Public Relations for Small Business Owners: The Complete Guide 

Rieva Lesonsky

Public relations is the professional maintenance of your small business’s public image. Done well, public relations can build trust in your business, grow your brand, and drive sales. To effectively manage your small business public relations, you need to lay out a PR strategy, reach out to journalists and bloggers, and give effective interviews. You also need to leverage your good PR to generate more good PR by fostering strong relationships with journalists and marketing your PR successes.

One of the most important marketing strategies small business owners should employ is public relations, or PR. Public relations for small business owners encompasses a lot of things. To get a better understanding of what small business public relations is and how it can help grow your business, let’s start with an example:

K&J Heating and Cooling is a small HVAC business serving suburban Chicago that was started by lifelong friends Kip (K) and Jeff (J). Last year, the duo celebrated 20 years in business—and they wanted to drum up publicity for reaching this milestone. So they reached out to Audra Hamlin, a consultant at local PR agency The Gift Firm. She created a press release and sent it out to news organization in the area. The result? A local newspaper ran a feature on K&J Heating and Cooling, highlighting Kip and Jeff’s lifelong friendship and why they decided to go into business together.

“Thanks to that article, local residents will now remember K&J Heating and Cooling and what sets them apart from their competition,” Hamlin explains. “Small business owners don’t always have time to share what makes their business special and unique. But investing in PR is a great way to achieve this.”

The goal of public relations is to receive free media coverage for your business, which in turn defines your business’s brand and public image. When executed well, small business public relations can build consumer trust, establish your brand as an authority, and drive up your business’s visibility in search engine’s like Google. The best part is, it is often cheaper than regular small business marketing techniques.

Let’s learn a bit more about why small business owners should invest in public relations.

Why Your Business Needs Public Relations

PR is critical for any business, especially ones that rely on customer experience and trust. Here are some of the main reasons why your business needs to implement public relations into its marketing strategy:

1. Consumers Trust Editorial Content More than Ads

Public relations gets the word out that your business, product and/or service exists in a different way than ads do. Studies show consumers trust third-party editorial content, such as newspapers and magazines, more than any type of advertising. Not too surprising, right? It’s better when someone else sings your praises than when you do so yourself.

2. Builds Credibility

Do you have a new product or service that doesn’t have a lot of competition? Maybe your business is brand new and you do have lots of competition. Either way, you need to educate the public about what your product does, why it’s worthwhile and what differentiates you from the pack. Readers already have a relationship with their local media, so they’re more likely to pay attention when they hear this information from a familiar source.

3. Drive Sales

Good PR should help fill your marketing funnel in some way; the bottom line here is to drive sales. Not every press hit— blog mentions, newspaper articles, local TV and news shows, etc.—will result in people lining up at the cash register, but it should generate buzz that converts customers at some point in the future.

4. Help Blunt an Image Crisis.

You hope it never happens, but one negative customer service experience or social media post gone viral can ruin your business’s reputation. Taking immediate action via a well-planned PR crisis response strategy—which should include proper messaging and targeted outreach—can help you repair the damage. (See also: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Dealing with Negative Online Reviews”)

Notice that for all of these benefits to be relevant, it’s important for the endorsement or message to come from someone other than you. That’s not to say that press releases and statements don’t have their place—they do—but in many situations, it’s best to have someone else who believes in you to brag or defend your business.

Executing a Small Business Public Relations Strategy

Now that we understand the benefits of public relations for small business owners, it’s time to work on creating a public relations strategy for your small business. The first step is understanding if you can handle PR in-house or if you need to outsource your PR strategy.

In-House PR vs. Hiring an Agency

Realizing a PR strategy isn’t always an easy task—nor is it a simple one. It requires a specific set of skills that, as a small business owner, might not be within your wheelhouse. Even if they are, you likely don’t have the time to do it well.

PR people have writing skills, including the ability to think like journalists while writing attention-getting copy like marketers. They have people skills, such as the ability to schmooze the media without being blatant about it. They have the persistence to deal with rejection and to approach the press multiple times through multiple channels, including phone calls, emails and social media. Finally—and many would argue most importantly—they have access to connections developed through their years of experience.

How do you know when you need professional PR assistance and when to go it alone? As with anything else in business, it’s a matter of assessing your goals, resources, and budget.

Typically your goals will include some or all of the following:

  • Creating, promoting and maintaining a favorable reputation and image for your business.

  • Educating prospective customers about your business, products and/or services, particularly if what you sell is innovative or unusual.

  • Attracting new customers to your business.

  • Supporting and enhancing the rest of your marketing and advertising activities.

Suppose you have a new Italian restaurant. Your primary PR strategy goal is to attract new customers from the local area and to support your existing marketing and advertising activities. You decide you want to get mentioned in 5-10 local publications and/or blogs, including the ones where you’ve already placed advertisements. You can probably handle this yourself by researching your local media and reaching out to the journalists and bloggers personally.

On the other hand, if you’re launching a new wearable fitness technology that will be sold globally through an ecommerce website, your goals will likely also include establishing a reputation and educating customers about what your product does. In the crowded technology field, doing this right could mean pitching hundreds of tech and fitness bloggers, journalists, websites and print publications. You’ll almost definitely need professional help to build those relationships and secure quality coverage. Don’t underestimate how much time a PR campaign can take. Assess the time and staff you have available to devote to public relations. This involves:

  • Writing press releases.

  • Making lists of which media outlets you want to pitch.

  • Researching the right folks at those outlets and obtaining their contact information.

  • Sending out press releases.

  • Following up by email and/or phone.

  • Keeping track of responses (or lack thereof) and following up again.

  • Responding when a member of the media “bites” and providing them whatever they need—a product demo, interview, or even a TV appearance.

Is this something your regular employees have the bandwidth for without other parts of the business suffering? Ideally, your budget will fit your goals and resources, but what do you do if it doesn’t? If you want worldwide publicity but you’ve got a small-town budget, you need to make some compromises.

You might need to do it yourself at first, focusing your efforts on specific messaging or only the most important outlets, slowly expanding your reach until your business gains enough traction that you can afford to hire PR help. On the other hand, if you feel confident that you can produce results, then perhaps it makes sense to look at other areas of your budget that can be scaled back. Want to find out more about what’s involved in doing it yourself? PR Newswire is a good resource for learning PR basics and distributing releases. Their PR Toolkit offers press release templates and other tools to help small business owners.

Crisis Management

One area where you definitely need a pro on your side is crisis management. Every small business needs a plan it can put into effect immediately if something happens. Gini Dietrich, the founder and CEO of integrated marketing communications firm Arment Dietrich, which produces the Spin Sucks blog, and author of the book Spin Sucks, says your plan should include the five Ps:

  1. Predict what might go wrong,

  2. Position your brand in response.

  3. Prevent a crisis by proactively listening to what people are saying about your brand.

  4. Plan how you’ll respond immediately.

  5. Persevere until your reputation is remedied.

Even if you can’t afford to keep a PR firm or consultant on retainer, it’s a smart idea to have one help you create a crisis management plan, then develop relationships with several so you have a “shortlist” of firms or consultants you can call to spring into action in an emergency. (You need several for backup, because at the time you have an emergency, one company may not have the manpower to help you right away if you’re not a regular client on retainer.)

How to Generate PR Interest for Your Business

Since small business owners are often working with limited resources and staff, it takes some experimenting to figure out how to even generate interest in your business. Here are a few of our favorite tactics to test out:

Newsjacking

“Newsjacking” is what it sounds like: hijacking the news. This PR trick entails keeping an eye out for breaking news that might be relevant to your business, and then piggybacking on it to try and get your business into the story. When it’s done right, capitalizing on breaking news is great PR for small businesses—it can expand your reach and get you a lot of play while the story is relevant.

The key to successful newsjacking is getting the timing right—you have to pounce quickly. That starts with understanding the news cycle so that you can estimate how long a story will be relevant. The best time to newsjack is after the story has broken, during the time that journalists are scrambling for additional information and perspectives to inform their coverage.

This Refinery29 article is a great example of a small business PR strategy gone right. Clearly Cookies, a Dallas bakery, created their own news by latching onto the popular fidget spinner trend. This savvy business owner created a fidget spinner cookie, an interesting twist on the story that generated coverage in top publications like Eater, Vice, and Mashable.

In some cases, it might make sense to newsjack ahead of time. For example, if you know that a certain report is going to be released about your local economy or that a particular community event will generate news coverage, you might reach out to the reporters you think will cover those things a day or two ahead. That way, the reporter might use your quote or interview you for your perspective in time to make it into the article.

Have trouble keeping up with the news? No problem—set up a few Google alerts for key terms related to your industry, and updates will be emailed to you.

If you’re a bit late to the game, you can always reach out with a new angle or idea for how to cover the story. In your outreach, acknowledge that the reporter covered this news issue previously—but offer up a new or exciting angle, like the impact of a particular announcement or policy on small businesses, for example.

Keeping an eye on industry news is always a good idea for business owners, but tuning into how you might be able to capitalize on the news can also help you spread your message.

Gather Customer Stories

Every brand has a story. Telling that story is an opportunity to build awareness for your business. While each business’s story is different, there’s one easy and consistent way to tell your brand’s story: customer stories.

You can start by collecting stories from your customers about how your business has helped them, and how they’ve used your product or service. Once you get a sense of the interesting ways people are interacting with your business, see if it could be a good fit to offer up the story to local journalists! The best customer stories demonstrate your business’s positive impact on the community.

Tap Into Thought Leadership

As a local business owner, you’re already pretty tapped into what people care about in your industry. So why not use that knowledge to your advantage?

It’s helpful to think about what people in your industry are talking about or what they might want to know.

In one creative but simple example of thought leadership as a small business PR strategy, this Philly.com article interviewed Russell Carter, owner of Body Cycle Studio in Philadelphia, to discuss his favorite workout songs and create a playlist. The end result? More great press for the business.

Sharing industry knowledge is a great way to generate press coverage, across sectors. For example, this Rapid City Journal article interviews two employees of the Knecht Home Center about the basics of the lumber business. They shared lessons they learned in the industry over the years and built some awareness for their lumber company along the way.

Build Reporter Relationships

Local reporters cover the news items that matter most to their communities. They are interested in stories about new or expanded businesses that provide goods or services in their neighborhoods. Whether you own a restaurant or a hardware store, or anything in between, it’s worth reaching out to reporters at local publications to inform them of your expansion plans.

Need help figuring out which reporters cover your industry? Google News is a great tool, and with some creative searching, you can find articles similar to the ones you’d like to see written about your business. Those reporters—in addition to those covering small business and whatever industry you operate in—are the ones you should keep on your radar.

Industry news outlets might also be a good option for expansion or new business stories. For example, food publications like Eater and GrubStreetmight be interested in new restaurant openings—though they’d be a reach for most small businesses to secure coverage in.

It’s great to keep these reporters in mind to invite them to events, and keep them in the loop with any news about your business.

How to Capture the Attention of Journalists and Bloggers

Even the best PR strategy won’t succeed unless you know how to capture the attention of journalists and bloggers—and this is easier said than done.

Journalists, reporters, and bloggers are busier than ever these days and their inboxes are fuller than ever, receiving literally hundreds of pitches each week. If you’re still sending out the same-old, same-old press releases, they’re going to hit the “delete” button. So how do you take your small business publicity to the next level and get your announcements noticed?

It’s all about targeting and packaging.

Here are five rules to follow:

1. Know the Journalist’s “Beat”

We can’t emphasize this one enough—it’s crucial to know what a particular journalist writes about. Otherwise, you’ll end up sending pitches about your new pet products to a mommy blogger or asking a finance journalist to review your new tech tool. There are ways to learn more about the journalist so you target your small business publicity well. You can check out their bios on Twitter, Muck Rack, or on the author pages at the websites where they contribute. Google them to get an idea about their body of work. But there’s no better way to know what they’re interested in than actually reading their stuff.

2. Get to the Point

Journalists are just like you—they’re swamped and scanning through tons of emails a day to get their jobs done. Subject lines matter, and straightforwardness works best. If your subject line is cutesy or cryptic, your email may never get opened. Clearly state what you have to offer, whether it’s data, advice, interview availability, or a product for review. If what you’re offering is counterintuitive or surprising, that’s a great way to capture their attention.

3. Help Them Out

Journalists, and particularly bloggers, are under huge pressure to “feed the content beast” by churning out multiple blog posts, tweets, etc. a day. Make their jobs easier by including multiple suggestions for possible story angles.

4. Provide Backup

Give reporters the tools they need to research your story right away. Provide links to your survey results or other data, relevant articles written about your business, relevant articles you’ve written, and your website (which does have an “About” page, right?).

5. Be Responsive

Someone took your bait and a reporter wants to talk to you—now. Get back to the person immediately and provide whatever they need, be it additional data, a high-resolution photo, overnighting a book or product for review, or setting up an interview. Opportunities at small business publicity don’t last very long–if you travel frequently, are heading out on vacation or have another reason you won’t be able to respond immediately, put someone else at your business in charge of checking your email and phone messages and responding to media inquiries, stat.

How to Interview With a Reporter

So, your PR efforts finally paid off. A reporter is on the line wanting to talk to you. But now comes the most important part of the PR process.

You’ve got to give a great, memorable interview that makes you stand out; draws attention for the article, radio show or interview; and makes you a valuable resource that the reporter will turn to again and again. Here are some inside tips on interviewing with a reporter, and what to do and what not to do.

The Do’s of Interviewing With a Reporter

  1. DO be flexible. Maybe you own a gourmet food store and pitched a story about holiday gift ideas, but the reporter wants to talk to you about why artisanal foods are hot. Go with the flow! Be flexible about format, too. If you can’t fit a telephone interview or in-person meeting into your schedule, ask if the reporter can send you the questions by email instead. (Bonus: responding by email gives you time to really think through and fine-tune your answers.)

  2. DO be prepared. Ask if you can review some sample questions before interviewing with a reporter, but don’t count on them doing so. Brush up on industry trends and news so you can speak knowledgeably about current events. What anecdotes, examples, or stories can you share that will add interest to the article?

  3. DO respect the reporter’s time. How do you feel when you schedule a meeting with someone and they don’t show up, aren’t ready when you show up, or show up late? Treat others as you would like to be treated.

  4. DO provide extra information. If you have statistics, case studies, or other data that will help the reporter with their story, please share! Know someone else the reporter should talk to? Offer to put them in touch. If there’s some lead time before interviewing with a reporter, send the reporter links to any past interviews, articles you’ve written, or pieces about your business to give them background and save both of you some time.

  5. DO be yourself. According to Kate Ryan, managing director at Diffusion PR, the best thing a small business owner can do is remain calm and confident. “The best way to approach a conversation with a reporter is how you would approach any conversation with anyone – be a human,” Ryan says. “After all, you’re the expert on the topic you’ve been approached to speak about. If you can set the mental framework that an interview is just one more conversation, it becomes a much more enjoyable experience, rather than an intimidating one.”

  6. DO maximize the resulting web traffic. If the article, video, or podcast will run online, ask the reporter if they can include hyperlinks to your website or other landing pages you’d like people to visit.

The Don’ts of Interviewing With a Reporter

  1. DON’T cling to yes or no answers. Experienced reporters never ask questions you can answer with a yes or no, but you don’t know when you’ll end up talking to a new reporter or blogger, so be sure to flesh out your answers. Suppose you own a toy store and while interviewing with a reporter, you’re asked, “Is technology hurting the toy industry?” Say “Yes, and here’s how…”

  2. DON’T monopolize the interview. The other extreme of yes or no answers is the answer that goes on, and on, and on. Take a minute to gather your thoughts before you answer so you can word your response well. Aim for easily-digested, “sound byte” answers of 10 to 15 seconds.

  3. DON’T blatantly promote your business. Reporters don’t want their articles to sound like advertisements. Suppose your business helps entrepreneurs create online videos cheaply and easily. If you’re interviewing with a reporter about online video as a marketing tool, talk about current trends, how entrepreneurs can create memorable videos, and where they can host their videos. You can briefly mention something like, “For example, my company offers a service that does X…” but don’t make your own products and services the focus of what you say.

How to Make Publicity Last

Getting your first media placement is cause for celebration—but it is also just the beginning of your business PR campaign. To leverage PR to grow your business, you need to make it last, and ultimately have your media coverage foster future media coverage. Here’s how you do it:

1. Thank the Reporter

Always thank the reporter or blogger for featuring your business. Send an email, a Twitter DM, or even a handwritten thank you note. Remember, your goal is to lay the groundwork for a lasting relationship.

2. Post and/or Host

Ask the journalist if you can post or host the piece on your company’s website. Posting direct links to reputable sites can improve your website’s SEO. For an article, it would also be a good idea to create and save PDF versions and consider posting the PDFs instead of links to the original article. Hyperlinks can become obsolete eventually. For a video or audio podcast, you could embed it directly on your website. You could even edit it into shorter snippets for use on your website or other marketing materials; just be sure to credit the original source properly.

3. Spread the Word

Let everyone know about your 15 minutes of fame by mentioning and linking to the piece in your email newsletter and on social media. Depending on the level of the press mention, it might even be worth doing additional PR. For instance, if your local brewery got featured in a national news story on the craft brewing trend, you could release a press release to the local media—local papers often like to feature “local business makes good” types of stories.

4. Market Away

Incorporate media mentions into your marketing materials and your print or online media kit. For instance, you can create a section on your website that says “Press” and link to all your press mentions there. Your brochures, direct mail, flyers, signage, or even your product packaging could say, “As seen on Channel 7 News” or “Featured in USA Today.” Did your restaurant or product get a rave review from an industry expert? Use part of the review as a testimonial: “Best Pizza in New York”—Pizza Today Magazine. Just be sure to quote it accurately. With any luck (and a lot of hard work), you’ll soon have an impressive amount of media coverage to share when promoting your business.

5. Get Framed

If you have a brick-and-mortar location, be sure to get print articles or blog posts printed and framed to hang in your store, office, or restaurant. It’s old-fashioned, but it really works wonders to build your reputation.

6. Name Drop

Use your previous coverage to clinch more coverage. Publicity is like money: the more you have, the faster it multiplies. Journalists and bloggers like interviewing credible, media-savvy people. When they see that you’ve been featured elsewhere, it proves your business is newsworthy and you’re a good interview.

7. Go Back to the Well

Ever notice that the same sources often get quoted a lot by the same reporters or bloggers? That’s because they’ve worked to become valuable resources for those journalists. There’s no rule that says you can’t pitch the same person multiple times—in fact, just the opposite is true. Reminding the person of their initial interview with you will make them more likely to turn to you as a trusted source again and again.

Additional Small Business Public Relations Tips

Now that we understand the basics of public relations for small business owners, let’s provide you with some additional tips that will help you take your small business public relations to the next level. All of these tips are provided by experienced PR professionals or small business owners who have found success with their PRO strategies.

Audit Your Online Presence

“One of our first moves is to audit a client’s online presence: How is the branding? Website? What have they already done to set themselves apart? If you have a small budget and think you’re ready for PR, start by taking a good hard look at your current business: How do your customers hear about you? Why do you think you need PR? If you drove a journalist to your website now, would it tell the story you want? Does it make sense to an outsider? I often find that small businesses need to work with a brand expert before they’re ready to hire a PR pro.” — Brooke Brumfield, owner, Fior Partners

Use HARO (Help a Reporter Out)

“I’ve found HARO to be an excellent source of PR for my small business. Since starting to use HARO a few months ago, I’ve landed at least a couple of mentions every month, which has boosted my referral traffic and contributed to increased organic traffic. I monitor HARO emails two or three times a day, and I try to get my pitches in as soon as possible after the emails go out. Using HARO is just one part of a complete PR strategy, but I think it’s one that’s best left to the business owner rather than outsourced. Journalists want to hear from the owner directly and not a PR or SEO agent. For this reason, I recommend small business owners set aside some time every day or week when they can be available to send pitches, instead of relying on an agency or consultant to handle every aspect of PR.” — Chloe Brittain, owner, Opal Transcription Services

Try Guerilla Public Relations

Guerilla marketing tactics can work for public relations too. One of my first big hits was in The New York Times and I got in by simply mailing a lone promotional black Cheekd card in a plain black envelope to one of the main editors. A few weeks later, we were featured on the cover of the Style Section and coined as “the next generation of online dating.” This lead to customers in almost every state in America and requests from all over the world to get in on the action. We immediately set up an international shopping cart and soon hit 28 countries.” — Lori Cheek, founder, Cheekd

Engage in Your Community

“Community engagement is another method to maximize exposure while also doing something helpful and charitable. Whether it’s offering scholarships, funding an event or cause, or simply offering pro bono work for a charity, all of these can lead to tremendous goodwill in the community and can spread on social media and news channels for further brand awareness.” — Stewart Guss, Stewart J. Guss Attorney at Law

Mimic Successful PR Campaigns

“The idea of ‘studying the great ones to become greater’ is a valuable tip when it comes to PR. It’s worth it to pick the best businesses in your field in a local, national and global range, and see what they’ve been doing when it comes to PR. Search for the media mentions, their press releases, their annual reports, and more. Find out what and how they provide content to media outlets and influencers, and then see how you can replicate their successful strategies.” — Caio Bersot, content and social media manager, EnergyRates.ca

Leverage Your Business’s Data

“Data is a powerful tool that a brand can use to tell a story that may be of interest to a reporter that covers your space. Data typically can be used to shed light on customer behavior and how they interact with your business and the industry at large – but data by itself isn’t all that appealing with first glance. The key is to use the data to tell a story of relevance, and packaging it up in a clean and digestible format, such as an official report on a trending industry issue, for a reporter to understand that story, as well as yours.” — Kate Ryan, managing director, Diffusion PR

Public Relations for Small Business Owners: Putting It All Together

If you’re looking to get free media coverage, grow your brand, gain credibility, and increase sales, you need to invest in PR. Create a strategy, reach out to journalists, take interviews, and put a friendly face to your business. Remember that PR is an ongoing process: You should always be trying to drum up interest in your business. Using our guide to public relations for small business owners, we think you’ll have a lot more success doing so.

Editorial Note: Fundera exists to help you make better business decisions. That’s why we make sure our editorial integrity isn’t influenced by our own business. The opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations in this article are those of our editorial team alone. They haven’t been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of the companies mentioned above. Learn more about our editorial process and how we make money here.

Rieva Lesonsky

Contributor at Fundera

Rieva Lesonsky is a small business contributor for Fundera and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company. She has spent 30+ years covering, consulting and speaking to small businesses owners and entrepreneurs.