If you highlight the words “public relations” in a Microsoft Word document and click Thesaurus, the following list of “synonyms” pops onto your computer screen: “propaganda,” “promotion,” “public image,” “favorable climate,” and “advertising.” Bill Gates may think of public relations in those terms, but p.r. practitioners take a different view. Judy Pehrson, director of external relationships at the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars in Washington, D.C., which administers the federal government’s Fulbright Scholar program, defines public relations as “strategically managing your relations with your various publics. They might be employees, customers, investors, the community, the media, and in some cases, the general public.”
An organization’s “publics” are “those groups you need to get information to regarding your business,” says Catherine Bolton, president and chief operating officer of the Public Relations Society of America in New York City. Bolton says the key to public relations is effective communications.
People often confuse public relations with advertising and marketing. “It continues to surprise me that retailers show up at a seminar that’s all about public relations and ask ‘When are you going to get to advertising?’ ” says Elizabeth Florence, director of the Jewelry Information Center in New York. “They have the same end goal, but the similarities end there. In public relations you’re seeking a third-party endorsement. Any editorial coverage you receive is because someone thought it was worthy to write about.”
A third-party endorsement gives your message the kind of credibility that a paid advertisement cannot. “Publicity articles that are printed about you are more efficacious than what you pay to have done,” says Pehrson. “You control your advertising, but people know that, whereas if they see an article that’s favorable, that means more. They consider it more valid.”
Publicity isn’t the only tool in the p.r. toolkit. The other key component is community partnership, says Laura J. Geisking, president of The Creative Company Inc., an advertising and public relations firm in Monroe, Wis. “People will do business with companies they feel good about,” she says. “Jewelers typically have a kind of ‘big money’ image. Adding in that element of ‘feel-good’ community service makes a jewelry store seem more approachable to consumers.”
Have a plan. Professionals advise a planned, systematic approach to public relations. “You have to know why you’re doing it,” says Pehrson. “Things have to be planned carefully. Think strategically—it’s a cliché, but it’s really true.” She says the first step is to identify target audiences—your “publics”—and decide how you want them to act on your information. Then figure out the best ways to reach them. Options include press releases, newsletters, brochures, fact sheets, e-mail, Web sites, and special events.
Public relations should be part of an overall marketing strategy, says Fred Michmershuizen, director of marketing and communications for Jewelers of America. “It begins with having a good sense of identity,” he says. “First, realize what kind of store you are. Then you need to have a marketing strategy for that, and you need to tie everything to that—advertising, public relations, your Web site.”
Once you’ve developed a strategic mindset and are ready to formulate a plan, p.r. professionals recommend the following:
Remember your employees. “Public relations starts within the store,” says Florence. “You can have a very aggressive, targeted public relations campaign with the media, but if internal relations in the store aren’t as they should be—for example, if younger employees feel out of the loop—there might be a little dissonance there. Letting [employees] feel like their opinion really counts for something—that’s the beginning.”
Give staff members not only the information you want them to have but also the information they want to have. “Find out from your employees what they want and what they need to know,” says Pehrson, who also stresses honesty. “If it’s seen as being propaganda, employees will discount it. Honesty is very important for credibility.”
Be an expert. “You have to know what you’re talking about,” says Michmershuizen. “You have to be educated, and your employees have to be educated. You have to keep up to date on treatments and synthetics, conflict diamonds, all those issues. That brings back the importance of being a member of a trade association. JA and others offer education and training.”
Know your community.“You have to be on the lookout for things,” says Geisking. “Read local papers, and watch local TV so you know what’s going on. Don’t just call [a reporter] and say ‘Why don’t you do a story on us?'” Instead, if you spot a jewelry-related story, call the reporter who wrote it and ask if he or she needs a comment or expert opinion or wants to do a follow-up. “Give them as much information as you can so they have an idea for a story,” suggests Geisking.
Help your community. “Be a good community partner,” Geisking advises. Based on the results of a recentJCK Retail Panel survey, the vast majority of jewelers are involved in their communities and donate time and resources to a wide array of charities.
Serving on the board of a local charity or performing community work “can only serve you well because of the relationships you make,” says Florence. “Even if you’re not blaring the message that you have a great jewelry store downtown, ultimately your being out among people will drive traffic to your store.”
Understand the media. “The media are customers, too,” says Bolton. “They have readers, and readers have a natural curiosity about jewelry. You can provide them with basic information. For example, around Valentine’s Day, people might want to know how to buy a diamond or how to find a trustworthy jeweler. You have to shape the information you want to get across and contact the media to make sure the story fits their needs.” But be aware that not every jewelry-related story “fits their needs.” “Something that’s important to a retail jeweler might not be important to a newspaper,” notes Michmershuizen.
Be prepared to make yourself available to reporters at their convenience. “You have to be there when they want you to be there and smile and look great, and it doesn’t matter if you’re tired,” says Geisking. “You have to be accessible, period.”
Learn to write a press release. “The press release is really the standard [public relations] vehicle, and it’s still around because it works,” says Florence. “The most important thing to keep in mind when writing a release is the audience. If it’s for a newspaper, think like an editor, who thinks like his readers.”
“If you send a good release, it’s going to get used,” says Pehrson. “The closer you get to what a journalist would write, the more chance there is that they’ll use it verbatim or follow up and talk to you.” Poorly prepared releases will undermine your efforts. “If you send a couple of bad releases, they won’t even open your envelopes,” Pehrson notes. (See sidebar on p. 161.)
Consider in-store events. “Special events can really serve as a tool,” says Florence. “An event is not something you need to sink a lot of money into. Invite [the public and press] over and show them product and get them excited about it in a creative way.”
Consider outside events. Pat Gilmore of Dunbar Jewelers in Yakima, Wash., is a member of the local Chamber of Commerce speakers bureau and gives presentations to local organizations and schools. “I have developed a good relationship with the science teachers at one of the middle schools,” Gilmore says. “They teach a segment on rocks and minerals, and I go to the school for a day and talk about gemstones. This has been a great way to introduce students to gemstones and promote our business.”
Jewelers of America recently introduced a series of do-it-yourself seminars for members. “One is called ‘Why Is a Ruby Red?’ for third- and fourth-graders,” explains Michmershuizen. “Another is about jewelry styles and influences, and one is a guide to buying and caring for fine jewelry. Jewelers can borrow materials from us and give presentations to local community groups.”
Think strategically. Coordinate your efforts. If you plan an event, write a release about it. If you send a release, follow up with a phone call. “In the last year, we were very fortunate with public relations,” says Gilmore. “Every time we did a special event we sent out a press release, and all the media came to do a story. TV personnel in particular came to us to do other jewelry-related stories. As a result, we were featured on the evening news six times by one television station last year. This turned out to be great for business. Everywhere we went, people mentioned they saw us on the news.”
Respond to negative national news stories. If a national TV newsmagazine does a negative story on the industry, respond immediately, says Geisking. “Contact the [local] media powers that be and ask if you can meet to give the other side of the story. You can hop on a national news story and make it a local story.”
Use your Web site. “An e-commerce site that’s only about logging on and buying misses the point of being able to frame a message in a vital and dynamic way,” says Florence.
Should you do it? An effective public relations campaign requires an investment of time, money, and creative energy. Is it worth the effort? “I think that it’s vital,” says Florence. “If anyone says they don’t have time, they need to sit down and reevaluate priorities. It can be so fruitful that I absolutely believe that any kind of store should be making public relations efforts.”