When You Need PR

February 27, 2006
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With a little bit of know-how, public relations can and should be a do-it-yourself effort for early stage entrepreneurs, according to local industry professionals. But when opportunity knocks, hire some communications expertise.

Holland’s Jeff Banaszak is perhaps the region’s best example of proprietor-driven public relations. His local 1-800-GOT-JUNK franchise — a refuse hauling company built on superior service and aggressive marketing — is only 10 months old, but it has already been the subject of seven different news features (not including this one).

Banaszak has been on the cover of both the A section and the Business section of The Grand Rapids Press, was featured in The Lakeshore Press and West Michigan Business Review, has been on “Barnaby” on NBC affiliate WOOD-TV 8 and “Take Five” with Catherine Behrendt on ABC affiliate WZZM-TV 13, and was interviewed by Shelley Irwin on WGVU radio.

“My whole approach to marketing is that most small businesses have a limited budget for marketing,” he said. “I’m trying to spend my marketing dollars in a better way.”

So, instead of advertising in the Holland Chamber News, he wrote a story for it: free advertising. Instead of buying an ad in the Press, he got a front page story, and so on.

The former Herman Miller financial controller entered the market with a preternatural understanding of media relations — an appreciation for deadlines and literary quality, with a patience and flexibility that reporters crave.

He always pitches a specific feature idea, such as the weird junk the company picks up or the technology it uses. He knows who to contact, and when a reporter does call — maybe even six months later — he finds time, immediately.

Banaszak also practices guerilla marketing (a fancy word for PR stunts) — parking employees near busy intersections with signs and wearing makeshift clown suits. He’ll park the logo-emblazoned truck overnight in view of busy streets, or see that it has a street presence during big events at the Van Andel Arena.

“I’m trying to get the brand in front of as many people as possible for as cheap as possible,” he said.

Is it that simple?

For many local companies, especially early-stage ones, it can be, according to Diane Jones, president of Professional Marketing.

“It might be as simple as buying a book from the local bookstore on public relations,” Jones said. “A lot of companies don’t understand public relations, so they don’t understand why they need it. Read up about what it is and how you need it.”

For many smaller companies, just knowing how to write a press release and understanding some of the internal differences between media outlets may be enough, Jones said, skills that might be achieved with some simple homework.

Jones also suggested networking through the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

“A lot of companies could gain a lot of information by adding a PR hat to someone in the field,” she said.

GrandValleyStateUniversity professor Tim Penning takes that opinion in his private consulting practice. The former PRSA president conducts communications audits for firms large and small, and provides training when necessary.

“When I worked in the nonprofit community, when you applied for a grant, you had to demonstrate how you would build the capacity to be self-sufficient,” he said. “That’s what this is about.”

Dan Calabrese, president of North Star Public Relations, believes that traditional public relations tactics, especially media relations, could be wasted effort for some firms.

“If you’re just starting up, you’re probably better off trying to build some awareness and some loyalty among referral sources, instead of trying to get a front page story or lots of exposure in the media,” he said.

“You’re better off trying to cultivate a relationship with one person that can bring in five customers than you are trying to make 100,000 people aware of you and hoping one will buy.”

Another firm with some recent media success is the recently re-branded staffing company Otterbase. Winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award a year ago as Otterbase Technical Services, the company rode the award and a number of other accolades into coverage in business media throughout the state.

“We noticed all of the positive feedback from clients, employees and the general community, based on the articles,” said President Jeff Bennett. “We thought that if we could somehow magnify that through a PR firm — that is something we should investigate.”

The eight-year-old Otterbase is currently shopping for a public relations firm, but with some trepidation. A PR firm can be a difficult expense, Bennett said. For a midsize firm, a $30,000 to $50,000 investment is a significant step without some tangible, quantifiable results — something hard to come by in the PR world.

“We’re looking for someone that can display some level of results,” he said.

Either way, Bennett doesn’t feel the company will be able to maintain its current growth rate without some communications support.

According to Jeff Lambert, managing partner of Lambert, Edwards & Associates, this is the type of situation in which public relations services shine.

“PR is most useful in good times, when defined by making acquisitions, launching products, adding people,” he said. “Or the bad times, when it’s issues management, layoffs or crisis in the factory — the plant blows up or there is an employee injury.”

PR is best utilized, he said, when used to protect an organization or to maximize a growth trend — complex and important tasks that are best suited for experienced practitioners.

“This is something you have to do consistently to make an impact,” Calabrese said.

For these tasks, it shouldn’t matter if the public relations are centered within the company, as the largest firms do, or within an external firm, Lambert said.

Where an external firm — like Lambert Edwards, North Star or Professional Marketing — comes into play is in defining a company’s communication into topics that are timely and topical. Lambert cited one of his clients, Cascade Engineering, as a strong example of this. The company has been able to leverage its research and development, its charismatic leader and sustainable business practices into frequent coverage in the local and national media.

“What you’re hiring is that external viewpoint and expertise,” Lambert said. “A broader idea of what your news can be … the ability to take a local story and turn it into a national one.”    

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