Be your own publicist: self-styled expert tells you how to get your words, your voice, or your face in print and on the air
Peter G. Miller
Self-styled Expert Tells You How to Get Your Words, Your Voice, or Your Face in Print and on the Air
You were really on |The Oprah Winfrey Show’?” That’s a question I’ve been fielding frequently of late, the result of my recent trip to Chicago for an hour-long appearance on the TV talk show watched by 15 to 20 million people each day. And while being on national television is interesting and often great fun, it is also business.
I court business publicity because it helps sell the books I write. If you watch CNN, listen to public radio, or read Money magazine, you may have seen my face, heard my voice, or read some of my words. As a result, if you happened to be looking for a book on buying a house, you might well walk into a bookstore looking for my recently published title. You can put the same techniques I use in marketing books to work selling your product or service.
The fact that your business is new or small–or that you work from home–may appear to you as a barrier, perhaps an insurmountable one, but this is absolutely untrue. In many instances, a story from or about a home-based entrepreneur has more news value than the familiar corporate media barrage, no matter how slickly turned out. (See sidebar, “Small Ain’t Weak.”)
To court media coverage most effectively, would-be publicists should first understand that newspapers, magazines, newsletters, radio programs, and television news are all driven by common needs. There is a need to fill time and space, to be special, to be first, and to provide information of value to readers, viewers, and listeners. Nothing in this list of basic requirements excludes home-based entrepreneurs in any way.
In the general scramble for media attention, it may seem that small-business owners face a variety of disadvantages. Again, compared with corporate giants with thousands of employees, your business is apt to be relatively new and small. It is unlikely that you have the services of a PR specialist or much media experience of your own.
Seen from a journalist’s perspective, a home-based business must rely on wit, enterprise, and ingenuity to survive, qualities that often make good stories. That you have not received extensive media attention can be a plus; your activities and ideas can add something new and fresh. The fact that you are a “real” person instead of a carefully groomed corporate figurehead contributes to a story’s credibility.
Where do you start? Gaining media attention is not an exact science, but there are some simple principles and practices that can guide your efforts in the direction of success. Here are 10 questions and answers that can help you join the ranks of the well publicized.
1. Why is media coverage worthwhile?
As rock stars, football players, and politicians have demonstrated over and over, media access is a publicity bonanza that few entrepreneurs can afford to ignore. In a society like ours, dominated by look-alike products and indistinguishable services, where uniformity, constancy, and sameness pervade, business people who have achieved some degree of public recognition hold a considerable advantage over no-name competitors in the search for success. It’s like the difference between mineral water and Perrier. People tend to reach for what they recognize.
2. How should I present myself in seeking media coverage?
Nothing chills interest in a story faster than unbridled self-interest. People who are blatantly self-serving are a turnoff. Media publicity takes the form of news stories. A usable story idea must engage or otherwise benefit readers, listeners, and viewers. If you have such an idea, reporters will typically cite you as a source, authority, or model. If the story is you, forget it. Propose a story on the life of a home-based accountant, for example, and you’ll draw yawns from reporters. But suggest a story explaining how a new court ruling may result in bigger write-offs for business travelers and business writers and travel publications are likely to be intrigued.
3. Whom should I contact?
There are thousands of media outlets, but most are irrelevant to individual promoters. You need to look for those publications and broadcast outlets that reach your customers, clients, buyers, and users–either directly or indirectly.
You must clearly define your market in order to find the right media. Is your market local, regional, statewide, or national? Can you market be defined in terms of common interests, such as stamp collectors, potters, or bookstore owners? Are there specialized outlets that can reach your market, perhaps association magazines, union publications, or cable-television programs?
Here are the three most important steps to finding appropriate media outlets:
* Consider the publications and programs you value.
* Look for media outlets that specifically serve your customers and clients.
* Consult the following standard media guides that are available at bookstores, libraries, and publishers:
Bacon’s Publicity Checker ($195). Lists more than 18,000 newspapers and magazines as well as 100,000 media contacts. (Bacon Publishing Co., Inc., 332 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60604;  621-0561)
Broadcasting Yearbook ($95 prepaid, $115 if billed). Covers radio, TV, and cable outlets in the United States and Canada and their staffs. (Broadcasting Publications, Inc., 1705 DeSales St., NW, Washington, DC 20036;  638-7827)
Gale Directory of Publications ($265). Information regarding 25,000 newspapers, magazines, journals, and newsletters arranged by location. (Gale Research Inc., 835 Penobscot Bldg., Detroit, MI 48266;  961-2242)
Hudson’s Newsletter Directory ($99). A listing of more than 4,000 subscription newsletters by subject. Also shows who wants news releases, photos, and so on. (The Newsletter Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 311, Rhinebeck, NY 12572;  876-2081)
Once you have a basic list of outlets, call each to confirm that a media contact listed in a directory still works there. This confirmation process is important because of frequent job changes in the print and broadcast media. If you don’t have a name to confirm, then call and ask who might be interested in your subject. Look for reporters, managing editors, columnists, and, at television stations, assignment editors and producers.
4. How should I address media contacts?
Getting media attention is a marketing process, but instead of buyers who pay money for goods and services, your “clients” are reporters and editors.
Journalists can be approached by phone or letter; a basic pitch should stress issues and ideas rather than the person making it. Someone who operates a radon-testing service might develop a letter like this:
Dear . . . :
During the past five years the
issue of radon has become
increasingly important. An
odorless, invisible gas found
everywhere, radon can pose a
substantial indoor health
hazard in improperly vented
Because radon is hard to
detect, radon-test results are
often difficult to confirm or
interpret. Confusing the
problem further are current EPA
regulations that allow a 25
percent margin of error in
Radon is important, and your
readers will want to know how
radon accumulates, why it is
dangerous, the pros and cons of
current testing methods, and
five inexpensive strategies to
lower radon levels. As a
licensed inspector with seven
years of experience in this
field, I hope you will feel free
to call when writing about
Note that this letter is concise, conveys expertise and credibility by referring to an EPA standard unknown to most people, suggests several topics to interest readers, and closes with a statement of the writer’s experience and qualifications. No less important, the letter is not shrill, boastful, or demanding–in contrast to many of the letters that journalists receive.
Unlike a news release (below), a letter can be personal–prepared and typed for one individual. As a rule, if you take the time to write thoughtfully to reporters, they will take the time to consider your ideas.
5. What is a news release? Is it important?
News releases–concise public announcements of your services, products, or activities–are de rigueur in the media game. If you want to play in the media league you’ll have to write them from time to time.
Although scads of news releases are sent to media contacts every day, they are often ineffective. Many are overtly self-serving (as well as poorly written), and, because they are sent to many reporters, they lack exclusivity. Keep the following points in mind when you compose your news release.
* Write about a topic, not about yourself.
* Be factual.
* Include your name, address, and phone number at the top of the page.
* Be brief: Limit the release to one page.
* State that the material you send is “For Immediate Release,” jargon that means a reporter can use it any time.
* Describe your material as a “news release.”
6. Should I have other written materials besides a news release?
Journalists receive more news releases than they can ever use, so it is important for a release to capture interest. The most effective releases arrive with a cover letter that addresses the reporter individually. Other items you may wish to send along with a release include a history of the company, product, service, or industry; a brief biography of yourself; and a short background paper about your business.
7. How can I get media coverage if I work at home and have no title or position?
Journalists interview doctors, college deans, association presidents, and other prominent people because individuals with appropriate titles are regarded as “authority figures” who contribute credibility to stories.
Titles, however, are only one approach to credibility. Here are more ways to become quotable:
* Publish a newsletter (“Charles Hampden, publisher of Jason’s Coin Gazette, said today . . .”)
* Make a speech (“Speaking at the annual convention of environmental engineers, Martha Berkins estimated . . .”)
* Write an article (“Local author Bruce Spence, writing in the Journal of Advanced Tax Avoidance, recommends that . . .”)
* Give seminars (“Speaking at the Saddlerock Hotel, Joyce Marlowe told 35 would-be song producers how they can . . .”)
8. If I’m not an author, publisher, or speaker, how can I get media coverage?
Having been in this position myself, I decided to reinvent myself as an expert.
A number of years ago, I wanted to give real estate courses. Thinking that “Peter Miller’s Real Estate Courses” might not draw a huge public, I cofounded, with a colleague, the Consumer Real Estate Institute. The organization’s identity as an educational institution helped establish trust and attract a clientele.
The institute gave many courses, and after a while neither the organization’s small size nor its obscure origins mattered because being in business for a few years reinforced its credibility and created acceptance. It was because I gave seminars and headed an “institute” (because I was now an “expert”) than an editor with the Washington Post called one day to ask if I would write a weekly real estate column. That was the beginning of a chain of events that led to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
All big organizations started somewhere, and most started small. Why not put your expertise to work and start your own organization, thereby becoming its president, chief spokesperson, newsletter publisher, and media contract? To start a credible organization you don’t need much more than a good idea, a good name for it, and a decent letterhead.
9. How do journalists find sources?
Many talk-show producers and bookers locate speakers using the annual Directory of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons ($37.25). Print publications use it as well. (Broadcast Interview Source, 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007;  333-4904.)
This compendium lists psychologists, communists, feminists, astrologers, nutritionists, lawyers, association officers, union leaders, and so on, as well as those who favor or oppose gun control, abortion alcohol, animal rights, taxes, religion, and a host of other controversial topics.
It doesn’t matter whether you work at home or in a gleaming office tower, you can be listed. The basic rate is $195 for individuals, a fee that entitles you to a 5-word advertisement, a copy of the publication, and nine listings in various indexes. The rate for organizations is $225, while charitable groups with revenues under $30,000 can be listed for $125. The directory is distributed to 7,000 media outlets.
10. How can I generate repeat coverage?
Establish yourself as a resource and journalists will call regularly for interviews, comments, and ideas.
When speaking to reporters, always mention that you are available to help with future stories, and that you have extensive experience, files, and examples. Also clearly state that if a reporter calls with some frequency, you understand that it will not always be possible to use your name or cite you directly as a source.
This approach is attractive to journalists who are often worn down by demands for coverage and attribution. There are cases where attribution is inappropriate, where quotes don’t fit, or where the construction and cant of a story mean that not everyone contacted by a reporter can be included. Rather than fight reality, accept it. Every journalist in town will be happy and you’ll get lots of follow-up calls.
SMALL AIN’T WEAK
My interest in promotion developed is the early 1970s when I worked as a Washington, D.C., reporter for a large business publisher and studied public relations at night. This combination of activities meant that during the day I received news releases, phone calls, and luncheon invitations from people wanting coverage, while in the evening I learned the academic approach to marketing and promotion.
To earn a master’s degree in public relations I had to develop and write a thesis. Rather than work on the dull academic topic I was given, I convinced my department to let me test as my thesis a theory I had developed during my daytime work; that individuals and small businesses could compete successfully with corporate behemoths for media time and attention. Why? Because few people took the time to contact journalists individually, to write letters, or to justify story ideas on the basis of anything other than self-interest.
At about that time serendipity brought me into contact with the principals of a small company that was making contact lenses in a Pennsylvania Avenue apartment just a few blocks from the White House. I signed on as volunteer publicist and my thesis was under way. Soon after the project started, stories about the company began appearing in such publications as Newsweek and the Washington Post and in the UPI. Such coverage was generated from the simple news releases and other materials we used–because the company had no advertising budget.
Although the company had just five employees, it made an interesting story. It had developed a new technology (soft lenses) that could benefit certain contact-lens wearers, technology that was explained in a basic media package that included a cover letter, a one-page news release, and a history of contact lenses going back to Leonardo da Vinci.
This publicity program cost approximately $200 over a period of seven months, the money going for such items as printing, postage, and photocopying. As for results, eye-care professionals–spurred on by patients in many cases–wrote to the firm from all over the country, as did individuals from India, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, and Israel. Sales increased 40 percent, the company was forced to move to much larger quarters, and the owners entertained offers to sell the company for as much as $1 million. PETER G. MILLER is a graduate-school-trained publicist who now runs a home-based business out of Silver Spring, Maryland. His latest book, Buy Your First Home Now, was recently published by Harper & Row.
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