by Joan Stewart & Tom Antion

Does this sound like you?

You can’t understand why the business reporter at your local newspaper has quoted your competitor in five separate stories but hasn’t called you once.

Your company sends out more than two dozen news releases every year about new employees and promotions, but they result in little more than a few lines of type.

The 12-page speech your boss wrote when he spoke at the local Rotary Club luncheon would have made an excellent column for the local business magazine. But after you mailed it to the editor, you never heard a word.

If your attempts at media coverage have fallen flat, quit grumbling and start taking a proactive approach to free publicity by identifying interesting, compelling story ideas the media need.

Yes, NEED. Newspapers, magazines and trade publications have hundreds of thousands of column inches to fill. TV and radio stations have hundreds of hours of news and community interest programs they must broadcast. The number of media outlets is greater than ever, and competition is fierce for advertising dollars, viewers and subscribers. The secret to savvy media relations is knowing exactly what they want, then giving it to them.

Here are tickler questions designed to help you identify the best story ideas within your company or organization:

WHAT’S DIFFERENT? Is your company doing anything unique, or different than your competitors? Examples: A professional speaker who gives a quirky, memorable free gift to every meeting planner who hires her. A web site company that gives its customers discount coupons good for a web site update for every referral a customer sends. An agency that buys creative toys for its employees to use during brainstorming sessions to get their own creative juices flowing.

THE LOCAL ANGLE Are you the local angle to a national or regional event? During the war in Kosovo, many local newspapers and TV stations ran stories about people in their own communities who kept in touch with their relatives in the war zone. During the Columbine shootings in Colorado, newspapers interviewed local child psychologists and counselors who offered tips on how parents can spot warning signs in their own children.

PIGGYBACK ON A NEWS EVENT After severe rains in Milwaukee a few years ago, a Minnesota company got several minutes of free advertising on a Milwaukee radio station by talking to the drive-time radio host about a special pump that removes standing water and moisture in the air. The host interviewed a company representative and gave out the company’s toll-free number.

PIGGYBACK ON TRENDS Do you sell a product or service that ties into a national trend? A credit counseling agency might offer themselves as a source for stories about the whopping credit card debt wracked up by college students. A non-profit agency that advocates safety for women can promote its community classes by offering the media tips on how businesswomen can be less susceptible to theft of laptop computers in crowded places like airports.

PIGGYBACK ON A HOLIDAY Are you doing something different on a particular holiday? Are you a management consultant who can suggest ways that companies can keep their employees productive during the holidays? Have you determined that it’s more efficient for your business to simply close down during the week between Christmas and New Year’s? If you’re of Irish descent and give all your employees a half day off on St. Patrick’s Day, that story might interest the media. Remember that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the slowest news week of the year, and an excellent time to seek coverage. A Wisconsin company got a six-minute story on the local TV station after it announced at the annual Christmas party that every employee was being treated to a trip to Disney World.

TELL THE MEDIA ABOUT TRENDS Have you spotted a new trend in your industry? Let the media know. Many accountants, for example, are becoming certified as investment counselors. If it’s a trend a reporter is interested in, don’t be surprised if they interview you for the story.

OFFER FREE ADVICE What advice can you offer that will help someone else solve their problems? Tell reporters they can call on you for advice when writing stories about your area of expertise. Give them specific examples of how you help people save time and money.

WRITE HOW-TO ARTICLES Editors of many newspapers, magazines and trade publications want articles that tell their readers how to do something such as get out of debt, discipline their children, have a safer work environment, set up a home office, or acquire a business loan. Think of the number one problem your customers face, then write a how-to article about it. If it is printed, try to recycle the article for a different publication.

TAKE A STAND ON ISSUES Is there a local, state or national industry or political issue that you lobby for, or that you feel strongly about? Find the reporters who cover that issue and share your thoughts with them. If, for example, your trade group is supporting local gun control legislation, call and offer to comment on the issue.

PUBLICIZE AN UPCOMING EVENT Are you sponsoring an event such as classes, an open house, a free demonstration, or a fun event? Don’t just send a news release. Think of something visual that ties into the event. Then call your local TV station and ask if they are interested in doing a story a day or two before. Coverage before the event helps spark interest and boost attendance.

THINK TECHNOLOGY How are you using technology in interesting or unique ways? Have you found a way to draw lots of traffic to your web site-with resulting orders? Are you using the latest technology during your speaking engagements? Is your sales force using technology to stay in touch with existing customers and seek out new ones?

THE LABOR SHORTAGE How are you attracting and keeping qualified employees? By letting them work from home? By recruiting in places like Fort Lauderdale during spring break? By setting up trust funds for children of employees who stay longer than a year? By offering casual day every day of the week? The labor-shortage is a red-hot topic, and demographers predict that it will become even hotter.

YOUR LIFESTYLE Does the type of clothing you wear, the home you live in, your hobbies, your relationships with your family, the food you eat, and where you travel on vacation say something unusual about you? These stories are ideal for lifestyle sections, food pages, travel pages and special interest magazines. Even though the articles are not necessarily business-related, the reporter most likely will ask you what you do for a living, and that’s a chance to plug your company or organization, particularly if it ties into the reason they are writing. (Example: You speak internationally and have an extensive collection of wine you have bought during your travels. This would be a GREAT story for food page editors, and it would publicize the fact that you are a professional speaker.)

ALLIANCES AND PARTNERSHIPS Has your organization formed an interesting alliance or partnership with another business or non-profit? Call the business reporter and share the information. Be willing to explain the results you expect to see from such an arrangement. And be sure your partner is also willing to speak with a reporter.

TALK ABOUT YOUR PROBLEMS What are the three biggest business problems you are facing? Find out the name of the reporters who cover your industry. Then share the information with them. Who knows? Someone might read your story and call you with a solution you might not otherwise have known about.

TALK ABOUT YOUR MISTAKES What are the biggest you have made, and how would you advise other people from not making the same ones? Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone makes mistakes. And if you’re willing to discuss yours, there’s a good chance the media will be willing to write about you.

POLLS AND SURVEYS Are you taking a poll or survey, either among your customers or among the public? Homewood Suites, a Texas hotel chain, got great publicity from results of a survey that asked guests what they do in hotel rooms. Almost one in five respondents said they jump on the bed. Iams pet food company surveyed its customers about their relationship with their pets. An overwhelming 91 percent of the people polled admitted saying “I love you” to their pets. In addition, 63 percent of respondents sleep with their pets at their sides. Results of the poll were released several weeks before Valentine’s Day. (Brilliant!) How about taking a poll asking your customers about the most unusual way they use your product or service?

CLEVER CONTESTS Have you thought about sponsoring a clever contest? To celebrate its 100th anniversary, OshKosh B’Gosh launched a six-month nationwide search for the oldest pair of bib overalls. Thrifty Rent-a-Car sponsors an annual Honeymoon Disasters Contest. Entries result in amusing feature stories printed in major newspapers and magazines throughout the country. For additional publicity mileage, the company announces results near Valentine’s Day, giving the media a perfect story that piggybacks on a holiday.

THE FOUR SEASONS Think about story ideas that tie into the four seasons. Has your company found a way to keep cool or cut utility costs? Suggest it during the dog days of summer. Hospitals, clinics and medical schools can offer the media a list of experts to pass along helpful tips on how to avoid getting colds and flu during the winter. Lawn care companies can share tips on how to prepare your lawn during the spring.

CELEBRATING AN ANNIVERSARY? The fact that your company is celebrating an anniversary or birthday isn’t news. But it would be more enticing to the media if you could tie it in to a clever event. A button manufacturer published a lavish photo history of the button-including its uses-on shoes, clothing, furniture and accessories. An accounting firm celebrated its centennial by publishing a giveaway book of commissioned original renditions of what select artists thought it meant to be 100. A national rental car company rented out its fleet of cars for free one day.

CREATE TIP SHEETS Can you write a tip sheet that explains how to solve a particular problem, or how to do something? It includes helpful free advice. Topics sound like this: 11 Ways to Snag More Business from Your Web site, The 7 Secrets of Profitable Self-Promotion, 9 Ways to Save Money on Insurance Premiums. Each tip sheet should have a short introduction of a sentence or two. At the end, print a paragraph that states the name of the author, the author’s credentials, and contact information such as phone number, e-mail address and web site URL. Think of the Number One problem your customers are facing, and offer tips on how to solve it.

CHANGING YOUR FOCUS? Is your company changing its focus, switching product lines, expanding services, entering new niche markets or making any major changes in the way it does business? If so, let the media know. Be willing, however, to talk about the reasons behind the change. If you’re trying a new product line because the first one flopped, be willing to say so.

Excerpt from “How to Be a Kick Butt Publicity Hound” by Joan Stewart and Tom Antion

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