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Public Relations: How to gain ‘free’ publicity for your business

A client once asked, “How does one develop credibility for his or her company in their field in order to generate greater prominence and stand out from the crowd?” He wanted to know how they could achieve this without having to pay back-breaking advertising fees that had spooked their finance manager.

LENOX MHLANGA

This took me back to the days when I was starting out in public relations. As I was being briefed as to what was expected of me by my employers then, it became apparent that they had taken me on board just to generate publicity for them.
Little did they know that what they were asking for was just a fraction of what I was capable of. The human resources people were clueless. Not being one to short-change my employers, I set out to write down my own job description that shocked them out of their socks.

I also understood why the finance department were reluctant to invest much in public relations. They had the impression that it was a free or cheap method of gaining publicity. It also reminded me of one Mr Mbakada, my late high school accounts teacher, who would always remind us that in business there are no free lunches.

He was right. One has come to learn that in business anything that does not have a price on it is not worth it. Businesses should put your money where their mouth is if they want value in return.

What our client, who I mentioned in the beginning of this column, wanted to know was how to gain publicity, without breaking the bank. Which is different from advertising, itself a precise form of marketing, and very costly too.

Publicity is part of the broader field of public relations. It helps define or shape what a customer or prospect thinks through a series of appearances in various forms of media.

It gets your company, brand, product or service on the radar screen of media vendors with the aim of getting interview opportunities or eventually being featured in a story. The effort is to garner media coverage or exposure, to gain public visibility or create awareness.
Publicity’s focus is therefore narrow. A publicist carries out publicity, while public relations is the strategic function that helps an organisation communicate, establish and maintain communication with the public and stakeholders.

Among the four models of public relations, publicity, also known as press agentry, belongs to the first. The others are the public information, two-way asymmetrical and two-way symmetrical models as first proposed by Professor James Grunig, a renowned public relations theorist and academic.

I promise not to take you down that “boring” road of extrapolating public relations theory, save to say that while the first two are one-way, the others allow two-way means of communication, allowing for feedback, which has become the norm.

The publicity or press agentry model marked the genesis of the public relations profession in the 1900s when the likes of Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward Bernays established “Publicity Bureaus” to serve the American railroad and steel manufacturers back then.

However, the principle of creating publicity remains relevant in this day and age. It requires an approach that is part of a broader communication strategy in your media planning.

My public relations students roll their eyes when I relate to them the story of my life in public relations (for the umpteenth time, I’m told!) I was head-hunted by one of the most sought after chief executives in the country at the time.

Don McDevitt was appointed head of Dunlop Zimbabwe, in addition to National Tyre Services, which he was running so well. The tyre maker at the time was saddled with reputation and image issues. It was a frog that required a bit of lipstick in the short-term while management worked on fixing its internal politics.

Yours truly was lured from Bulawayo Municipality where I was senior public relations officer. I was recommended besides the fact that I ran a very popular column in The Sunday News, which I should add, had nothing to do with public relations, nor business for that matter.

It was my experience as a journalist that seemed to attract Don and his merry men at Dunlop. I call them merry because they brought the company back to life, and put a cheer in what was for years a very demotivated workforce.

My mandate was clear and precise, to put Dunlop Zimbabwe back in the spotlight. I asked management what good things they were already doing that the world out there should know about? These had to be activities that were worthy to generate newsworthy ideas we could market to the media.

In your own area of business you can apply the parameters that I used back then to generate the much-needed publicity. These are the kind of questions that you and your team can ask yourselves:

lHave you appointed a new manager in your organisation — someone with a great reputation and with a story to tell? (Don McDevitt was our rock-star chief executive officer who did not require embellishing.)

lHave you done anything worthy for charity and your community? (Dunlop Zimbabwe was donating tyres to orphanages around the country while sponsoring a number of national sporting activities for years.)

lHas your business produced something unique from what is available on the market? (Dunlop Zimbabwe launched products for the transport (kombi) and farming sector that were designed for their testing conditions and also contributed to traffic safety.)

lHow are you taking care of your workers over and beyond what you are obliged to do? (The company started a scholarship scheme for the children of employees who had done exceptionally well and relaunched company sports teams in soccer, netball and tennis. Dunlop even went ahead to incentivise bonuses and throwing a “gala” for employees, pensioners and their spouses to thank them.)

We did not hesitate to summon the media on each of these occasions. That was in addition to arranging for “meet the press” sessions with the managing director and factory tours.

The result was the development of positive publicity for the company and the cultivation of an excellent relationship with the media. There was no buying of space, nor that of journalists to achieve this. What we pushed were stories that the media felt were worth sharing with their audiences.

Ending on a lighter note, at one point Don McDevitt complained to me, rather light heartedly, that his colleagues were claiming that he had become second only to the head of State as far as the number of his television appearances were concerned! I tended to agree with them.

Lenox Mhlanga is a consultant communications specialist with a global multilateral organisation. The views expressed here are his own. Contact him on: lenoxmhlanga@gmail.com Twitter: @lenoxmhlanga

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