Getting the Word Out

Would your business benefit from the help of a PR specialist? Will returns justify cost? Here's a pro's advice

Many small manufacturers rely on long-standing contracts or personal sales relationships, which is fine and dandy just so long as the product line remains pretty much unchanged. But when a business launches a new line, or when it wants to spread the word about an improved manufacturing process, things get a little more complicated. In-house employees may not have the savvy, the time, or the inclination to do the best possible job of spreading the word.

That's why, at those crucial moments in the life of a growing business, the best policy may be to bring in an outside professional, says John Elliott, founder and CEO of Power PR, a Torrance, (Calif.)-based product publicity outfit that specializes in manufacturing clients. "Hiring a professional PR firm is not for every company," says Elliott, "but it can be the swiftest route to increased sales, profits and market credibility in some circumstances." He discussed a few of those circumstances recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein.

When you're launching a new product or process, or investing in any other major push, consider springing for a PR firm if...

...your product is largely unknown. "Like launching a rocket into orbit, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to launch a company or product from obscurity into a state of recognition," Elliott says. "Editors and potential early adopters will have a healthy level of skepticism that must be overcome by a sustained boost of energy and credibility."

...there is no acknowledged leader in your market category. "A good PR firm with product-publicity expertise can help establish a new market category in the mind of the target audience," says Elliott. "This isn't possible by placing an occasional article or two. It takes a sustained volume of credible articles, usually in a variety of story types -- including features and case studies -- before an acceptable level of 'mindshare' is captured, and a new market category established."

...your product sells in a national market. "Given a national market for your product, it makes sense to target the tremendous number of trade publications in both vertical and horizontal markets," Elliott says. Local angles can also be implemented for regional newspapers and television.

...your product is newsworthy. Not sure if it is or not? Consult an expert to see if an appropriate news angle can be developed. "Successful case studies can often be developed around custom products, since each application is unique," Elliott says.

...your reps spend more than 10% of their time cold-calling or trying to get past gatekeepers. For efficiency's sake, a sales force should spending the bulk of its time on bids, quotes, and proposals. "Proper product publicity will not only bring in a volume of leads," notes Elliott, "but also improve the quality of those leads so the sales staff spends more time with prospects inclined to buy."

...at least 25 trade publications serve your market. "A small number of trade publications, like three or five, may be competently dealt with by in-house PR staff," says Elliott, who adds: "But some markets have 100 or more publications that speak to the needs of potential prospects, and the logistics and follow-up needed is often too complex or time-consuming for in-house staff."

...you have excess production capacity. "When staff or facilities sit idle, it's critical to the bottom line to get them working," says Elliott. "A critical volume of product publicity stories crafted to entice specific markets can keep production and profits high."

What should entrepreneurs look for when hiring a PR firm specializing in product publicity?

"First, make sure the firm has dealt successfully with a variety of different technologies, including yours whenever possible," Elliott says.

"Second, ensure the firm has performed to high product-publicity standards in the past. Find out how many articles they've placed in publications similar to those of your target audience. They should be able to itemize not only the circulation of each publication, but also the cost of each lead."