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Last Word

Raising Your Profile

Public relations is an effective and efficient marketing tool for independent patio and hearth retailers, and it offers many benefits at often minimal costs, according to Laurie Rudd, owner of Laurie Rudd Public Relations, Greenville, S.C. “The goal of every business is to create exposure for its products or services, with this being true for the independent patio and hearth retailer,” Rudd says. “Public-relations opportunities are often available at low or no cost, making the resulting publicity very attractive and accessible, versus using paid advertising.”

The practice of public relations may have been around as long as humans have congregated. The invention of printing using movable type by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439 first enabled information to be circulated to the masses, promoting various causes.

In the 20th century, the broad use of public relations emerged in the private and government sectors, as corporations began using various public-relations techniques to promote positive relationships with their customers and as the U.S. government solicited support from the public for its involvement in World Wars I and II. In 1948, the Public Relations Society of America was founded; it is the world’s largest organization for public-relations professionals.

Getting Started

Rudd says that there are many avenues that independent patio and hearth retailers can explore to create good public relations. The first priority is to learn the names (and their correct spellings) of the home-and-garden editor of your local newspaper, the segment producers at the local television and radio stations, and the editors of your city or regional magazines and industry trade publications.

“The retailer who takes the time to do this will be remembered and contacted on subsequent occasions,” she says. “The media work with tight deadlines, so if they know a business is responsive, the possibility of being contacted for future exposure is great.”

Second, send well-written press releases to media contacts describing in-store or community events, new products, or changes in personnel related to your business. The goal is for the news to be mentioned in the business section of the local newspaper or covered by the local radio or television station.

To increase the chances of media coverage, Rudd suggests sending press releases related to the seasonality of products in the outdoor patio and hearth industry. “Become an expert with the media around spring or fall home-improvement time,” she says. This strategy could cover a range of topics in which you specialize, including proper storage and care of outdoor furniture, yearly fireplace- and grill-maintenance tips, the latest design trends for the outdoor room, or holiday decorating tips.

“Many local media do not know the latest trends in the home and hearth industry,” Rudd says. “Be their source and make yourself available to the media as an expert.” Rudd also says that partnering with vendors for talk-to-the-experts events can increase additional exposure, as long as these events are covered by the media. Builders, home-improvement companies, real-estate agents and even energy companies can prove to be beneficial partners in providing low-cost opportunities at home shows or through in-house displays.

Other avenues that Rudd suggests include holding classes, hosting seasonal open houses, and extending an invitation to your area’s local magazine or newspaper to use your business in a location shoot.

Third, create or capitalize on your Web page. While many independent retailers today already have a Web presence, Rudd says that businesses can also use their Web sites to increase their public-relations exposure. “Present how-to or what’s-new information alongside standard information,” she says. Rudd adds that the information should be written in a format that is less about the individual retailer and more about what benefits the reader. “Industry tips can bring consumers back to a Web site,” she adds.

Cost

Perhaps one of the most appealing benefits of public relations for independent patio and hearth dealers is the exposure that it provides at minimal or no cost (unlike advertising, which can have prohibitive costs for some retailers). Introducing yourself to media professionals and sending press releases, having a booth at a home-improvement expo and providing helpful information on a Web site require very little money.

Rudd notes that retailers have the flexibility to participate in fundraisers at local schools, churches or charitable functions to gain additional coverage. “Each effort should involve taking advantage of the exposure by providing some form of handout or giveaway, along with collecting leads,” Rudd says. “Participate in sponsorships of sports teams or in local or regional parade-of-homes events,” she adds. If possible, Rudd advises taking advantage of these opportunities by providing recognizable logos or inexpensive benefit-message signage.

Rudd explains that public relations is “normally not governed by a large advertising budget, but by the ability of the retailer to create newsworthy communication.” Consequently, when an independent retailer is competing against a big-box retailer, publicity creates a more level playing field.

If you have room in your budget to hire an outside public-relations company, Rudd emphasizes that you should first research the experience of the agency. “Locate a firm that has proven it can understand your business and relate your message,” she says. It is also vital for the agency to have established media and promotional associations already in place. This will not only create more successful results for the retailer, but will also result in lower costs in the long run.

Most agencies bill by the hour, but some will charge by the project. Fees vary, but standard hourly rates usually range from $50 to $100 per hour. Instead of hiring an agency, you can save some costs by using independent freelance copywriters, who often charge less than an agency to write press releases and handle outside promotions.

Be Creative

Rudd has been involved in many successful public-relations campaigns throughout her career and has used creative methods to promote her clients’ businesses at minimal cost. Recently, she was involved in a campaign to promote a leisure/relaxation product with a book tie-in. Rudd gained national exposure for the product and client in a top-10 city market by simply giving 10 units of the product to radio and television stations that, in turn, used them in marketing giveaway segments.

While you may not want national exposure, there are many creative ways to provide publicity for your business. Rudd suggests a tie-in with local automobile dealers in the spring to give away a grill or other outdoor product, or promotions with your local chamber of commerce. “Look for the opportunities. There really is credible value in public relations. It may take a little time, but it’s worth it,” Rudd says.

Contact Laurie Rudd at laurieruddpr@suddenlink.net

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