Big Mama’s & Papa’s Pizzeria scored a publicity coup on Oscar night in 2014 when host Ellen DeGeneres ordered pizza from the small Southern California chain while the show was being broadcast live to an audience of tens of millions.
It’s tough to match the exposure you’d get from being asked to deliver and serve pizza to movie stars during a TV show with a global audience. But don’t worry — there are plenty of easier ways to get the media to pay attention to your small business, giving you free marketing that could attract new customers, suppliers or even would-be investors.
Here are six tips, based on insights that public relations and media relations professionals shared with NerdWallet:
1. Understand and build a solid relationship with local media
Who wouldn’t want to be mentioned, even for just a few seconds, on a global broadcast of a glitzy Hollywood event, or on a CNN news report, or in a story in The New York Times? But those opportunities are rare for a small business.
Typically, your best bets for coverage are the locals — a regional or city newspaper or online news site, or the local TV or radio stations.
“If you are a local business, never discard the local media,” says Stephanie Libous of Allison+Partners public relations agency.
And the reason is clear: The people whose attention you need to attract live in the region, the city or even the neighborhood where your small business is based. Also, deciding which news outlet to target for coverage “shouldn’t just be dictated by the number of people reading it, but also the relevance to your product or service,” Libous says.
You stand a better chance of getting local coverage if you take the time to know the media world in your city or even your local community. Remember, most reporters have “beats,” or specific areas they focus on.
So you have to “stand out from the crowd by targeting your messages to the most relevant journalists,” says Marshall Wilson, vice president for communications at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. He offers this tip on scheduling a media event: The best time is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Matt Rizzetta, president and chief executive of North 6th Agency, a public relations firm in New York, says a tactic that worked well for his company was to invite a member of the media for breakfast once a month.
“There’s nothing like face time with the press,” he tells NerdWallet. “Those relationships have been by far the most effective — and one of the most inexpensive strategies we’ve implemented.”
2. Stand out from the crowd by highlighting what makes you different
Small businesses make a common mistake when pitching their story to the media, Wilson says: “Their pitch sounds like all the rest. This is particularly true in the tech world, where every startup positions itself as the ‘Uber for clothes shopping’ or the next ‘Airbnb for’ whatever.”
Avoid overused terms, he adds, such as “disruptive,” “synergy,” “leverage,” “groundbreaking” and “first-ever.” Wilson quips: “And nobody cares that you lived in a garage eating ramen noodles as you developed your big idea.”
That is not to say you shouldn’t highlight your struggles, or even your rags-to-riches tale in creating your small business. But keep in mind that the old startup-in-a-garage tale is getting, well, old. So pitch your I-went-through-hell-to-build-this-company story with a fresh spin.
That’s what a small software company called SugarCRM was able to do when it reached out to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. The story featured the company’s new offering in open-source Web-based business applications. But that wasn’t the main focus of the coverage. Instead, it was how its founder John Roberts overcame his dyslexia to succeed in college and in business.
3. Explore opportunities in trade publications
Look beyond mass media to other outlets that your customers and suppliers are reading, such as trade or specialty publications. This works best if your small business caters to other companies.
“I would think in terms of where your customers are,” Rizzetta says. “Look within specific vertical trade publications that are going to be read by prospective customers.”
He stresses the need to think vertically when it comes to specialty publications. “If you’re a startup consulting firm and your target is the retail industry, I would aggressively push into retail trade publications. I wouldn’t touch the consulting publications.”
4. Use email and social media to tell your stories in your own way
You really don’t need newspapers and TV news coverage to reach customers these days. One of the first things you probably did after launching your company was send emails to friends and acquaintances.
You probably also set up a Facebook page and asked everyone you know to “Like” it. And it takes less than an hour to start a blog and create your own YouTube channel.
You can do all of these things for free. And they are smart ways to reach the media because reporters spend a lot of time tracking information or story leads on the Web. Your small business could fit into a story they’re working on.
You could get a call or an email from a journalist who came across your blog or your YouTube channel or your Facebook page. So also make sure to feature your contact information prominently on these sites.
“Start a blog where you offer insight and fresh ideas,” Wilson says. “Insert yourself into the news cycle by submitting a well-written op-ed on a timely topic you are passionate about. Or when news breaks on a topic where you are well versed, send an email to or call reporters and let them know you have expertise and insight.”
5. Be part of telling a bigger story
Reaching out to reporters to offer your insights on a breaking story underscores an important point: Press coverage doesn’t always have to be about you.
A good example is when the U.S. Small Business Administration changed its definition of a small business last year. You can be sure reporters covering such a story would be interested in what small businesses think. Sending them an email with your thoughts would make their job easier.
If it’s a story that continues to develop, the reporter could even keep reaching out to you for other articles.
“Do you often see or hear the same names in the news?” Wilson notes. “That’s because reporters have learned to go to people who are experts in a certain field for insight and quotes. A political reporter once told me he didn’t care about any candidate’s beliefs; he just wants a candidate who answers the phone and gives colorful quotes.”
6. Realize that, sometimes, no coverage is better for business
But you also shouldn’t try too hard to get media attention. There’s such a thing as getting too much coverage, especially if you’re getting quoted in stories that don’t really match your identity as a company or relate to your business goals.
Rizzetta gives an example of a high-end restaurant that serves Mediterranean food located in a posh waterfront district. If the story for which a reporter is seeking comment is about $5 quick-serve meals, “that’s probably not a story you’d like to comment on,” he says.
“You don’t want to do anything to dilute your brand,” he says. “You need to know when to say no.”
Rizzetta adds: “In the case of the small startup business, the adage that any press is good press, in our opinion, does not apply.”
In fact, there are rare instances when not getting any press coverage is better for business.
This was highlighted recently by the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of a startup called Theranos, which developed a groundbreaking blood-testing technology.
She kept a low profile while working on her company for 11 years, before starting to gain more media attention, according to a story in the San Jose Mercury News. This allowed her to develop both the technology and a strategy that gave her a solid edge in a competitive market, according to a profile in Inc. magazine. Today, Theranos is estimated to be worth $9 billion.
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