The SBS Interview: Lee Odden

Filed in Interviews, MY BEST POSTS, PR/Media Relations by Matt McGee on December 20, 2006 7 Comments

Like water and oil, “small business” and “public relations” don’t mix very well, and don’t mix very often. In the rare occasions that I’ve worked with a small business owner who wanted to try public relations, the client’s idea of PR involved sending out a press release and crossing his/her fingers, hoping for the best. Needless to say, that’s not an effective marketing strategy.

And today, with public relations morphing into a new mix of traditional tactics combined with new opportunities such as blogging and social networks/social media, the small business owner has even more choices and more to learn in order to use these as effective marketing tools. Where should a small business start? How can a small business take advantage of these opportunities, especially if money is an issue (as it often is with small companies)?

Lee OddenFor thoughts on those questions and more, I recently chatted via e-mail with Lee Odden, who’s the co-founder of Misukanis Odden Public Relations and CEO of TopRank Online Marketing. You’ve probably read Lee’s thoughts and ideas at TopRankBlog.com.

He’s a sought after speaker on public relations and social media marketing, and in this interview he shares some terrific advice for small businesses who are looking to do more in these evolving areas.


MATT: In almost 10 years of working with small businesses, I can count on two hands the number of clients who came in already aware of public relations as a marketing tool. How does that compare to your experience with small- and medium-sized businesses?

LEE: I would tend to agree. In my experience, many small businesses are not exposed to things like public relations unless the founders or partners were previously with larger companies that were in the practice of engaging PR firms. In the past year I have noticed more small businesses using press releases as promotion tools. Although, the distribution of a press release by itself is not something I would consider public relations.

Why do you think there’s such little awareness of the need for this kind of marketing?

Maybe it’s because there are not enough resources for low cost public relations tactics? Education is also an issue. Many business owners do not understand exactly what public relations is. For many, it is a luxury service afforded to larger companies that can allocate significant funds to “branding” and media relations with nebulous measurement of success. However, public relations can be, and should be, very measurable and cost effective. Especially the kinds of tactics that leverage PR along with technology, social media and SEO. There is a significant opportunity for small businesses to engage in this kind of online PR. PR offers many other benefits such as building employee morale and boosting client confidence in your company.

I have a feeling a lot of people hear the term “public relations” and think “press releases,” so let’s talk about that first. Are press releases a viable marketing tool these days?

Traditionally, press releases have been a format for announcing news about a company to the media. The media would then (hopefully) take notice and report on that news. However, with internet distribution channels, press releases are reaching consumers in huge numbers. In fact, half of all internet users visited news web sites in June of this year. The vast majority of content that populates news web sites like Yahoo News and Google News are press releases.

When used properly, press releases can be very effective for communications with the media as well as direct to consumer communications. Press release distribution alone is rarely effective and that’s where many small businesses stop. Researching relevant publications, editors and writers/journalists and developing your own target media list is very important as is reaching out to that list whenever your company has news.

What advice would you give to a business owner who’s planning to reach out like that to the local business writer/editor?

Research the publications that you want to be in and find out which journalists and writers are covering topics related to your industry. Find their contact info and contact them when you have news. Some publications will make available their editorial calendar online. Check that to see if there are any planned stories that would be a good fit for your company and contact the assigned journalist with a unique angle.

Are press releases better for traditional publicity purposes or for SEO purposes — or can the same release do both? How?

The same release can be used as an introduction to a publicity opportunity, but there is no substitute for human contact. Press release distribution alone rarely achieves media coverage. Contacting the media with a reference to a press release and unique story ideas can improve your chances of media coverage significantly. While a large percentage of journalists research press releases online, many continue to rely on press releases via email as a method of getting new story ideas.

A press release can achieve results both from a media communications standpoint and as a SEO tool if planned out, written, optimized and executed properly. There is a true art to writing an optimized press release that is compelling to both search engines and people. When an optimized press release gets picked up by blogs and online news web sites, the embedded links can be very valuable for driving traffic and building link popularity. For example, an optimized release we sent out for a new software client achieved over 600 permanent, one-way links from blogs, web sites and industry publications.

What are the best distribution channels? Are the online channels the way to go, or do you recommend something like buying a list of journalists’ email addresses?

Wire services like PRWeb.com, BusinessWire, PR Newswire and MarketWire are a popular distribution channel for many companies because the releases are distributed via email to matching interest profiles as well as via feed to syndication partners and news search engines. However, a service like Bacon’s, which provides access to editorial calendars for publications as well as updated journalist contact information, can prove very valuable if a company is engaged in a significant amount of public relations activity.

Services like Bacon’s are almost always cost prohibitive for most small and medium sized businesses. Part of the reason these businesses hire public relations firms is because they have access to services like Bacons as well as a cultivated Rolodex of industry media contacts. It takes a long time to build trust in the PR and media relations industry. I would not recommend buying lists of journalists’ email addresses as many such lists are not well maintained. There’s been a lot of attrition in the news and media industry in the past few years due to mergers, acquisitions and downsizing. A service like Bacon’s will offer more up to date and reliable information.

I would also note that with the popularity of blogs, there has evolved an entirely new opportunity for online exposure through blogger relations. Many PR firms are struggling to develop these skill sets and some, like Misukanis & Odden, have embraced blogger relations, new media and social media early on. Small and medium businesses that have a blog can leverage an advantage over their larger counterparts who do not have a blog by creating relationships with prominent bloggers in their industry. If a prominent blogger writes about your business and sends you 2,000 new visitors, it is no different than a mainstream publication sending you 2,000 new visitors, except that many blog readers are also bloggers themselves. This can create a trickle down effect for news distribution.

You pretty well answered one of my upcoming questions, which was about non-traditional PR methods such as blogs — and I agree with you 100% that this is an area where small businesses can fare better than Big Brands that are really struggling with the whole concept of blogging and social media. But let me move on to a couple other questions we haven’t covered yet….

What kind of common mistakes do you see businesses making with their PR and press release marketing?

I’ll give you five.

  1. Treating PR as a “one off” tactic and not using it strategically alongside other marketing efforts
  2. Only using “free” news release services – the distribution is not as good
  3. Not hiring a professional to write press releases. At least the first few. Subject matter experts may know the facts and marketing may know the message, but a PR writer can tie it all together
  4. Sending out press releases and not contacting journalists that write for relevant publications with personal emails containing story ideas.
  5. Not setting realistic expectations or measuring results

Is PR something a small business owner can do on his/her own? How do you know when it’s time to bring in a professional?

Like any marketing activity, time and expertise are not commodities. In very few cases would I recommend a small business owner try public relations on their own, unless they have previous experience from the corporate world. There are plenty of independent PR consultants that can help small businesses get a jumpstart on a PR program.

That does not mean small businesses should be totally reliant on outside consultants. There are plenty of things companies can do to have a positive effect on their reputation with the media. For example, if the business can allocate time to it, they can start immediately by researching publications and creating a list of writers that they want to connect with. When there is an event or special news about the company, they can personally contact the journalist to let them know.

Ideally, it is a good idea to bring in a PR professional to help establish a strategy and then bring them on for assistance on an as-needed basis. The effect of a good PR program should easily justify allocating more time/resources to further PR efforts.

Let’s say I’m a small business owner on a tight budget. You and I end up sitting next to each other on a cross-country flight, and we start talking business and marketing. My company is getting ready to launch a new product or service and we want to get the word out to as many potential customers as possible. I’ll give you some budget numbers, and you tell me how I can get the best bang for my buck.

$200

Short consultation and help with creating an optimized press release. Point the business in the direction of do-it-yourself release distribution (extra fees to the wire service for that).

$500

Short consultation, an optimized press release and basic distribution via a wire service like PRWeb.com. Basic press release reporting: impressions, media reads.

$1,000

Consulting time, press release and distribution. Research publications for the client to contact and pitch on their own. Basic press release reporting: impressions, media reads.

$2,500

Consulting time, press release, distribution, research editorial calendars, pitching, basic tips on media communications and coordinating interviews within a 30 day window. Guidance on creating an online media room/press room on the client website. Press release reporting and monitoring of pickups.

Thanks for your time, Lee!

Further Reading: For more information about public relations and social marketing, read these articles on Lee Odden’s Online Marketing Blog:

Social Media Release Optimization
Lowdown on Press Release Optimization

Lee Odden is CEO of TopRank Online Marketing and co-founder of Misukanis Odden Public Relations. Lee has been cited as an SEO expert by The Economist and U.S. News and speaks on the topics of SEO, Social Media and Online Public Relations at Search Engine Strategies, Pubcon and DMA conferences. He also likes to ramble on about these topics at MarketingBlog.com.

[tags]public relations, pr, smo, social media optimization, social media marketing, blogs, corporate blogging, small business, lee odden[/tags]