Zen and the Art of the Press Release

Are you reaching potential customers with your news?

Businesses big and small can benefit from timely and well-written press releases, according to Dave Brumbaugh, owner of the publicity firm Brumbaugh Co. Brumbaugh’s clients range from tiny one-person startups to established large businesses such as Haggen.

Heidi Schiller
   Whether you want to market your business affordably, perform damage control on an awkward situation or boost employee morale, sending out an effective press release can give your business a public face-lift.
   Dave Brumbaugh, a publicist who owns Brumbaugh Co., said he thinks press releases are an underutilized business tool. Many business owners don’t use them for several reasons, according to Brumbaugh. Some are uncomfortable with their writing skills, some don’t want to feel like “braggarts,” and many don’t employ specific marketing personnel. One of the major reasons is that many business owners aren’t aware that media stories about businesses are often a result of a press release, Brumbaugh said.
   Heather Hulbert, marketing director for Lehmann’s Maytag Home Appliance Center on Iowa Street, contracted Brumbaugh to write a press release for the store’s 75th anniversary and received national press attention for it.
   “I don’t think enough people utilize them, but I can’t stress enough how important they are,” Hulbert said. “‘Effective’ is the key word. There are good ways and bad ways (to do them).”
   Recently, Hulbert surveyed customers about how they heard of a series of educational classes the business hosted, and those customers overwhelmingly said they found out from press releases mentioned in the local media.
   “Whether you do it yourself or have a professional do it, press releases are a cost-effective marketing tool,” said Brumbaugh. The fee that Brumbaugh charges to write a press release is similar to the cost of a small ad in most publications, but he said the benefits are greater because so many different publications can use them.
   New businesses benefit from press releases by getting their name and information about their company on the public radar, and usually see an increase in customer traffic as a result. And because so many new residents are moving to Whatcom County, even established businesses benefit from the increased exposure.
   Ultimately, press releases are most effective as a component of a marketing plan, Brumbaugh said, but for struggling or new businesses, they tend to be one of the most affordable options.
   In addition to marketing, businesses can use press releases as a preemptive response to a potentially damaging situation.
   “Press releases can put the best possible light on an awkward event,” Brumbaugh said. “(They) recognize an elephant in the room, and businesses are better off recognizing those.”
   An example would be a hypothetical company that needed to recall a product. In that situation, Brumbaugh said, a business could write a press release emphasizing what the company is doing to protect public safety and also stress its previously spotless record.
   While doing so, the business must always be factual and truthful, because if they aren’t, they’ll lose credibility with the public, he said.
   Another way of dealing with potentially reputation-damaging situations is to constantly nurture what Gerald Baron of Baron & Co., a local marketing and public relations firm, calls image equity — the idea of cultivating a business’s image through press releases over long periods of time, a practice that comes in handy in an image emergency, such as the one described above.
   Brumbaugh recalled an instance where a local, well-respected fuel distribution company’s truck accidentally turned over and spilled oil, becoming a major news story. Despite the company’s record of safety, charitable donations and good employee relations, they had never written any press releases regarding those accomplishments and hence became the “oil spill company” in the public’s eye. The business had not created any image equity to weigh against the negative media attention.
   Another type of press release — ones regarding the hiring of employees or employee promotions — can be an effective marketing tool and create image equity, while also enhancing employee morale, Brumbaugh said.
   When a business owner recognizes personnel contributions and significance through the media, customers and employees feel better about that business, he said.

Covering the basics
   “Some business people are certainly qualified to write a press release because they know the local media market and what those outlets want,” Brumbaugh said. Others don’t have the time, skills or knowledge of local media outlets; hiring a publicist is a good option for those businesses.
   “It’s worth the cost of having it done,” said Gina Weigum, co-owner of Weigum Properties, who contracted Brumbaugh to write a press release for her company’s development of Terrell Creek Landing in Birch Bay. “We had a number of hits on our Web site afterward. It really helped kick-start our business.”
   Weigum said although she had written press releases at her previous job at a high-tech California firm, she contracted Brumbaugh because of his knowledge of local media outlets and because she was simply too busy to do it herself.
   Brumbaugh worked for 22 years as a reporter and editor for newspapers and a business magazine — 12 of those years in Whatcom County — before starting Brumbaugh Co., so he knows the local media well.
   However, if a business owner wants to write a press release on his or her own, here are a few of Brumbaugh’s strategies to make the experience more effective:
   � Familiarize yourself with the area’s media market. A vast amount of publications exist in Whatcom County, including weekly and monthly publications in addition to the main daily newspaper, television and radio stations. Brumbaugh said business owners often overlook some media outlets they could potentially send press releases to, from the organic food magazine, to the local music magazine.
   � Tailor your press release to those specific publications. For example, Brumbaugh said, when he wrote a press release for the Bellingham Highland Games, he emphasized the event’s pageantry and athletics to the general media, but emphasized the event’s music to a local music magazine.
   � Write about news, not fluff. News is something that has recently happened or will happen soon, he said. Fluff is describing why your business is great or focuses on goods and services. “If you want to tell people that widgets will be 20 percent off next week, you need an ad,” Brumbaugh said. “Nobody will consider that a news story.” Ideal subjects for a press release are new or expanding businesses, new locations, new or promoted personnel, significant support of a nonprofit organization, business-related awards and certifications and milestones, such as anniversaries.
   � Be concise. Brumbaugh said he only uses a single page for any given press release. If a media outlet wants more information, they’ll call you.
   � Be timely. Send out a press release as soon as the news happens or give as much time as possible before an event is to occur.
   � Use journalistic style. “If I make it easy for a media outlet to use material, they’re more likely to use it as is,” Brumbaugh said. Use The Associated Press style-book for style-related guidelines such as spelling, capitalization, addresses and abbreviations.
   � Focus on the facts. Try to use quotations sparingly and leave out subjective comments.
   � Find out deadlines. Each news outlet has a different deadline for press release information — don’t miss the boat by being late with your press release.
   Brumbaugh said if a business is not sending out press releases regularly, they are missing an opportunity to tell the public about their business in ways advertising never can. For example, Brumbaugh said, an ad about his business would give information about his services, whereas a press release could include information about his credentials and experience.
   He also recommends that businesses assign one person to regularly think about potential press release topics because too often, business owners get wrapped up in day-to-day operations and don’t think about it.
   Another option: hire a public relations specialist. Brumbaugh said publicists are constantly thinking of press release topics for their clients, so the clients can get on with business.
   “Professionals have a much higher percentage of press releases used than businesses that do it themselves because of their knowledge of what the media wants,” Brumbaugh said. “Professionals like myself — and certainly there are other great public relations professionals in this community — can give a high degree of certainty to a client about how a press release will be used by local media.”

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