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When I last talked in this space about why you should use public relations in promoting your company, I promised to bring us forward with a few words on on how. First, ask yourself a question: What makes our company or product interesting?

This question can be broken down into numerous smaller queries, including: How did our personal experiences inform the creation of the company? What industries or behaviours do we disrupt? How have we surmounted challenges in bringing our product to market? What external events led to the creation of this product? How does the product challenge conventional wisdom? How does it touch the lives of the people who use it?

You need to have more than one answer to more than one question. You should have a string of narratives that you can use to sell the story of your company.

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They call it a story for a reason. Writers and editors are looking for a narrative that tells the story. Engaging narratives have characters, plot, theme and a hint of dramatic tension. It’s your job to convey those elements of the story to them, and to ensure it speaks to their particular audience or set of beliefs. While there are indeed a few outlets out there that will breathlessly reprint your press release, this isn’t really valuable content and is unlikely to contribute to the conversation about your company that you are hoping to catalyze.

You can cobble together any number of articles on how to leverage PR (and there are many good ones on PROFITguide), but unless you pass the test of being interesting, PR will fail. I suspect much of the blowback against mounting PR campaigns as a core element of overall marketing are authored by those who have failed to marshal a compelling narrative.

If you are not comfortable or lack the time to manage and perform PR, you will want to engage professionals. Whether you work with a large PR firm or a boutique (or one-person shop) depends on your budget and the geographical or market scope you hope to tickle with your message.

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Even when using these middlemen, journalists will ultimately want to speak with the thought leaders within the business directly. For this reason you will want to ensure that you can fully answer the questions (and many more) I itemized above. It helps to be passionate, pragmatic, and even a little self-effacing about your business.

For my part, I know my weakness. As a terrible cold-caller, I use professionals to perform outreach on my behalf. We work hard to codify a series of messages and narratives that drive pitches, and then identify great journalistic channels to take those to market. When a writer or editor says they’re interested, we set up the calls or meetings to convey that story. To drive urgency and timing for the story, oftentimes we’ll create events, such as a product or feature roll-out, or a media event, or a party, or even just an “Ian’s coming to town next week–can you meet?”

Once you’ve sold the core stories about your startup—who you are, where you came from, what problem you solve, etc.—you need to know how to advance the conversation. Part of this is where the company’s operations must be engaged; building features into your product and creating content are all fodder for chasing more media coverage. At times we’ll build features or create timely content purely in order to meet a PR goal and get some attention.

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With RosterBot in 2014, we launched a Christmas yule “channel” featuring the sound of a crackling fire with an endlessly looping Zamboni just before Christmas. We engaged our PR firm, garnering several hundred thousand visitors per day over the holidays as a result of quick write-ups in five or six major publications, both online and offline.

With Tingle in 2012, in a moment I’m not particularly proud of, we observed the divorce of Twitter fameball Kim Kardashian after 72 days from NBA player Kris Humphries. The wedding had earned the couple U.S.$17.9 million in licensing fees and featured a U.S.$2 million engagement ring. So I penned a blog post featuring the following offer to Ms. Kardashian: “If you can help us grow Tingle to two million users within the next 72 days we will happily grant you 17.9% of shares” in the company. The story got picked up (it was clearly a joke… or was it?) by a number of online publications and half a dozen morning radio shows, as a uniquely humorous way to cover the Kardashian break-up story.

Neither of these gags, as I call them, was particularly mated to the core narrative of the companies they served, but there was at least a tangential connection. They were, however, heat-seeking missiles targeting the communities of interest they needed to reach. Neither required any significant resources within our team, either. And they were spun up and executed within days of the idea, generating lasting effects.

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This brings me to the most important thing about PR: You can’t track the return on investment in the same way as you track other marketing campaigns, and you shouldn’t attempt to. When you turn off an advertisement on Facebook Ads or Google Adwords, it immediately stops driving traffic to your site or service. When your Billboard on the 101 freeway is replaced with an ad for it will stop delivering results right away.

By contrast, when an online media outlet publishes a piece about your company, this will deliver an immediate burst of traffic followed by a long tail spanning of visitors, possibly spanning years. Your Google Juice (Search Engine Ranking) will also improve as more reputable outlets link back to your site.

This brings me to the most important aspect of leveraging PR: getting that coveted link back to your site. Nowadays, many publications are wary of driving traffic back to your site for fear of being seen as shills by their readers. This is why releasing things like research data, multimedia gags such as the Zamboni Channel, or other content-related PR to which they must reference are an important element. They allow you to close the circle on at least some of your PR and see the impact it’s generating in real time.

Ian Bell has been bending bits into business since 1993 and is creator of ‪TingleRosterBot and other things celebrated and ignominious. Follow him @ianb on Twitter.


Have you used PR to grow your business? What’s the best way to get some attention? Share your strategies and experiences by commenting below.

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