This is the era of the small, home-based business. Every time I turn around, it seems like dozens more of these types of businesses have sprouted in my neighborhood in Florida. This raises the question of whether small-business and/or home-based entrepreneurs face a unique set of public relations (PR) challenges.

The answer is yes and no. Let's start with the "yes" side of the ledger. Small businesses, home-based or not, frequently have meager resources. That means they are forced to rely on inexpensive and free PR tactics to attract customers. The problem is that these strategies require a lot of time-consuming research and a huge time commitment in order to be successful. My advice is to make sure you know what you are doing before you try such tactics. Inexpensive does not have to mean amateurish, but it often looks that way if you have not done your PR homework. You risk being perceived as a gadfly, rather than as a solid business, if you do not plan your PR strategy.

Capitalize on Your Strengths

Another item on the yes ledger is that small and/or home-based businesses usually face credibility problems because of their size and relative obscurity. You, as a small-business owner, are off the public's radar screen, while your larger, established competitors have a large advertising budget, a history, and impressive offices. The best way around this inequality (besides a massive ad blitz) is a public relations campaign that emphasizes your community involvement, experience, and integrity. Join business and community organizations and look for opportunities to publicize your activity to earn an image as a solid member of the business community.

On the other side of the ledger, small businesses have a lot of public relations needs in common with their bigger counterparts. If you want business to come to you, your priority is to work consistently at becoming a business legend and appearing on potential customers' radar. For example, if you are Bob's Muffler Shop operating out of a shed behind your house and not the local outlet of Giant Mufflers Consolidated, your goal is to get people to think "Bob" when they think mufflers, rather than to recall the national chain's expensive advertising campaigns.

So how do you establish Bob's Muffler Shop as a business legend? Earn it! Your PR challenge is not terribly different from the one Giant Mufflers Consolidated faces. You need several key things: a solid, relevant, memorable image; a good PR plan to implant that image in the minds of your target market; the right media list; and goals and strategies to make and publicize news. While you cannot afford much advertising, your PR efforts can play to your strength of local community ties.

So, if you are in the same situation as Bob, what should you do? Here are a few tips. First, take advantage of two great equalizers in the business world: your Web site and your PR. Whether you are the muffler giant or Bob, your Web site and your press releases can either make you look solid or flaky. Press releases are what Web surfers and media writers see ? they don't see Bob's shed or the high-priced real estate of Giant Mufflers Consolidated. If your Web site is well designed and effectively promoted, and if you send solidly written press releases about real news events to the right media outlets at the right time, you can look as impressive as any muffler enterprise in the world. Just remember that you have as much or more of a presence on the local level as the muffler giant; look for ways to make a positive impact on the local community and then publicize them.

As a small business, your goal is to establish a solid business image, not to use smoke and mirrors to misrepresent your size. Home-based business is more common and accepted than ever these days. Consequently, the best strategy is to treat size as a non-issue by ignoring it.

As for dealing with the credibility problems that come from being new or small, the best way to work through them is by inspiring customer confidence. Stress the benefits of doing business with your company in all your promotions; develop an impressive, credible guarantee; and then publicize it. If people feel they will be well served as customers and will be protected by a money-back guarantee and/or a returns policy, they will not have a problem with either newness or size. They want problems solved, and they look to the business that can best get the job done for them.

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