Three PR Myths Every Business Owner Should Understand

PR helps spread the word about your product or service. Learn why some old-school methods no longer apply.

By Ramona Russell
Aug 6, 2014

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” –Gloria Steinem

All too often when working with clients who seek more visibility, I hear the words Oprah, Dr. Oz and the Today show. I can’t help but cringe a little. Okay, I cringe a lot. The reason is that most business owners don’t know what kind of press they need or why. Do they need it to increase revenue? To be better known? To spread a message that will contribute to the greater good? There’s no point in approaching big names and big markets if you don’t understand your purpose.

PR: Go Big or Go Home?

When business owners think of public relations, they often visualize large firms that charge thousands of dollars for a 6-month retainer. They think those firms have Rolodexes filled with contact numbers that link them directly to the glossy magazines, cable news shows and celebrities. And many business owners are convinced that those large firms provide the only means to getting traction for their company, books or event.

Large companies like Nordstrom, Apple and Nike need the resources that large PR firms offer. But why do one-man shops, freelancers and small agencies try to copy this model? Why is the PR mantra “Bigger is better”?

In my last startup company, which had no budget or contacts, I garnered hundreds of press mentions and hundreds of thousands of visitors a month to my website—and I built relationships with companies such as Gap, Sephora and KitchenAid. Since I was my own client, I had to be efficient with time; I couldn’t spend all day on PR. First, I had to learn what kind of press would give me the most benefit. Along the way, I found that business owners, especially small to medium-sized ones, do not always get the truth. So here are three PR myths I want to call “B.S.” on once and for all.

Myth 1: National Press Equals More Profit

“I’ve had such a great track record in making a huge profit when the movies are smaller.” —Harvey Weinstein

Most organizations like to think big—especially when it comes to PR. How many of us saw small-business owners turned into millionaires after appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show? So why wouldn’t entrepreneurs think a splashy, national media campaign is the answer to all of their prayers?

The reason it’s not is that if a national media campaign isn’t targeted to an ideal audience, the business that commissioned the project often ends up thousands of dollars in the hole with nothing to show for it.

Local press isn’t sexy, and its reach can be small. But what many people don’t realize is that local media have the luxury to go in-depth with a story, giving an organization much more visibility than a larger publication would. This is especially true for small businesses, like personal training, whose primary profit center is service oriented. There’s really no point in going global if you can serve only locally.

For my last company, the story that had the most business impact was done by a local magazine, which chose to do a 3-hour photo shoot with live butterflies and a 4-hour interview that resulted in a thoughtful, several-page piece. Because of that article, I was contacted by people I hadn’t spoken with in years. Many of them expressed how much my story had touched them. This significant result was in stark contrast to the zero response I received from appearing on the fourth-largest morning show in the country.

Myth 2: Big Contacts Equal Big Coverage

“If I had 5 minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first 2 1/2 sharpening my ax.” — Anonymous woodchopper

Don’t get me wrong: Contacts are important. It can take years to cultivate good media relationships, and when you hire a PR firm, that’s part of what you’re paying for. But good connections are not a guarantee of good media coverage—or of any media coverage, for that matter. I have many clients who have come to me after spending $50,000, $100,000 and more, only to have an empty bank account and no more visibility than before they signed the retainer.

I’ve had colleagues with great products and great stories appear on the Today show and sell fewer than 10 units. Worse, I’ve known people who have flown cross-country for a cable news segment, only to have it canceled that same day to make way for a more pressing story.

Several years ago, I was thrilled to be featured in Lucky magazine, but disappointed when the piece got zero traction. Around the same time, a popular “mommy” blog featured my company. The buzz generated from this much smaller outlet resulted in 30,000 unique visits to my website every month—for several months.

Myth 3: More Fame Equals More Success

“Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.” —Erma Bombeck

No matter what the industry, there isn’t a direct link between large visibility and success. How many celebrities who are written about weekly are broke? How many entrepreneurs have you seen “everywhere,” only to meet them in person and find out they haven’t had an increase in business sales and are on the verge of looking for a job or moving back in with their parents? Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence.

When I ran my most recent company, I had national press within 3 weeks of inception, and attention from many more large media outlets followed. I quickly became famous in the charity and retail worlds, and my clients and colleagues were eager to find out my “secret.” The exposure wasn’t directly reflected in my bottom line, nor did I expect it to be. The company was in its first year, and the money I made came from my marketing and PR business. I could “afford” to gain major press because I was my own client. I didn’t spend any money on PR.

Know Your Why So You Can Know the What

“I think that anytime you get clear about what your mission is or what your focus wants to be, things start to come together in your life.” —Eve Ensler

A few years ago, a successful physician, entrepreneur and author came to me wanting more visibility. Many of the things he was doing were not getting traction. He was well known in his industry, but he had yet to achieve mainstream recognition. He’s brilliant and has a great message, yet when I mentioned pitching bigger media outlets, his response was this: “I don’t care about being famous. I care about growing my business and helping people. Several of my colleagues have been on national TV, and you know what? Their bottom line hasn’t increased. They haven’t sold more books.”

Once I understood his goals, I focused on getting him a column on a high-traffic news website filled with readers in his target market. With minimal effort, he was able to promote his company, product and book, and spread his message.

One of the reasons this client is so successful is because he knows his why—or his ultimate purpose. He may not have always known how to get there, but he knows what the end result should be.

Progressive PR

In any industry, there are people who are great at their job and people who are not. There are people who really love to see their clients shine, and people who focus solely on the bottom line. There are people who keep informed about the changing PR climate, and people who choose to hold on to the “old ways.”

Gaining visibility is about more than knowing key people. It’s about connecting to the right media outlets that target your audience, with the right story at the right time.

Before you pay thousands of PR dollars to a big firm or a small outfit, you should know exactly what you’re getting. And you—as well as the firm you hire—should be aware of what your goals are, how to get there and what effective PR means now, not “back in the day.”

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Ramona Russell

Starting with a degree in communications, Ramona Russell has worked in marketing and public relations for over 15 yearslÔÇöwith both the for-profit and the non-profit sectors. She can be reached at www.ramonarussell.net.

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