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How to Get Free Publicity for Your Small Business

By: David Frey

David Frey is the senior editor of the Marketing Best Practices Newsletter, a weekly epublication devoted to small business marketing.

The other day I picked up the newspaper and read the headline, "Ex-High School Teacher Helps Struggling Students Improve Their Grades." The headline immediately caught my eye because I recently developed a system for high school and college students to improve their academic performance.

In the article it talked about a Houston woman who retired from high school teaching and now holds study skills workshops around town for high school students that need academic help. It included her contact information and website address.

It was a quarter page article in the Houston Chronicle with over one million circulation. When I saw the article I wondered to myself how much that same article would have cost her if she had paid for it.


The Power of the Humble News Article

There is only two ways to land the name of your business in the local newspaper, by paying for an advertisement or by having a newsworthy event that is covered by the local press. Both can be very effective but the all-mighty news release can provide the level of credibility and respect that can spark on-the-spot sales for your business.

Advertisements contain information that people know are biased. Surveys have shown that the vast majority of people believe that all advertisements contain false or misleading information.

News articles, on the other hand, are written by third-party news organizations that have nothing to gain by endorsing your business. Hence, their believability is high. That's exactly why your print ads should use an editorial style format. People read editorial style (news article format) seven times more than an advertisement!

Why Are Some News Releases Chosen and Other Not?

Knowing how the press chooses one news release over another will give you an advantage in getting the coverage you're looking for. Most large pressrooms get hundreds of news releases a day. When yours comes in, it competes with all the others that come in with it.

Typically, an "Assignment Editor" is the person who has the responsibility to determine what is "news" and what isn't. This person is in charge of reviewing the incoming releases and either assigning them to editors or trashing them. Typically, an Assignment Editor will sift through press releases like you go through your mail…over a wastebasket.

If a news release doesn't catch their eye they immediately trash it. The first item on the press release that is read is the headline. If you don't have a catchy headline that grabs the editor's attention then it won't stand much of a chance making it to the next step, which is the first paragraph.

Your first paragraph should tell what your news is, whom it's about, where it will be, why it's important, and when it will be held. The opening paragraph needs to get to the point fast with no fluff. If it's as compelling as the headline, you have a good chance of having the entire release read.

What News Stories Get Covered?

To give your business the best chance of being covered by the local news media give them what they are looking for. Generally speaking, each of the different media is looking for specific types of news events.

Newspapers want information that is interesting and informative. Newspapers like to educate their readers with timely news and articles that people will find interesting and educational.

Radio is a bit more loose and has an "anything goes" type of style. Radio stations like information that is controversial, funny, or weird. One of the most popular five minutes of a local radio station here in Houston is the "Birthday Scam," in which the DJ's call up an unsuspecting person (on their birthday) and proceed to create a combative and hostile conversation full of accusations and lies. The sparks start to fly and so do the ratings.

Television gets excited about anything that can provide great visuals. Sponsoring a local high school reading contest in which the principal gets dunked in a tub of kool aid will get the T.V. station's attention.

All media love human interest stories. They know that people like to know about other people. In fact, the number one topic of talk radio is relationships. If you have a good human interest story that others would find interesting you're on your way to getting lots of free publicity.

Lastly, the biggest mistake that most PR novices make is to pitch an advertisement for their business. The media publishes news...they are not your personal marketing department! You must be newsworthy!

How Muhammad Ali Landed In Life Magazine (I love this story!)

Getting free publicity is more about making yourself newsworthy than being newsworthy. As George MacKenzie, a publicity expert, once told me, "There is no boring stories, just boring approaches to interesting stories." With creativity and a little effort you can make almost any situation newsworthy. The following story is a perfect example of what I mean. It's a story about how Muhammad Ali received massive amounts of free press in Life magazine, the biggest magazine in the country in those days.

After Muhammad Ali turned pro, Sports Illustrated did an editorial piece on him. During the photo shoot with the Sports Illustrated photographer, Ali asked whom else the photographer did work for. He replied, Life magazine. But quickly told Muhammad that he didn't have a chance of being covered in the popular magazine.

Muhammad knew that if he made himself stand out somehow, that the magazine might write him up. After a few minutes of consideration Ali asked the photographer what other kinds of photos he took? The photographer responded, "All kinds, but my specialty is underwater photography."

So the quick-thinking Muhammad Ali said, "Did you know that I'm the only fighter in the world who trains underwater?" The photographer immediately got interested. Ali then told him that he'd do an exclusive if Life wanted to do a story about him.

Before you knew it, Ali was in a pool up to his neck in water dancing and throwing punches with the photographer reeling off pictures. It wasn't long after that Life did a huge spread on Muhammad Ali. He gave the photographer and Life magazine what they wanted, and in turn, received massive free publicity.

20 Ways to Make Your Small Business Newsworthy

As I previously mentioned, the key to getting publicity for your business is to make yourself newsworthy. The Muhammad Ali story is a good example of how one man made his own publicity opportunity by being creative and interesting.

To get your creative juices flowing let me suggest 20 ways you can make your business newsworthy.
  1. 1. Do a customer survey and include controversial questions. Write articles about the results of the survey. The media loves survey results.

  2. Create a top ten list about something in your business. If you're a beautician, write an article titled, "Top Ten Most Popular Hairstyles for Women." Top ten lists are very popular, just ask David Letterman.

  3. Develop an annual award that you give out to someone in the community or a business in your industry. For instance, give an award to a local outstanding teacher that has gone above and beyond the call of duty. Or if you're a supplier you can give an award to the "Best" business (customer) in the industry your service.

  4. Offer surprising facts about your industry or business. For instance, if you're a recruitment firm write an article titled, "The Average Starting Salary of An MBA Graduate is 40% Higher Than Their Pre-MBA Earnings."

  5. Piggyback off a national story. For example, when the rumors of a recession hit one business wrote a story about how their business actually improved as a result of the recession (It was a utility expense auditing firm).

  6. Tie your business in with holidays or special days. For example, tell the media how your massage therapy business helps to reduce stress during the Christmas season and provides gift certificates for welcome relief.

  7. Give a rags-to-riches story about yourself as a high school nobody that starts her own business and becomes successful. Remember, the media loves human interest stories.

  8. Tie your business into something that took place in the past. Go to your local library and find articles from 50 years ago that may somehow tie into the product or services you provide.

  9. Be first. Be the first to offer a 200% double your money back guarantee. Be the first to offer an on-site car wash with every sale. Be the first to give your employees ownership in your business. Think of something at which you can claim to be the first.

  10. Host a "Kids are the Boss Day!" Hand your business over to your 14 year old kid or one of your employee's young children for the day.

  11. Run a "silliest thing" or "dumb mistakes" contest with your customers. For instance, if you're a shoe repair shop, ask your customers for the silliest things they've ever done with their shoes. If you're a sport goods retailer ask your customers for the dumbest mistakes they've made while camping. These are great human interest stories that the press will love.

  12. Sponsor a local community service project. For example, if you're a dry cleaner, clean the clothes for all the visitors of the local food shelter. If you're a fast food retailer, hold a free lunch day for disabled children. If you're a car repair shop, offer oil and lubes to the parents of boy scouts and donate all the proceeds to the Boy Scouts of America.

  13. Throw a one-of-a-kind customer appreciation theme party such as a luau with Polynesian cultural dancers or a magical theme party in which customers can bring their children to watch a magician do incredible tricks.

  14. Do you have a customer that uses your products in an unusual way or uses your product to become a high achiever? If you run a gym is one of your customers a bodybuilding champion? If you own a bike shop is one of your customers a champion trial racer? If you manage an electronics store do you have a customer who has invented a whiz-bang contraption?

  15. Take on the sacred cows of your industry and challenge them. If you're a human resource consultant, give employee-of-the-month programs a severe drubbing. If you're a Taco Bell manager, tell consumers how "real" Mexican food actually tastes bland and boring. If you're a home-based business person, write about how corporate America is suffocating good people.

  16. Close down your business for one day a year and have your entire staff do a day of charity work. Headlines would read, "Local Print Shop Closes Doors to Help the Needy!"

  17. Recently I had a client whose business burnt down last year. He built it back up and is doing more business than ever. Has your business survived a tragic incident (like the recession) and made is through with flying colors?

  18. Write a general interest story about the problem that your product or service solves. If you're a car detailer you could write about how oxidation and rust destroys the integrity of your car and makes it unsafe to drive. If you sell website services write about hosting problems or the effects of poor website design and how to solve it.

  19. Why did you start your business? If you started your business because you were dissatisfied with the provider you were using (or the employer you worked for), let the press know. For instance, you went into the Italian restaurant business because the Italian food in the local area wasn't authentic. Maybe you started pool cleaning service because of the lousy job service providers were doing on your own pool.

  20. Prove a myth or stereotype in your industry wrong. For instance, if you're a hot tub dealer, show a man who sits in his hot tub every night and has 12 children (meaning the hot water really doesn't kill your sperm!).
How you make your business newsworthy is only limited by your creativity and ingenuity. Remember, there are no boring stories, just boring approaches to interesting stories.

Tips from the Pros

The following are several "tip lists" from professional PR people. Pay attention, because these people have been doing PR for years and have learned the insider secrets to getting free publicity from "in the trenches" experience.

7 Tips from Mark Nolan, Author of $3M best seller, "Instant Cash Flow."
  1. Code your releases to track the results

  2. Put ordering info in the middle of the release to reduce the chance it will be cut out if edited

  3. Use an "angle" to turn common products into news

  4. Read lots of newspapers to learn how to write like a journalist

  5. Read the National Enquirer, Cosmopolitan and Readers Digest to learn how to write headlines

  6. Keep the release short-1 page, 250 words, doubled space is best

  7. Tell a story-Write the release just like you'd like to see it in print

10 Tips from Joan Stewart, (a.k.a. The Publicity Hound), a 20 veteran newspaper editor.
  1. Send news releases about new products and services, contests, awards, open houses, speaking engagements.

  2. Write "how-to" articles for newspapers, magazines, trade publications and newsletters, and offer lots of free advice. It helps establish you as an expert.

  3. Get onto the speaking circuit. Speaking to community groups and trade associations is a wonderful way to "create the buzz" about your business.

  4. Create a web site that offers free advice, reciprocal links, articles by and about you, story ideas about your business and a list of experts the media can contact.

  5. Start an e-zine. A free electronic newsletter helps you sell your products and services to an international audience.

  6. Get to know reporters. Offer yourself as someone they can call on for background, commentary and story ideas. Call and ask, "How can I help you?"

  7. Start your own TV show on your local cable TV company's public access channel. Airtime is free. You pay a minimal amount to rent the camera equipment.

  8. Look for photo opportunities. Local newspapers, TV stations, weekly shoppers, trade publications and other media are always looking for interesting photos. Call the media with ideas, or submit your own photos.

  9. Give free classes and demonstrations through adult education programs, at schools and colleges, or at your own business.

  10. Participate in online discussion groups and offer lots of helpful advice. Use a signature file in your e-mail that explains what you do and how you can help solve people's problems. Link to your web site.

9 Deadly Press Release Sins by the Joan Stewart
  1. Providing insufficient or wrong information. Particularly telephone numbers. Releases must be complete, accurate and specific.

  2. Writing too long. They should be no longer than two pages.

  3. Sending it too late. Mail or fax it at least two weeks before an event, preferably three or four.

  4. Sending a release with no news value. News is what happens that is different. If it isn't different, it isn't news.

  5. Blatant commercialism. Using flowery words and phrases such as "spectacular," "incredible" and "the only one of its kind."

  6. Omitting a contact name and phone number. At the top of the first page in the left corner, let editors know who they can call if they have questions.

  7. Calling after you send a release. Questions like "Did you get my news release?" or "Do you know when it will be printed?" will brand you as a pest.

  8. Don't follow up with a phone call to see if the media got your release, unless you are absolutely sure that someone in the newsroom will check for you. Most reporters and editors don't have time.

  9. Using outdated media reference books. Double-check to see if the person to whom you are sending the news release still works there, and that the address is the same. A news release sent to an editor who left the paper ten years ago eventually will be routed to the right person, but they'll think you don't care about the paper or who works there.

10 Tips from Susan Harrow, President of Harrow Communications, a media coaching and marketing firm in Northern California.
  1. Pitch a producer or editor in 20 seconds. Within that 20 seconds pitch something that's newsworthy, not yourself, your service, product or book.

  2. Study the style of the publication or show and match your style to theirs.

  3. Propose a topic that is relevant to the producer or editor's audience. The number one question a media person asks after, "Is it news," is "Will this information serve my audience now."

  4. Prove you are the expert on the topic you're proposing by telling ONLY the information in your biography that is relevant to the idea you're pitching.

  5. Use humor, shocking statements or emotionally laden ideas. Highly charged subjects mean better ratings for TV and radio shows, and a greater readership for print publications.

  6. Gain a producer or editor's interest in one paragraph rather than inundate them with materials. Avoid sending lengthy press kits.

  7. Email your pitch to a producer or editor. Many members of the media respond more quickly via email. But be respectful. Email only a paragraph and make sure your headline is a real head-turner. Never send attachments.

  8. Include all your contact information. Not including your cell phone, pager number, fax, phone, or email can mean making or missing an interview for a story.

  9. Become a walking sound bite. Be ready to be interviewed at any time.

  10. Be Persistent. If you haven't come up with the right angle today, try again, and again, and again.

8 PR Pitch "Etiquette" Secrets from Bill Stoller of
  1. Don't call to "see if they got your release." Journalists hate this. If you really want to get a story in the Post, call first to pitch your story and then follow up with your release, photos, etc.

  2. Plan your call around their deadlines. Most papers are morning editions. Thus, journalists' deadlines range from 2 p.m. local time and on. Don't call during this time! The best time to reach a newspaper journalist: 10 a.m. to noon local time.

  3. Don't start pitching right away! This is rude, as the editor may be on the other line, working on a story, entertaining guests or who knows what else. Start by saying something like, "Hi Ms. Smith, my name's Bill Jones and I have a story suggestion you might find interesting. Is this a good time for you?

  4. Pitch to the voice mail. It's fine to pitch your story to the reporter's voice mail. Keep it very short and end the message with your phone number. If you don't hear back, try again until you get the actual reporter or editor on the phone.

  5. Don't read from a script! The bane of many journalists' existences are 22-year-olds sitting in cubicles in big PR firms reading pitches off a sheet of paper. If you've ever been called by a telemarketer doing the same thing, you know how annoying it can be. Practice your pitch so that it seems natural and spontaneous.

  6. Give them a story, not an advertisement. Newspapers do not exist to give you publicity. They exist to provide readers with interesting stories. Make your pitch newsy, exciting and relevant.

  7. Follow up immediately. If she's interested, the editor will ask for more information. Be sure you have a press kit (including news release and photo) ready to send. Send it out via priority mail, and write "Requested Information" below the address.

  8. Call again. Now it's appropriate to call to see if the editor received your stuff...after all, unlike a mass-mailed release, she asked for it! Ask if she's had a chance to look through it, and what she thinks. If she likes what she sees, you're about to get some very valuable publicity!

Answers to Common Questions that Improve Your Chances of Coverage

Perhaps the main roadblock for many is not coming up with the news idea, but the technical details of submitting the release. The following are common questions that many business owners have about submitting press releases and receiving coverage from the press. These are not hard and fast rules but only suggestions to use as guidelines.

Question # 1: Should I call the editor on the phone?

Usually not. It's better to use the normal established channels. The assignment editor is very busy and is often annoyed by phone calls. If you do call an editor, always ask, "Is this a good time to speak with you?" If not, then ask when you can call back. Have your elevator speech prepared. Be able to give the what, who, where, when, how and why it would interest their audience in 60 seconds or less.

Question # 2: How do I establish credibility with editors?

Have something newsworthy to contribute. Never use the word "publicity." Editors hate that word because it compromises their independence. Send a thank you note when you get published. Know what the publication and the publication's audience are looking for in respect to interesting information. Get to know the editor that's most important for you by offering your expertise as a resource.

Question # 3: How often should you send news releases?

Whenever you have a newsworthy event. Once a week is a bit much but once a month may be just right. Usually most business owners have trouble not sending releases rather than sending too many.

Question # 4: How do I format the release?

At the top of the release include your name and address, and then include your current contact information. Your contact data needs to be complete. There's nothing worse than an editor trying to get a hold of you and getting a recording.

After the "For Immediate Release" start with your headline and include a sub-headline to further clarify the objective of your release. Include the name of your city and conclude with a "# # #" which signifies the end of the article.
Marketing Best Practices
2507 W. Bay Area Blvd. Suite 1534
Houston, TX 77546
Contact: David Frey
Office: (281) 993-5657
Cell: (713) 853-9984
Home: (281) 994-9983
Fax: (917) 591-2798
For Immediate Release.
By following these 10 strategies, the recession can be a time of opportunity for the savvy small business owner.
Houston, TX- blah, blah, blah

# # #

Question # 5: What other things should I send with my release?

Some PR experts say that you should include a cover letter with your release or a press kit. These may be a company brochure, a bio, fact sheets or previous press clippings.

If your press release is strong enough to stand on its own it won't need all the extraneous other items. Remember, all editors are very busy people. The easier you make it for them, the higher chance you have of being published.

Question # 6: How do I send the release?

Basically, there are four ways to send a press release, (1) fax, (2) letter, (3) email and (4) telephone. There are advantages and disadvantages to each medium. Most press releases arrive by fax. The advantages of a fax is that it's already in print form, it's very simple to blast it to many editors, and it's very inexpensive to do.

If you know the editor and decide to add other supporting documents with your release, a simple letter in an envelope works well. If you address the letter to a specific editor make sure you have their name correct and spelled right. Just call the local paper and ask for the name of the editor that covers the story you're writing the release about.

Email is becoming very popular as a way of sending press releases. If you send your release through email, do not send it in an attachment. Editors are scared of viruses and will delete it immediately. Just send it in text form.

To pitch your story by phone prepare a twenty-second elevator speech about your
newsworthy story. Then get the name of the reporter, columnist or producer, call them up and ask if it's a good moment to share your news and that it will only take 20 seconds. If they say yes, deliver your pitch.

Of the four mediums I would put my money on the simple fax. It will get a look and there are a lot of resources that can blast it out to hundreds (thousands) of locations.

Question # 7: What do I do after I send the release?

Don't call the editor just to ask them if they got your news release and to answer their questions. They did get it and if they have any questions they will call you, rest assured.

Question # 8: What are some websites where I can go to learn more about getting free publicity?
  • - This site belongs to George McKenzie, a San Antonio Veteran TV Anchor and Radio Talk Show Host and President, The Academy of Marketing and Advertising.

  • - Joan Stewart, (aka, the Publicity Hound) is a former newspaper editor and reporter of more than 20 years.

  • - Bill Stoller is a veteran PR professional with a wealth of experience who has worked with big names such as Colgate, Coca Cola, Hasbro to name a few.

  • - This site belongs to who is a marketing and consulting firm specializing in PR related activities.

  • - Paul Hartunian is one of the best known "free publicity" people around. He's best known as the guy who sold the Brooklyn Bridge.

  • - Susan Harrow is known for getting people on the Oprah Winfrey show (where instant millionaires are made).
Question # 9: Where are some Internet websites that will send my release?

The following are just a few of the resources you'll find on the net to distribute your press releases.

  • Automated Press Releases - Reasonable prices for industry-specific e-mail distribution of releases

  • BookFlash - Just $145 for distribution of news about your book to 5,000+ editors, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, etc.

  • Business Wire - Efficient vehicle for distributing business-oriented news releases

  • Canada NewsWire - Use this distribution service for news specific to Canada

  • eReleases - Service that delivers your releases to general and targeted media contacts by email

  • Hispanica e-PR - Gets your news out to media in Latin America, Spain and the U.S.

  • HispanicPRWire - If you need to reach Hispanic media in the U.S., use this service

  • iMediafax - Service that faxes topical news releases to editors and producers nationwide for $.25 a page

  • Internet News Bureau - Email news release distribution service for Web-related material

  • M2 PressWIRE - Europe's largest international press release distribution network; charges a flat annual fee rather than per release

  • MediaWeb - Distribution to media within South Africa

  • Press Release Centre - Low-cost distribution of your news to Australian media

  • PR Newswire - Like BusinessWire, but geared to distributing releases on general (not business) topics

  • Press Flash - Fax distribution of Internet-related stories

  • Press Release Network - Offers, among other options, distribution to the Top 100 Internet Publications for only $99

  • PR Web - PR Web is a free wire service containing all type of releases.

Question # 10: Where do I find editors to send my press releases to?
  • Alternative Press Online Directory - Jump site for hundreds of leftist, feminist and alternative-lifestyle publications

  • Directory of Local Daily and Weekly Newspapers - State by state, town by town listings of local newspapers and contact info

  • Ecola - Jump site for more than 8,400 newspapers and magazines and 1,100 TV stations
  • e-TradingPost - Free submission of your release to your selection of national TV stations, newswire syndicates and top 100 daily newspapers

  • MediaINFO - Unlike other online media directories, this one also includes city guides, syndicates and news services

  • News365 - Another media jump site, not as complete as Ecola or Newslink but contains topical Web sites that the others miss

  • Newslink - Find links here to thousands of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations worldwide

  • US Newspaper Links - Extensive although incomplete links to U.S. newspapers, radio stations and TV stations by state and locality


The information in this article was just the tip of the iceberg in regards to getting free publicity. There are so many ways and methods of making you and your business newsworthy and getting the media's attention. I recommend setting a goal for submitting one press release a month.

The experience of writing and submitting a release itself is invaluable for your own personal marketing education. Getting free publicity should be a part of every business' marketing plan. Plan events throughout the year that will get aired on the radio and local TV stations and be covered by the newspaper.

Unfortunately, we didn't even touch on how to get published in trade journals. This is an important marketing strategy for many small businesses and one worthy of another installment.

Money can't buy what the press can give you.

© Copyright 2002, David Frey

Other Articles by David Frey

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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