Time for a Fourth-Quarter PR Blitz

So here it is, the middle of August, and you’ve made a tremendous push perfecting your catalogs, operations, and staff for the greatest financial impact in the fourth quarter. But do you have a strategic plan to reap a fourth-quarter public relations bonanza? Good news: Even if you haven’t planned a PR campaign, there’s still time—but you have to get moving.

An effective PR campaign should raise awareness, generate inquiries and sales, influence consumers, and create word-of-mouth buzz, all of which can lead to a more profitable bottom line. A good campaign can also boost employee morale, thus increasing productivity.

So how do you launch a campaign in time to benefit this holiday season?

Step 1: Plan, plan, plan. Start by planning who will be responsible for crafting and implementing the PR campaign. You also have to plan your budget and set up a streamlined approval process for any concepts or creative. You will have to consider normal business expenses such as telephone, postage, and shipping, as well as product samples if they are part of your campaign. Additional expenses will be determined by the campaign you construct and whether you are using inhouse staff or hiring a PR counselor.

Step 2: Set campaign goals. Define the goal or goals you want to achieve with your PR campaign—and be specific. Is your aim to increase inquiries or reach a specific financial sales target? And what mechanisms will be in place to measure the campaign’s impact? Without measurement tools, how will you determine the campaign’s success?

Step 3: Create the message. Before embarking on a campaign, you must determine what about your products, service, or company is important enough to warrant an implied endorsement by the news media. An important tool is key message or talking points—simple phrases or statements that convey the essence of what you want to communicate. For example, when I was with the Direct Marketing Association, we used the key words “easy,” “convenient,” and “reliable” to create the catalog shopping story. When used consistently, message points ensure that the company’s position is clear to the public.

Limit yourself to three statements—with supporting statistics, examples, and statements—that clearly convey the important points everyone should know about your product or company. What is your unique selling proposition? What is so fantastic about the merchandise and services you offer that everyone should know about? How do you substantiate the claim that you are the leader in your product category?

Step 4: Control the message. Consistently use your message points; otherwise, your story may not look like the one you envisioned. One reason for a failed campaign is the inconsistent or nonuse of key messages. Spend time developing these talking points, with supporting facts, examples, and statements.

Step 5: Select your media outlets. For starters, determine which markets you want to reach. Then determine who is best suited to respond to your story pitch within each news outlet. Which reporters or media have covered your company or competition in the past? And of course, you should understand how various news outlets like to operate and how to position your story quickly with each reporter.

Consider the media category (see “The Message and the Medium,” below) is best suited for your story, the amount of advance time needed to make contact and place a story, and the publication or airdate possibilities. Remember that print drives broadcast—TV and radio reporters often pick up stories after reading them in print—so focus on print media first.

Step 6: Make your pitch. When contacting media for the first time, you’ll have 30 seconds or less to introduce the company, so keep it brief. If sending a press release or a pitch letter, be sure the copy sells the essence of the story. When speaking with media, offer JPEG images, and promise immediate turnaround of any request the reporter makes.

If you plan to mail or email materials to the media first, provide images with captions that include some of your key message points, product name, and consumer contact information. However, don’t attach any documents to your initial communication. Most media outlets block emails with attachments.

Be sure to conduct an aggressive follow-up campaign. Speed counts. Often the first company to respond with good information will get the lion’s share of the article, so move fast when responding to media inquiries.

Finally, be sure to alert your employees—especially customer services and your receptionist—to the PR campaign efforts. Provide copies of the press materials so that they can listen for elements in callers’ comments. It is also wise to establish a company policy regarding handling calls from the news media.

With proper planning, goal setting, and strategy, you can create an effective PR campaign that will generate additional sales, greater visibility, new names to the database, and stronger ties to key reporters—in short, a successful fourth quarter.

The Message and the Medium

By Lisa C. Hahn, president, Caugherty Hahn Communications, Inc.

Here is a quick synopsis of media options:

Daily Newspapers—There are dozens of editorial “beats” or departments to consider among the nation’s more than 1,600 daily newspapers. Localizing the story can be mandatory for most outlets. Nationally read publications such as USA Today and The New York Times are more interested in trend stories. With space limited in the lifestyle section, look for ways to air your story through other editorial departments.

Weekly Newspapers—Suburban weeklies, of which there are more than 9,000, typically offer small circulations but are well read and anxiously gobble up well-presented stories. Many, if not most, weeklies use prepared releases—as long as they aren’t blatantly self-serving. Include an image with a caption to gain more space.

Magazines—Monthly magazines typically work with long-lead times, anywhere from three- to six-months out from the publication date, so at this point your options for placement before this year’s holiday season may be slim. Nonetheless it may be worth formatting a pitch to a weekly magazine.

News Syndicates—The individual newspaper editor generally decides whether to offer a story to a national syndicate such as Gannett or Scripps Howard. You can also pursue reporters from Associated Press and Reuters. All states have AP bureaus in the capital city; you can also contact AP headquarters in New York for phone numbers.

Television—Working with TV reporters and producers can be fun and nerve-wracking, and usually very rewarding. Pitch news assignment editors with a well-packaged visual story via fax or email, and then immediately follow up by phone. You must have visuals to sell the story. Note the variety of visuals in your pitch to the editor. Offer a third-party speaker, such as a consumer or expert, to build the story. It is important that the company spokesperson be trained to effectively deliver the key message points.

Radio—Pitch drive-time programs and all-news stations first. With a lot of airtime to fill, they are more likely to book an interview. Start locally, then branch out regionally. Always bring or ship product to the host—especially food and fun gadgets—for on-air discussions and taste tests.

Online Media—All traditional media post news and lifestyle stories on their Web site. We have found that releases that we distribute through a paid syndicated news distribution company and news portals such as Yahoo! News can achieve great readership and click throughs.

Bloggers—We counsel caution when considering a proactive approach to bloggers. Numerous stories abound of major corporations—from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods—who have misstepped when dealing with bloggers. However, bloggers should be factored into your campaign plans. Monitor bloggers who have written about your company and its products, and craft a careful individual communication to them, thanking them for their coverage of your company, and ensure them you are available to answer any product or service questions they may have in the future.

This article originally appeared in Catalog Age, now Multichannel Merchant (www.multichannelmerchant.com), and updated 8/1/07.


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