Public relations is often discussed with respect to big business: the very term PR may have come to imply corporate hegemony, calling up images of large communications firms hired by even larger conglomerates to shape public discourse, perhaps in bad faith. If you’re a small business owner, these things might seem to belong to an alien world.
But hold on a minute. For one thing, public relations is simply a form of communication, only as nefarious or virtuous as the parties involved. Yes, PR in business can be a means of deception, but it can also be a means of telling the truth, of reassurance, of expressing sincere gratitude or pride, and of strengthening the relationship between a business, its customers, and its partners.
For another thing, small business PR is by no means unheard of; it’s a well-established and valuable specialty. You don’t have to be CEO of Walmart to take advantage of a good communications plan, which is why we’ve drawn up this list of public relations tactics for small business owners.
When Do Small Businesses Need Public Relations?
You may be wondering whether you could implement a small business PR strategy without ignoring the limitations imposed by your budget, your existing workload, or the size of your workforce. Small businesses by their nature rarely have a lot of time or money they can afford to devote to new projects. Is PR a worthwhile use of your resources?
The answer is, it depends. Good PR advice for small businesses does not presume uniformity across businesses or even within the same business over time. Maybe your company needs to focus on other areas (e.g., reducing inefficiencies, staffing, product development) before ramping up a communications campaign. Maybe you’re operating in a sector that isn’t amenable to PR efforts at all.
On the other hand, maybe you’re in a place where a small business PR strategy would be just the ticket to pull in new customers or confer esteem on your company’s name. Public relations can be a great way to grow brand awareness, establish thought leadership, and generate demand. However, when marketing budgets are tight, you’ll have to be more judicious, turning to PR only when it advances key business objectives.
On to the list!
The Top 10 Public Relations Strategies for Small Business Owners
1. Know Your Audience
If communication, such as PR, is the bedrock of a good relationship, then knowing your audience is the bedrock of good communication. Is your small business PR campaign B2B? You need to understand where your partners, clients, etc., are trying to go with their own endeavors. You need to think about what their businesses require to flourish, and help them see how association with you promotes those outcomes. Is your campaign B2C? You need to climb inside the minds of the individuals who patronize your company. Are they choosing you for convenience? For price? For cachet? For lack of alternatives?
Small business owners with public relations strategies that work have this in common: a keen intuition about the emotional and pragmatic motivations of the people receiving their message.
2. Organization and Planning
Before you get cracking on your small business PR blitz, spend some time defining your goals, the metrics you’ll use to assess whether your campaign is succeeding, the timing of the campaign’s phases, and the key events within those phases. All of these considerations will become important sooner or later; you can’t put them off forever. Although your well-laid plans will most likely change a bit as they collide with reality, getting organized at the start will still save you time and sharpen your decisions down the line.
You’ll find it’s easier to have a plan to work from, even if it needs repeated tweaking, than it is to scramble around inventing your success metrics, timeframe, etc., from scratch as the campaign results pour in.
3. Earned Media
One of the most powerful public relations tactics for small business owners is aiming for recognition in media unaffiliated with your company. Traditional ads work, but people trust them less than “earned media,” i.e., promotion by sources without an interest in your business’ success. Old-guard media like print and TV news, though beleaguered by competitors in the digitized world, still convey credibility and rigor not yet matched by their all-digital counterparts. That authority can do a lot of work for you as part of a small business PR strategy.
Don’t let fantasies of front-page praise inflate your expectations though. News media typically don’t cover highly promotional stories, and in any case their audience may not intersect much with yours. To have a chance for placement in such sources, ask yourself: does my business relate to a larger theme in my community, such that media outlets might see a public good or a public obligation in talking about it? Let this larger theme be the focus of your small business PR pitches.
As a salient example, let’s say you own a health food store during a pandemic. Why not pitch a story to a reporter about improved health outcomes from immune-boosting foods, many of which you just happen to have to put on sale at the front of your store? A big part of public relations for small business owners is connecting yourself to ideas and movements that have traction already.
As one would expect from the ubiquity of social media today and the general preference of earned media to paid media among consumers, testimonials carry a lot of weight in modern marketplaces. More than 90% of people check online reviews before making purchases. Small business PR campaigns built around positive reviews, customer satisfaction surveys, and other accounts of individuals’ experiences harness the energy of these trends.
5. Work with Influencers
This is really an extension of the previous point. Today the so-called influencer — a person with a lot of followers on social media — is a powerful ambassador for companies looking to raise their brand visibility. Of course, having someone like Beyoncé brag about your company would be nice, but if you’re a public accountant in Iowa, that’s probably a long shot. This is where micro-influencers come in.
Micro-influencers have between 10,000 and 50,000 followers. They’re typically cheaper to work with and more available than bigger names, and their audiences are often clustered around a single pursuit, profession, or interest — maybe the same one your small business serves! In many cases, working with influencers in any capacity will not make sense for your company. However, in 2021, no piece of PR advice for small businesses would be complete without acknowledging the impact of social media magnates on consumer behavior.
6. Competition Research
An easy-to-overlook public relation tactic for small business owners is competition research. Find out what kind of public relations your competitors are putting out, discard the parts you think won’t work, and imitate the parts you deem advantageous. Don’t be shy about borrowing from others’ good ideas when devising your small business PR strategy.
7. Be Funny
File this one under “High Risk, High Reward.” When you think it’s appropriate, adding a little comedic edge to your small business PR could make your campaign seem more authentic. If your audience is surfeited with traditional business communications, a conversational style that doesn’t play it safe could come across as invigorating and trustworthy.
Best case scenario, your PR campaign goes the way of the Wendy’s Twitter account, and you can immediately quit your real job and write snarky posts full time. Worst case scenario, your attempts at humor blow up in your face, and you actually lose business. Weigh the pros and cons carefully, and when in doubt stick to a less controversial tone.
8. Tell a Story
Effective public relations, for small business owners, requires crafting a narrative that links the life of the business and the lives of its customers and partners. Whereas a larger company’s PR campaign might have room to assume that their audience already knows all about the company, focusing more on the prestige they’ve already established, small business PR campaigns are usually an exercise in gaining trust rather than maintaining it.
Instead of incorporating themes in your PR in a haphazard or experimental way, make individual items of communication conform to a predetermined central idea, a story. This consistency will make it easier to help people see the value in investing in your endeavors.
9. Create Content, Not Ads
You may have noticed a pattern running through this list so far: artifice, disingenuity, and in-your-face sales tactics are discouraged. The modern consumer has deep familiarity with advertising; this seems to have produced a cynicism that will defeat your small business PR strategy if you are not careful to make your representations match the facts.
Rather than approaching PR as a way to skew people’s opinions with favorable information about your company, as is common with traditional advertising, come at things with an attitude of sincerity. Share the things you’re actually proud of, the things you’re actually hopeful about. Ask for help. Steering away from the appearance of infallibility and toward the reality of shared humanity will probably help more than it hurts with today’s ad-weary audiences.
10. Take Part in Community Events
Our last, but by no means least, public relations tactic for small business owners is to take part in community events, such as fairs, festivals, celebrations, etc., whether by sponsoring them or by participating. These events often get local news coverage, which presents a great opportunity for earned media, and they allow you to connect with your customers, face-to-face, and demonstrate your company’s involvement in their everyday affairs.
Make your business a fixture in your local culture, and you’ll enjoy a host of benefits including word-of-mouth traffic, community support during hard times, and better opportunities for future PR.
Work With Industry-Leading Public Relations Experts for Small Biz Owners Today
Communications Strategy Group (CSG®) is an industry forerunner in small business PR. If you’re a small business owner looking for insightful, experienced PR support driven by a spirit of excellence, find out how we can help you today.