Going Public

To most people, public relations means sending news releases, contacting reporters, and getting your name in the newspaper—in other words, publicity. But there’s more to it than that. The Public Relations Society of America offers this definition: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

That’s right, “publics.” Note the plural. “Publics” means anyone who has a stake in the success of your business—and that’s likely more people than you think.

With that definition in mind, here are 15 tips to help you establish and maintain effective communications with your “publics.”

  1. Identify your audiences. Know who you need to talk to. The list includes customers, employees, neighboring businesses, the local community, suppliers, government agencies, and local media.

  2. Remember your internal audience. Don’t take employees for granted. Keep communication open in both directions. Make sure your training is thorough and effective, and encourage questions. Talk to your staff often. Put information in writing, such as your benefits materials as well as literature explaining your mission, values, brand strategy, etc. You can also communicate with employees through memos, bulletin boards, posters, and meetings.

  3. Be aware of the grapevine. It’s unofficial and out of your control, but don’t ignore it. Try to stay plugged in. And remember, if official communications are ineffective, the grapevine will quickly fill the vacuum.

  4. Conduct research. Listen to your customers and consider providing brief questionnaires for them to complete. Use personal contacts and key informants. Organize focus groups. Get information from Web sites, newsletters, and the government, especially the Census Bureau (www.census.gov). Add relevant Web site addresses to the “Favorites” on your Web browser. For example, in this issue of JCK you’ll learn that the World Diamond Council has a Web site (www.diamondfacts.org) with materials to help managers and employees answer consumer queries about conflict diamonds. (See “Politically Correct Diamonds?” p. 110.) Subscribe to trade journals and read literature from trade organizations and associations. Subscribe to relevant e-mail newsletters. Read your local newspaper to understand local issues. Also, stay apprised of national and international issues that might affect your business. As you gather useful information, write it down and organize it. Identify the key issues that you need to address.

  5. Be a good corporate citizen. Support local organizations and charities by contributing money, serving on boards, underwriting local events, donating to charity auctions, or sponsoring a TV or radio public service announcement. Serve as a volunteer and encourage employees to do the same. Join the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. If you’re in a downtown location, consider joining a downtown merchants association or a historic preservation society.

  6. Inform the media about legitimate news. Use news releases, but make sure they’re properly written and don’t sound like advertising. Answer the questions, Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Do it in the first sentence or first paragraph. (See “15 Tips for Writing News Releases,” JCK, November 2005, p. 106.) Legitimate news includes relocating or opening a new store, winning an award, holding an event, and hiring management-level people. Send releases not only to local newspapers but also to local and regional consumer and business publications, community weeklies, television stations, and radio stations.

  7. Develop relationships with journalists. They need stories, and you might have one. After you mail a news release, follow up with a polite call or e-mail. Offer to help; don’t ask them to help you. By simply asking “How can I assist you?” you may be surprised at the response; it’s astonishing how infrequently reporters hear that question. (And never tell them you’re an advertiser.) If a reporter seems abrupt, don’t be put off. (Reporters are like that.) If they ask a lot of questions, be patient; they may be more used to covering school board meetings or the police blotter than the latest jewelry trends. If you can educate them without being condescending, you’ll become the valued expert they’ll talk to in the future.

  8. Pitch feature stories. If your local newspaper picks up a story about conflict diamonds, give a quick call to the business editor and let her know you’re the local expert on the topic, or any jewelry-related story. (If you’re not an expert on conflict diamonds, become one quickly. Blood Diamond, with matinee idol Leonardo DiCaprio, is slated for release in December.) To get you started on how to pitch a story, here’s a no-brainer: Every local newspaper has at least one feature story every holiday season about gift giving. Such features include what to get the hard-to-buy-for person, best gifts in various price categories, and hottest trends of the season. Contact the appropriate publications and journalists and let them know—well in advance of deadlines—what new, trendy, or unique products in your store would make the perfect gift for wives, husbands, children, and others. Make sure you have high-quality photographs or high- resolution digital images. (Learn each publication’s preferred format. And find out about those all-important deadlines.)

  9. Create a newsletter. Do it yourself or hire a public relations professional, but either way, make sure it represents your store brand and fits the image you want your store to convey. Make sure it’s typo-free, well designed, and professionally printed. Give it to employees as well as customers and send copies to those journalists with whom you’ve developed a relationship, along with a brief handwritten and signed note.

  10. Develop a media kit. This needn’t be a tome but should include three items: a backgrounder with the history of your company, the type of products you sell, and other similar information; a fact sheet, usually a bullet list with key information such as name, address, size, owners and managers, mission statement, and awards received; and frequently asked questions, which include anything a journalist (or a customer) might ask. You can also include current and recent news releases, head shots of principals, and photos of the store.

  11. Join a local or regional speaker’s bureau. You’ll need a specific subject to talk about in an interesting way, but with jewelry that shouldn’t be difficult. It can be the latest styles, conflict diamonds, picking out an engagement ring, or any number of topics. If you’re worried that your speaking skills are weak, consider joining your local chapter of Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org).

  12. Attend to your Web site. Don’t think of it as just another way to advertise but as another means of communicating with your publics. It must be attractive, inviting, and easy to use. It should tell your story and include some practical information. Invite feedback by including your phone number and an e-mail link. Respond to all e-mails, preferably within 24 hours.

  13. Ask a college public relations class to adopt your store for a project. Many colleges and universities offer courses in public relations. Get in touch with the professor and ask if students would like to use a live company as a subject for their class work. If so, volunteer your store.

  14. Take a class yourself. A college-level public relations course will provide textbooks and other literature, practical information, opportunities to write press releases and develop full-blown public relations campaigns, and exposure to local p.r. professionals. It might even be offered as a once-a-week evening class aimed at working professionals. If you can’t attend yourself, consider sending an employee.

  15. Join IABC or PRSA. The International Association of Business Communicators has more than 100 chapters that offer “a range of local services, including regular professional development meetings and workshops, member newsletters, awards programs, and … [an] opportunity for local networking with peers,” according to its Web site. For information, visit www.iabc.com or call (415) 544-4700. The Public Relations Society of America is an organization for p.r. professionals. For information, visit www.prsa.org or call (212) 460-1400.