Creating Buzz About Your Company

The key to any successful PR campaign revolves around creating interest in your company - both with your customers and with the media. In this article, we reveal tips for putting your business in the spotlight.

There's a famous saying that goes like this, "If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying 'Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday,' that's advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk him into town, that's promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor's flowerbed, that's publicity. If you can get the mayor to laugh about it, that's public relations. And if you planned the elephant's walk, that's marketing."

While this may seem like just a cute anecdote, there is an important lesson to be learned from it: A well-timed public relations (PR) campaign can increase your businesses' chances of reaching your target market with exactly what they want to hear, when they are ready to hear it. Like most PR experts, Marissa Verson Harrison, co-founder and principal of California-based InterActive Public Relations, agrees that this is not a simple task, explaining "good strategic PR is an art."

The art of building a successful PR campaign revolves around creating strong relationships with the media and your customers, planning special events and building an image - elements that when combined gain publicity, or "buzz," for your company. You need not spend thousands of dollars creating buzz about your company, however. Innovative methods, such as identifying a media niche, creating a theme, and using trade shows and celebrity spokespersons are all publicity-generating vehicles for budget-minded businesses.

Can You Hear the Buzz?

You can garner attention for your company using a variety of creative techniques, from basic media relations to outrageous stunts. Fred Cook, a general manager for Golin/Harris International (GHI), says entrepreneurs who seek to generate excitement about their businesses should start by establishing local media contacts and building long-lasting relationships with them. "On the other end of the spectrum, staging a larger media event or stunt related to a specific product or announcement may help generate buzz about a company," he adds.

Cook helped create buzz for Southwest Airlines with an out-of-the-box idea that complemented the company's offbeat attitude. When Southwest acquired Morris Air in 1994, they were thrust into the cold corporate spotlight. To reinforce Southwest's fun-loving company culture, GHI arranged a quickie mock marriage in Las Vegas between costumed characters "Southwest Spirit" and "Morris Magic."

An engagement announcement was distributed to the media, and on the special day, an Elvis impersonator "married" the blissful couple in front of well-wishers from both airlines, with flight attendants and pilots acting as the wedding party. GHI then distributed a "marriage announcement" to key media outlets nationwide. As a result of the event, Cook says Southwest Airlines gained extensive media coverage from the likes of CNN, CBS Radio Network, Associated Press Wire, Bloomberg Business News and more.

Staging Your Own Media Event

Trade shows can provide an excellent, cost-effective arena for creating buzz about your company and introducing new products or services to a captive audience. Dave Lakhani, a former small business owner and current sales director for Idaho-based Cougar Mountain Software, proposes turning trade shows into your own media events. "Send engraved invitations to the media that will be attending and have a special time set aside for them," he suggests, "then dazzle them while you are there."

One company that put such a plan into motion is Connecticut-based Verilux, Inc., a full spectrum lighting company, which lit up the competition at a recent national hardware trade show in Chicago. To promote a line of healthy lighting products, they featured a representative dressed up as a "human light bulb" and circulated throughout the convention center talking to attendees and posing for photographs. The light bulb stood almost eight feet tall, which made the Verilux booth very visible to the attendees. "We also sent out a press release before the show to let people know to look for the human light bulb to find the Verilux booth," says Dwight Robinson, Verilux's account executive at California-based PR firm Christie Communications.

This bright idea for the human light bulb was a collaborative effort between Robinson and Gillian Christie, president of Christie Communications. Robinson says of the thousands of trade show exhibitors, only one other company used a costumed figure.

"All the other lighting companies were talking about the Verilux light bulb. It was so unique that even some of the trade show organizers and personnel came by to get a photo with [him]. This brought a tremendous amount of media attention including that of the Detroit News and the Chicago Sun-Times," boasts Robinson.

Finding Your Media Niche

When it comes to approaching the media to attract buzz, customizing your message is the only way to get their attention. After all, you don't carry on the exact same conversation with everyone you know, so why would you send every newspaper the same press release?

"Each media outlet has different story needs and a different audience," says Anthony Mora, president and CEO of Anthony Mora Communications, Inc. and author of "Alchemy of Success," a how-to book describing successful media tactics. Before attempting to pitch your story to an editor, Mora advises asking yourself what would make a disinterested party want to read an article about your company. "Once you hit on the 'hook,'" he says, "you have a story."

"An explosion of both new companies and new media is generating stiff competition in the marketplace of public awareness," says Rob Roth, business-to-business communications specialist at BSMG Worldwide. "It's also creating a gold mine of opportunities to reach the audiences that matter to you." Roth says when you find a media niche for your business, you engage in your industry's dialogue, establish a company presence, create an awareness and build credibility.

Roth explains that entrepreneurs can also generate a buzz by identifying their own media niche. He cites, as an example, his schoolmate at Northwestern University, Sam Jones, co-founder of Mercator Group, a Chicago-based business acquisition consulting firm, who found an African-American minority media niche and turned it into free press exposure for his company. "Using talent and determination, [Jones] not only won admittance to a top university but worked to pay his own way through it. During school, he traveled the Midwest, speaking to minority youth about achieving for one's self and community. He now brings that same ability and determination to the company he helped found. That's news," insists Roth.

Jones was one of four entrepreneurs featured in the Boston Business Journal's annual "minorities in business" focus section. He is but one example of an entrepreneur who took on the media without a PR firm and succeeded.

"The beautiful part for entrepreneurs is that most everyone and every business has a story to tell, a distinctive voice than can make a space for itself amid the noise," Roth explains. "As we enter the new millennium, good entrepreneurial media relations is primarily about identifying your story and determining who cares about it." It can be time-consuming, he warns, but this kind of work is inexpensive and can give the business owner a greater understanding of his industry.

Celebrity Buzz

When celebrities appear in a company's product advertisements, it can create a very loud buzz. Art Siegel, publisher of Florida-based SalesDoctors magazine, says this happens for two reasons: "We are unconsciously drawn to the familiar. So, right off the bat, the presence of a celebrity gives many customers an extra reason to stop and pay attention to the ad. Second is the widespread belief that a celebrity appearance in an ad represents a true endorsement - that the celebrity uses the product and believes it to be better than its competitors."

Siegel adds that celebrity endorsements can carry the same weight for customers as a recommendation from a friend.

"While the illusion is that the celebrity is endorsing the vendor's product or service, the job of celebrity spokesperson is strictly business," explains Siegel. He says if you can afford the celebrity's fee, you have as good an opportunity of attracting the celebrity's services as any other company. "And many celebrities cost much less than one would expect. A well-known person might work on a television commercial for $10,000 or less per day. To the celebrity, $10,000 per day is very nice income. To the business owner, who then runs that ad on television 100 times, the talent fee-per-appearance is really quite small," he says.

Celebrity spokespersons are usually represented by agents who serve as brokers. If you're interesting in contracting the services of a celebrity spokesperson, Siegel suggests contacting several agents, describing your business goals, then asking for recommendations on available celebrities who best fit your product or promotion. "The key to making celebrities work for a company is finding someone who will be credible for your product. That's more important than how famous they are. If you sell plant food, find a famous horticulturist, not just an actor. If you sell coffee, find a famous chef. And if you sell carpet cleaning, find someone who is recognized in decorating or living in a fine home," says Siegel. "The closer the fit, the greater the perceived endorsement value."

In one such innovative marketing relationship, PostNet Postal and Business Services has teamed up with NFL players to create their own buzz in the pack-and-ship industry. Steven Greenbaum, CFE, president and CEO of Nevada-based PostNet International Franchise Corp., conceived the idea. "Conceptually, it made a lot of sense to utilize a spokesperson who had to make the same kind of commitment to his career that we did to succeed in our business," he explains of the teaming concept.

Rather than a single personality, PostNet franchisees sign various known sports figures to work in specific regions. "We wanted more than just a program that would heighten brand awareness," Greenbaum says. "With the support of the athlete in the local market, we're also increasing sales of products and services."

PostNet's offerings include packaging and delivery of time-sensitive materials and various business-support services such as printing, binding and laminating. NFL players, like former San Franciso 49er and four-time Super Bowl champion Ronnie Lott, help generate a marketing buzz in home territories by allowing their name and endorsement to be used in local, regional and national advertising campaigns, making personal appearances in local stores, and participating in joint community-service efforts. The athletes are then compensated based on the performance of the territories they represent.

So how did PostNet land such a plum deal? "I believe [the athletes] share our strong desire to compete and succeed in the marketplace," says Greenbaum. "They know we have put our hearts and souls and everything we own into developing this business. Winners are always interested in winning opportunities."

Not only did Greenbaum believe the company and the players shared a similar philosophy, but he was also not afraid to approach them. "In business or life you don't get anything without asking," he says bluntly. "You might be surprised to learn that the person you are asking just might be flattered by the request and thrilled about the opportunity to endorse your small business."

Why Some Companies Get All the Buzz

Have you ever wondered why the same companies seem to attract all of the media coverage? No matter where you turn - newspapers, trade magazines, even lifestyle publications - it seems that some businesses are just natural media darlings. Do they know some secret that the rest of us don't? According to Kris Bondi, founder of California-based Communications Network Worldwide, the answer is probably not all that mysterious. "Companies that get all the buzz usually have a good marriage of solid or innovative product or service with good promotional ideas," she explains.

Silicon Valley-based interactive software developer Marimba is a prime example of a company that has been getting all the buzz in the software industry since its 1996 inception. Not only does Marimba have cutting-edge products and a very visible CEO in Kim Polese, but Bondi says they captured the media's attention, then maintained it, by creating relationships.

"The best way to get the industry's attention is with a 'first, biggest or best' of a new product or service. If you are the second company to offer something, you are already at a disadvantage, but if you can show why yours is different than the rest, you are on your way to getting buzz. Marimba's success is due, in part, to being consistently evaluated by independent organizations such as PC Magazine as having a superior product," she explains.

It is a myth, Bondi says, that companies like these have to spend a lot of money on marketing to become buzz magnets: "Too many companies think they need to do ongoing promotions. They are wasting money. Promotions are important, but there needs to be something behind it." She cites Nabisco, maker of Oreo cookies, as an example of one of the best and least-expensive promotions she has seen. During a 1997 news assembly at the National Restaurant Association conference, the cunning cookie company generated an economical buzz by listing the event in daily conference announcements, in addition to distributing a "media alert" that they were holding the press briefing. The information given out was not ground breaking at all, she explains, but Nabisco had an ace up its sleeve: They fed the news conference attendees milk and Oreos. As a result, the company had a packed house of hungry reporters and PR people listening to their announcement.

"This wasn't an expensive promotion, but it was effective. It fit the company culture and accomplished Nabisco's goal of getting reporters to their news conference," Bondi explains.

Media Kits Build Media Relationships

There are several strategies for developing media kits, but experts agree a visually appealing media kit, with professional photos and well-written press releases are an important resource for creating buzz. A good media kit will pique an editor's curiosity and gain the company free publicity.

Ogilvy PR Worldwide (OPR) specializes in the production of strategic media materials. Sherry Pudloski, a senior vice president at OPR, says, "While the appearance of the kit can peak a reporter's interest, the buzz a company is looking to create comes from the effort put behind the kit, from the development of the content to the follow-up discussions with reporters." She says the biggest mistake most companies make in creating media kits is making it look or read like a company or product advertisement. "The goal of distributing a kit is to generate a story, but also to provide a valuable resource. If you can demonstrate a perspective beyond your company and can tie in the relevance of your company to the broader business environment, you'll become a valued resource," explains Pudloski.

"If you respect their deadlines and are helpful, not pushy, you will build relationships," Bondi adds.

So what should be included in a professional media kit? Just the facts. Experts say less is more, information-wise. Terri Firebaugh, principal of Firebaugh Communications, a PR firm that specializes in small- to mid-sized businesses, says small business owners should include a company biography, a professional photograph of the key players and the product or performance of a service, a fact sheet and a recent news release geared toward the target audience. But, Firebaugh says, you should never include sales information in a press kit.

The budget for a first-time professional media kit varies, depending on labor and materials. Smaller firms can be contracted to develop press kits for as little as $500 while larger media houses may charge up to $8,000. However, experts warn a half-baked press kit could do more harm than good, so you shouldn't skimp on value. If the information is not presented professionally, your company's image will suffer.

Further, without functionality, your packet is likely to end up in the circular file (read: wastepaper basket) of a busy reporter's office. Press releases are often the backbone of an appealing media kit. "A well-written news release serves as an outline of what the story is. If the release is written like a news story, and it actually has news in it, it is more likely to interest the reporter in doing a piece on it," says Bondi. If you are not a good writer, hire one, adds Lakhani. "Third- and fourth-year PR students make good PR writers," he suggests.

Including published clips about your company is a popular tactic, however, Bondi says sending reprints from other publications can sometimes backfire. "The New York Times does not want to see that The Washington Post covered this story last month. The response you will receive is that the story has been covered." Bondi also warns: Don't change the date on news releases. "A news release is a snapshot in time. If you are caught changing the date on news releases to make them appear 'fresher,' reporters will not trust that anything you tell them is current," she explains.

Professional artwork is also important and should always be included in a professional media kit. "It should contain graphics in a variety of formats as well as black-and-white and color pictures for scanning," says Lakhani. A well-prepared media kit will provide an editor with everything he or she needs to run a story on your company.

Creating Buzz by Creating a Theme

Savvy companies use media kits to create buzz by creating a theme. Mike Neumeier, group director of business-to-business technology for Atlanta-based Duffey Communications, says small businesses must use creative media kits to break through the clutter on a reporter's desk. He says themed press kits can help personify a company. For example, Duffey created a Denmark software maker's media kit around a cowboy theme, which included a bull whip and press release stating, "In the wild, wild world of Windows, we're whipping business into shape." Similarly, Duffey's client Navision Software smoked out the competition with a cigar box theme. Neumeier says reporters couldn't resist the package, which included an actual cigar, lighter and cutter.

However, Neumeier stresses props must be used correctly to be effective. "It needs to capture the spirit and message of the product, company, organization or event. In public relations creativity for the sake of creativity is dangerous - that is what art is for. In the marketing communications field creativity needs to contribute to the bottom line. Often it is used to make the company stand out or to show that the company is a thought leader. In the end, pushing up the bottom line is what matters," he insists.

Creating themes can be expensive, but need not always be, says Neumeier. You can utilize technology, for instance, to equalize the cost of a theme-based promotion. Last Christmas, Duffey dressed its Web site in holiday garb, complete with Christmas lights and a tree. "We then disseminated a release letting our targeted media know about how we had 'decked the Internet halls,'" says Neumeier. The result: Duffey Web traffic analysis reports indicated that more people visited the site in December than any other month in 1997. "All it took was a little creativity surrounding a likable theme," explains Neumeier.

Contrarily, sometimes the best press kit is no press kit at all. When the Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams beer, started out, the company consisted of its founder Jim Koch and his secretary. Koch himself became the information vehicle for the media. "If we had sent a big, fat press kit, we would have left the incorrect impression that there was a company there," says Sally Jackson, founder of PR firm Jackson & Co. Koch went door-to-door selling the recipe that had been his great-great grandfather's and embarked on a telephone calling campaign to media and restaurateurs as part of his PR stratagem. "In that case, the media, who covered the story, created the buzz. And we did it without a press release, a product photo or anything like that. It was a couple of months later that we issued our first press release, and that was only after we'd been voted Best Beer In America at the Great American Beer Festival," says Jackson.

Getting the Word Out

Experts say mass distribution of media kits can be expensive and ineffective. "The best way to distribute media kits depends on what you are trying to accomplish," says Bondi. She suggests selected mailings to targeted reporters. "For the smaller outlets, you can usually just send them a release," says Firebaugh. However, she says for larger national outlets, very individualized mailings are more appropriate. Follow-ups are just as important as the initial mailings. Experts agree three days is the standard waiting time, unless breaking news is involved.

Bondi offers some final buzz words: "Make sure when you are pitching a reporter you actually have news or a reason why your company should be profiled. When you build a relationship with a reporter they will cover you again - ultimately, that is how you create ongoing buzz that will help your business grow."

Copyright © 2003 Virtual Advisor, Inc. All rights reserved.