Free Publicity Can Make You Rich

“Look at the free publicity I’m getting for the museum and the collection. Do you know how many millions that’s worth?” – Norton Simon

Picture this: It was 1992. I woke up and, as I did every morning, groggily walked over to the answering machine. Just like many “kitchen-table” entrepreneurs, I took all my business calls at home.

This answering machine had one of those lights that blink once for each message that you have. As I walked toward it, I noticed that it was blinking the maximum number of times. I thought that was strange, but before I could begin to check my messages the phone rang.

I answered it and was surprised to find an eager person on the line who said she’d just read about my ballroom dance classes and wanted to immediately schedule a lesson with me. As I proceeded to schedule her, I tried to figure out where she’d read about me.

Then the call-waiting sound clicked. I apologized and asked her to hold while I fielded the other call. When I clicked over, I found myself speaking with another very enthusiastic person who wanted to schedule a ballroom dance lesson with me.

Here’s what happened: I’d interviewed with a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper about a month before, and the article had just appeared in the paper.

The calls continued to pour in at that same frantic rate for the entire day. And it took me hours to retrieve the messages that were already on my answering machine. I managed to schedule 55 private lessons that week, and ended up with a waiting list of about 200 potential clients. In one day, I went from being a struggling ballroom dance teacher who survived on hot dogs and macaroni and cheese to perhaps the busiest one in the entire country.

I went from teaching 8 to 10 lessons a week to teaching over 50 every week for the next year. And I used that extra income to fund my business expansion so that I was able to maintain that kind of schedule permanently.

I’ve moved into other (even more lucrative) businesses over the years, and have accumulated a file of about 12 major articles/interviews about me that have benefited me in those businesses as well.

In addition to the immediate cash benefit of a big public relations release, you also reap powerful credibility points. It’s human nature for people to be impressed by celebrities. And though an article in the local paper won’t have the paparazzi stalking you, you’d be surprised by how excited people will be to meet you and, more importantly, do business with you after reading it.

The article that brought so much attention to my ballroom dance classes described, in glowing terms, the impressions of a reporter who watched me give a lesson to a young married couple in their home. It was clear that the couple was really pleased, and the reporter’s writing reflected their enjoyment.

My article took up about one-half of the front page of a section of the paper – the type of prime placement that you couldn’t possibly buy for an ad, because it’s not for sale. But, based on somewhat comparable advertising rates, I’d estimate that – if it could have been bought – that spread was worth around $10,000.

How can you get free publicity for your business? There are many techniques, and I suggest using a multi-pronged approach. But today I’m going to focus on just one of them – what I call “Relationship Development.”

Most news organizations assign reporters to cover certain “beats.” If you want to get coverage for your business, it can be helpful to determine which reporter might handle the beat you fit into and develop a relationship with him or her.

You never want to try to bribe a reporter to cover your story. But keep in mind that a reporter will naturally be more receptive to considering an article that is proposed by someone they have a good relationship with. So if you can develop rapport with the reporter who covers your beat, you increase your odds of getting good media coverage.

Almost all reporters’ e-mail addresses are readily available, either on the publication’s website or (if it’s a print publication) within the actual publication. Reporters don’t usually get a lot of feedback on their articles (although controversial subjects can generate a lot of mail). So, quite often, you will get a personalized reply if you send the reporter a letter or e-mail.

A great way to get a dialogue going is to give the reporter a sincere compliment. This is especially easy if the reporter writes articles that are related to your field, because you’ll have a genuine interest and background in the subject matter. Once you begin a dialogue, you can follow up by mentioning your credentials and offering to provide input on articles the reporter will be writing in the future. Even if the relationship goes no further, you can count on having a receptive ear when you pitch the idea of a story based on your business.

On one occasion, I developed a relationship with a reporter who covered the local entertainment scene. I was able to interest him in writing an article on an “open to the public” ballroom dance party that I was shooting for a cable TV show.

It was important for me to have a “full house” for the camera – and I needed to sell enough tickets to help defray the cost of the event. Once again, the results garnered from the article were mind-blowing. Before it even ran, I had enough reservations to fill about one-third of the 300 seats. Even though the article came out the day before the event, the phone calls just poured in. Not only did we sell every available seat, we actually sold standing-room-only – because people wanted to get in so badly they were willing to pay to line up against the wall!

Recently, I developed a relationship with a reporter who covers the local comedy scene. And he now includes my sketch comedy group’s events in his write-ups of what’s going on in the area. He’s just doing his job – but he’s only got so much space to work with, so he has to make decisions as to who gets mentioned and who doesn’t.

That’s how the world of publicity works.

[Ed. Note: Paul Lawrence is a produced screenwriter, direct-mail copywriter, and business author. He is also the creator of the Quick and Easy Microbusiness System, ETR’s program for starting a business for under $100.

Learn more of Paul’s publicity secrets with his Interview DVD]