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Building up your business takes more than a few clever marketing campaigns. It also requires the constant, careful cultivation of a public image. What do people think about you? What do they say? How do they feel?

And does all of that align with the image you want to convey?

Seems a little overwhelming at first, but it’s actually not as difficult as you’d think. Provided you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can actually do a pretty masterful job of handling public relations on your own. Today, we’re going to talk about how.

Know Your Media

My first word of advice – and I cannot emphasize this enough – is to understand the channels you’re broadcasting through. Though I’m specifically talking about social media here, there are other mediums that you’re going to have to develop working knowledge of, as well.  Social networks are the most powerful communications channel at your disposal, but they’re far from the only one.

Are you planning, for example, to host a blog? Open up a YouTube account? Create a mailing list? Pay for a bunch of banner ads and popups?

Actually, you should probably avoid fiddling with that last one.

“Public relations communications go beyond writing press releases and white papers, and the savvy publicist will be a master of both traditional and new media forms,” writes Demand Media’s Thomas Metcalf. “While prose and paper may be more comprehensive, electronic media open new doors to creativity. Blogs, posts and tweets should be an important part of your public relations campaign. If you package your message in brief bites, for example, you can tweet and post them. You can also video your comments and post them on YouTube. Select your words with care to allow SEO to work for you.”

Make it Personal

We’re living in an era where the average user is inundated with somewhere between three hundred and seven hundred marketing messages a day, though a few more liberal estimates go as high as 20,000. Worse still, the majority of those messages are largely impersonal, and often mistargeted and irrelevant. Ask yourself, for example, when you last saw a YouTube ad that caught your attention, a banner ad that inspired you to click-through, or a pop-up that had even the barest connection to your interests.

Your answer, I think, speaks for itself.

This overwhelming influx of poorly-designed marketing messages is precisely why you have to personalize your own public relations efforts. Everyone’s grown tired of brands that shotgun automated, mechanical messages at the wall in hopes that something sticks. If you actually want to build a reputation, you need to tailor things to your audience.

“Businesses today want to automate everything,” explains Business 2 Community’s John Miller. “That’s usually a bad approach. Yes, it can be painstaking to have dozens and dozens of one-on-one conversations, but that’s where the most success will be found. The more you can make your pitches the start of relationships rather than transactions, the better off you’ll be.”

Learn How to Interview

At its core, public relations is really about one thing, and one thing only: communication. It’s about communicating your business’s story to reporters and media outlets, communicating your brand messages to consumers, and communicating your organization’s strengths to prospective colleagues. With that in mind, it’s imperative that you learn how to conduct a proper interview – and that includes learning how to carry yourself in public.

“How you are perceived and how you present yourself both on camera and on stage is a critical point in the branding of both you and your organization,” says PR News Online’s Rodger Roeser. “It’s a must to come across in a fashion consistent with how you want others to perceive you. Media training may be the best investment for your long-term brand health. Even if you are the CEO of your organization or the lowly PR flack, it’s imperative to participate in media training.”

Roeser lays out a few tips regarding proper interview conduct; I’ve included some of my own:

  • Ask about questions in advance
  • Be prepared to explain yourself
  • Media outlets are not your personal marketing agency – be flexible about the direction and topics
  • Congratulate interviewers on asking good questions
  • Use ‘trigger language’ to emphasize important components of your response
  • Don’t drone on
  • Don’t talk a mile a minute
  • Send a follow-up note as a thank you
  • Be punctual
  • Don’t be afraid to have a conversation – if the interview derails too much, the interviewer will get it back on track.
  • Dress the part, especially if you’re interviewing in person
  • If you’re interviewing online or over the phone, test all of your equipment beforehand to make sure everything’s in working order

Always Stay Active

Public relations isn’t something you can ever really quit (unless you hire someone to handle it for you). Just as cultivating a business is an ongoing process, so too is managing that business’s reputation. What I’m saying here is that no matter how well your brand does – and how high your reputation soars – you can never afford to simply step back and say your job is done.

“Don’t. Ever. Get. Complacent,” explains Ruder Finn’s Andrew Worob, speaking to PR Daily. “No matter how much success you may experience—and I hope it’s a lot—there’s nothing sadder than seeing someone lose the edge that they once had—that inner fire to want to do as well as humanly possible regardless of the task at hand.

“The learning in PR never stops, and you’ll always meet someone who knows just a little more about something than you do,” he continues. “Take that as a challenge. Strive to exceed previous milestones. While the results may not always be the same, your effort will be.”

Follow the LEAD Principle

According to Coopr’s Jody Koehler, the best thing newbies in a PR agency can do is follow a principle called L.E.A.D.: Listen, Experience, Ask, and Dare. Granted, her advice is directed at PR professionals, but I think it can easily be adapted for the sake of businesses looking to handle their own reputation:

    • Listen to experts within the field of public relations. What sort of advice do they have for new faces? What mistakes should you avoid, and what tactics should you use?
    • Experience the job for yourself. Be as active with your reputation management efforts as you possibly can, and always be on the lookout for what you can learn.
    • Ask questions. Connect with PR agencies, businesses that have successful reputations, bloggers, freelancers; anyone who understands digital reputation. Don’t be afraid if one of your questions sounds like something a novice would ask – everyone’s been there at some point.
    • Dare to take changes and get creative – but do so intelligently. No sense destroying your business with an ill-advised set of tweets, after all.

 

 

Keep Up With Current Events

Pay attention to the media, particularly as it relates to your field. You’ll need to know what’s going on in order to properly time social media content, blog posts, and press releases. It’s also important that you keep yourself on top of news related to your business. See here how social media steps up versus PR.

Let’s say, for example, a frustrated customer of yours has been making a lot of noise, and has managed to get the attention of a few bloggers.

Reach out to them – the sooner the better. Apologize for the experience, and ask what you can do to make it up to them. You’d be surprised how far that response can take you, as opposed to ignoring the problem or trying to deny it exists. More in depth tips can be found here.

Pay Attention to the Little Details

How you say something is every bit as important as what you say. For that reason, it’s important that you develop an attention to detail. Without a keen eye, there’s a good chance you might miss something important, or misspeak.

“Word choice is critical in public relations,” advises Metcalf. “The wrong word can cause an otherwise positive statement to spiral into an unending nightmare of clarifications. In public relations today, it is incumbent on those who speak and write to pick their words with extreme care. You must be aware that words mean different things to different generations. Public relations also relies on positive relationships. Remembering the names of people you interact with, no matter how infrequently, builds instant rapport. In the fast-paced world we share, common courtesy can be overlooked. Thanking people creates goodwill that carries forward in your relationships.”

 

If You Can’t Write, Hire Someone Who Can

My last piece of advice is as follows: even if you know precisely the message you want your brand to convey, that doesn’t mean you’re the best person to convey it. Just like not everyone’s an amazing programmer, skilled athlete, or top-notch artist; not everyone can write. Don’t be afraid to hire someone on to put together press releases or blog posts – you can still handle the ‘relations’ bit yourself.

Closing Thoughts: Why Hire A PR Firm At All?

Let’s tie things off with one last question. If reputation management can be done on your own time, and with your own resources, why bother hiring a public relations agency at all? What do they bring to the table that your business doesn’t have?

Expertise aside, the answer’s pretty simple: contacts. As we established in last week’s piece, the best agencies aren’t simply a team of creatives brimming with great ideas – they also know people. They’ve a stable of media contacts they can tap into to disperse their messages more effectively (and to a far larger audience) than you’d likely be capable of doing on your own.

Whether or not that perk is worth the cost of hiring a professional is entirely up to you – if you’ve a small, local business, then you’re probably good to handle things on your own until you grow a bit larger.