Are the produce paparazzi swarming your squash section as if your butternuts were Brangelinas?
No? Maybe you need to turn up the volume on your public relations. Or at least turn it on.
A powerful tool in attracting customers, public relations is not limited to retailers who can afford to hire an agency to build their buzz. With a few tips from industry experts, you can generate media interest, even if the only time you've spoken to an employee of your local newspaper was when you renewed your subscription.
"It's not rocket science," says Steven Hoffman, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Compass Natural Marketing and the interim director of The Organic Center, an organic education nonprofit also based in Boulder. "It's not that hard," he says, "but it does take a little time."
Find your PR department
Before you start worrying about snappy headlines for press releases, you should identify your store's public relations "manager," explains Sylvia Tawse, president of The Fresh Ideas Group, a Boulder-based communications firm that focuses on organics. "Find someone within your team who's a natural communicator," says Tawse, who also headed public relations for Alfalfa's Markets, which later was bought by Wild Oats Markets.
Your PR manager may also be your dairy manager. "They may not have a degree in journalism or public relations, just a natural ability to connect with people—the person who is always suggesting something for the newsletter or the employee [who] always seems to be the go-between between shoppers and department managers," Tawse says.
Once you've found your public relations specialist, budget time in his or her schedule to focus on PR and make certain that all managers understand the importance of this person's efforts. "A lot of times public relations becomes an afterthought, something superfluous or a last-minute reaction to something that comes up in the media," Tawse says. "You need to move from 'ER PR' to proactive PR; it's like preventative health care versus reactionary emergency medicine."
Setting goals will help you focus your public relations efforts. "A goal might be something very simple, like building a relationship with a specific reporter, or something more complex, like creating a three-week sales promotion around an overarching theme," Tawse says. Laying out a thematic schedule for public relations an entire year in advance will make it easier to integrate other departments, such as purchasing, into your efforts.
Basic public relations can be broken down into four steps, Tawse explains:
- Be a newshound. "Be an absolute sponge for news," she says. "Read your local dailies and weeklies, listen to your local NPR station and catch the local TV news. Know what's going on and who's covering it." Clip articles that make you think: "That's the kind of story we could have been a source for."
- Reach out. Invite a reporter to the store for coffee and explain how you can be a resource.
- Be a "story broker." Become the "wizard behind the curtain," matching reporters with the experts you have on staff or in your network. For example, if there's a great artichoke grower nearby, call the reporter and ask if they'd like to go out to the farm with the produce buyer.
- Build a genuine interactive relationship. Don't just call and leave messages wondering whether reporters received your press release. Develop the kind of relationship where they are calling you for information as often as you are contacting them.
Press the issue
In addition to calling attention to specific events in the store or throughout the community that the store might be sponsoring, press releases can link the store to broader issues. "There's constantly new developments and studies being released about things like health and the environment," says Hoffman of Compass Natural Marketing. "Those are great opportunities to send out press releases. For example, if something comes out about the benefits of organic milk, write a release that talks about the greater benefits of other organic dairy products that you carry."
Likewise, when something appears in the media disparaging organics, send a release with information countering that claim. "Have your store become an advocate, a trusted resource," Tawse says.
Make certain your releases contain solid facts, Hoffman says. "There are plenty of resources for retailers, such as The Organic Center's Web site and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Alternative Farming System's Information Center, that offer all kinds of science relating to the organic industry." You can also find great samples of press releases on the Web sites of the bigger organic products manufacturers and growers, he adds. "Check out the 'press release' or 'news archive' section of their Web site."
"People your release with, well, people," says Andrew Flack, president of Buzz Inc., a Taos, N.M.-based public relations firm. "People make a story compelling. Talk about the people behind a product. For example, introduce a local grower," he says. But don't overdo it, the experts agree. Don't send more than one release a month.
Keep it simple
Keep your press release to a single page. When writing the headline, think of it like a subject line for an e-mail, Tawse says. "Communicate your subject, but try to find a clever hook." Your first paragraph needs to contain everything you really need to say, she continues. "The rest is just fluff. Most journalists are underpaid and overworked and don't have the time to read every word that's sent to them."
Make sure you answer "Who? What? When? Where? And why?" Hoffman says, "and maybe 'How much?' and 'How many?' if that's relevant." Your last paragraph should be about the store, he says. For example: "Founded in 1933, Good Eats has served the organic needs of the greater metropolitan area, etc."
The hit list
Develop a list of reporters and their contact information and update it frequently. "It should be a 'living list,'" Tawse says. "You should be adding and deleting constantly." Your local paper's Web site probably has all the information you need, Hoffman adds. "With a little sleuthing, you can usually find the names and e-mail addresses of the right people."
E-mailing your releases is the most economical and easy way to get them to the media. "Don't spam your entire list," Tawse advises. "Make sure you target who you send each release to." Flack recommends you also get to know the reporter's beats. "That way you'll have a better chance of sending them something they'll actually be interested in."
"You absolutely have to follow up your e-mail with a call and make that connection with the person you're sending the release to," Flack says. "About 50 percent of the things we send don't arrive as we hope; they might be lost or not opened by the right person. It's pretty dicey."
Don't call for every little thing, pleads Travis Pryor, an editor at the Longmont Times-Call newspaper in Longmont, Colo., where he receives many e-mails—and phone calls—with story ideas. "If we're inter?ested, we'll have somebody get in touch with you," he says. The same is true with photographs. Experts agree that it's not necessary to include them in an initial release; rather, mention that they are available. "You wouldn't believe how fast our inbox fills up," Pryor says.
Be prepared for the spotlight
Be ready for the attention your efforts might bring by stockpiling both merchandise and information, Flack says. "Have talking points—three to six bullets of information you'd like to address with a reporter. Remember, each story only conveys about three messages, so figure out what you want them to be before you talk to the media," he says. That way, you get the most bang for your buzz.
Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 18, 21