 48 hours to create the best board game they possibly could. We got a ton of attention from this simple idea!

8. Go to networking events.

The public is nothing more than a collection of individuals. By going to networking events or even networking online, you get to know people one by one. This allows you to create more lasting impressions, and that too is a form of PR, even if it doesn’t involve the mass media!

9. Improve your online presence.

Speaking of networking online, take some time to polish up your online presence. That includes your website, social media, and anywhere else that people can find you online.

Improving your online presence is a complex enough ordeal in its own right, so here are a few articles you can refer to:

10. Publish newsletters.

Newsletters, especially ones sent out by email, are a good way to keep in touch with your customers. It’s also a great way of spreading messages that you want to spread to a larger audience. You can use newsletters not only to make sales but also to reinforce brand messages.

11. Book speaking gigs.

Nothing can make you look like an expert quite like booking a speaking engagement. There’s a reason why so many career-oriented individuals have sought out every opportunity to give a TED Talk.

Find local speaking gigs, or gigs associated with your niche, and try to get them to book you. The first order effect is that you will be able to spread your messages to the people in the room. The second order effect is that you’ll be able to talk about your speaking engagement online, which will look good from a PR perspective.

12. Treat your employees well.

With employer rating sites like Glassdoor and Indeed, you really have to be careful about how you treat your employees. Treat them well and your employees will become your greatest ambassadors and recruiters. Treat them poorly, and they’ll trash talk you online and in-person and you’ll start to develop a bad reputation.

13. Engage in community outreach.

There’s nothing quite like starting local to build word-of-mouth. Community outreach may take the form of networking or attending local events. Perhaps better, you can also volunteer to help people in need, such as by raising money for charity.

14. Set up sponsorships and partnerships.

Lastly, one of the best ways to engage in PR is to associate with the right people and companies. Find people with compatible businesses and try to strike up a partnership. You may also be able to get larger companies to sponsor you, which is something we talk about in this guide.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of things you can do today to ensure good public relations for your small business! By following some of the tips above, you can increase your reach and improve your reputation all without spending a dime on advertisements.