The average specialty retailer and design studio owner had only a limited awareness of publicity basics and values. Not many of them used PR releases, fact sheets and related materials as part of a consistent program to educate customers and clients.
Times have changed. Today, savvy merchants, regardless of size, use publicity as a supplemental marketing tool. Dealers and designers use the process to further their individual and store studio recognition. Other small retailers, who still have doubts about the use of publicity, watch and wonder. Would it be an efficient, affordable way to entice more customers? Would it help cut back on paid advertising and the never-ending competition from discount promotions?
These quizzical merchandisers have two problems when considering PR programs. First, they don't have the know-how to set up their own programs. Second, they lack the money and initiative to get started, even though they've heard the costs can be moderate compared to paid advertising.
Effective publicity does require money, especially if you hire someone else to do the work for you. But the benefits of a long-range campaign can be beneficial and far reaching. You can use releases to tell prospects about store events and news. If desired, you also can feature your own abilities and gain helpful recognition. So, it's important for every retail owner or decorator, designer and manager to understand the process.
In the first article in this series, (December 1995) several reasons were provided as to why publicity should be included in a retailer's business plan. Some of the "pros and cons" connected with a publicity program were explained, and some of the myths that have discouraged retailer participation over the years were clarified. Also, some techniques, such as telephone calls and fact sheets, were described to help retailers get started as a "lobbyist" for themselves and their stores or studios.
In the interior fashions business there are two ways to go when considering a publicity schedule:
1. Hire professionals to help plan and carry out a customized program. As with customized window coverings, it's the costly way to do it.
2. Create and maintain your own do-it-yourself educational program for considerably less expense.
A customized program means you hire a public relations agency, or a PR consultant, to help plan a campaign and do the necessary leg work to make it happen. Your part will be to supervise and work closely with one or more PR communication specialists. You will brief them on your background, objectives and systems. You will agree on initial fees and set up a schedule that you and they think will bring results.
These professionals then will prepare a basic publicity kit about you and your business. (More about such kits in a future article.) They will arrange for good-quality photographs in black and white (also color if you want to use them), which will be needed for the kits and for subsequent publicity releases.
Of course, all materials, including written releases and photographs, will be submitted to you for final approval. Your agent then will complete the process by contacting the appropriate editors of various media. These media professionals, will decide if your release is newsworthy for their newspaper, magazine or broadcast outlet.
As a matter of course, you will inform your agency about any occasion or happenings at your store, or about personnel that you think may make news. When you do not have a potential story, your contact person may help create news, maybe a special event of some kind. As a rule, most PR programs are set up for a once-a-month release. For special occasions or a feature item, a special release will be issued.
Naturally, a customized communications program handled by professionals will be expensive. It will cost more than a do-it-yourself schedule handled personally or by a member of your staff. Public relations is a growing and prestigious professional field. Top people in the business demand big fees. Talent and materials can be a "big ticket" cost. So, determine these costs first.
When doing so, balance the expenses for professional help against the costs for your own time and effort to do the work and establish the necessary media contacts. Maintaining good relations with ever-changing media editors requires regular and careful nurturing.
Most small PR agencies and consultants will work on a job basis. They charge you hourly rates for meetings, preparing material and media contacts. Once your agency has an estimate of the time needed to service your account, they may agree to a monthly retainer. They'll still charge extra for special assignments.
Some agencies, in order to get business in the growing competitiveness of the field, will work on a results basis. They will bill you only when your material is used in a newspaper or on the air. They may want to set up a percentage charge based on your increase in sales.
Eventually, after you understand how publicity materials are prepared and used, you may decide to try to do it yourself. You can eliminate the monthly fee. However, you still must decide if you have the time and ability to be your own PR professional.
Somewhere along the way you also should determine whether you want to promote yourself. For example, do you want to become known as an expert in the interior fashions field? Do you want to attempt to write feature articles or be a speaker at various business events? It should help your business when you gain recognition because prospects read your material or hear you speak at a decorating clinic or seminar.
You don't need an agent to become a celebrity. All you need is an angle to write or speak about and the talent to prepare a story or article. Or, you can hire a freelance writer to write one for you.
If accepted, your material will be edited for length and readability. You then will have your name and material before hundreds of readers and viewers. Consider ordering reprints for distribution in your market area. Who knows how the added recognition may help your career and business? After all, as a nation we love celebrities. And, it doesn't seem to matter if publicity is good or bad.
Do It Yourself
Can you handle your own publicity? Yes, with certain qualifications, some of which already have been mentioned. It would be a tremendous advantage to be an above-average writer and speaker. Of course, you need to know your market area, who and where your customers and prospects live and which of your local media reach your market.
Some retailers and studio owners prefer to handle their own publicity. One reason is lack of budget. Another, for recognition reasons, is they prefer to contact editors themselves. Should an editor need interior fashions advice, they want to be the experts called for answers.
Points to Remember
Several thoughts from the last article bear repetition. It's important for you to tell appropriate editors that you plan to submit news items about your store's activities and related home fashions ideas. Who are the appropriate editors? For small circulation newspapers, it probably will be the local or managing editor. For large circulation publications, including newspapers and magazines, you may be directed to more specific editors, ones handling decorating, living or fashions departments.
What news do editors want? Local editors want news of significance to as large a number of readers as possible. They probably will print such items as:
New locations, additions, offices, branches, mergers, unusual equipment purchases, etc.
Staff additions, promotions, awards, clinics or seminars attended, certificates for completion of education, etc.
Anniversaries, grand openings, major contracts, community projects, model home participation, etc.
Special department editors would be interested in items such as:
How you did a customer's windows or other interior areas. Submit photographs with captions if possible. Also, be certain to have the home owner's permission in writing before releasing the information.
How you handled an unusual odd-shaped window or a large contract job. Again, photographs and captions should be provided.
A decorating editor may be interested in a fashion trend or a unique fabric collection. Decorating statistics and facts may be used, too.
Most editors will trash outright store sale and promotions. If you want to talk about a new widget or your great service, do it in an advertisement. An editor's job is to help his or her publication to grow and prosper. A good editor must be impartial as to what is news and what is advertising. He will not give away free advertising unless it is really newsworthy. After all, it's the paid advertising that provides his or her salary.
Here are the general reasons why your release may be rejected:
No local angle.
Illegible. Too many clichés.
Too long. (Needs too much editing).
Dated news, not timely.
Too commercial. (Using company names in promotions, etc.).
Trying to influence an editor. (An ethical, experienced editor will resent any attempt to buy favoritism and preferred treatment. Spend your money on advertising instead. Help his publication prosper.)
Become a firm believer in the value of store and individual publicity. It's one way a small retailer can compete with the large discounter. You can't compete with them on price or advertising schedules. But you can compete, at least on a limited basis, with a publicity and alternate advertising program. This educational and informational process may help bring you more customers, referrals, recognition and business.
John J. Lichty is a consultant and senior editor for Draperies & Window Coverings magazine. He has more than 30 years experience in the planning and administration of various consumer, trade and retail advertising programs.