It was an event that attracted camera crews and spectators alike -- 26 people stuffing themselves into a BMW MINI. The publicity stunt, created by Rubenstein Associates, a New York City public relations firm, was staged in 1999 at Chelsea Piers in New York City to celebrate the MINI's 40th anniversary. In the process, the stunt broke the world record for "stuffing a MINI," and received widespread coverage by the media, from The Today Show and The New York Times Magazine to TV Tokyo. "It was a great event with a 'mini' theme," says Howard J. Rubenstein, founder of Rubenstein Associates. "Models wearing mini-skirts passed out mini hotdogs and other mini hors d'oeuvres -- it was a huge success."

Founded in 1954 by Rubenstein, Rubenstein and Associates has had a long-standing reputation as an innovative public relations company, and it regularly cooks up such media-magnet events for its high-profile clients. Once the firm created a "J Lo Booty Call" contest in which contestants could compare their "booties" to the new Jennifer Lopez wax figure at Madame Tussaud's, and it promoted Restaurant Week in New York City with a seven-story tall tower of bagels.

But getting a little publicity for your company doesn't take a lot of glitz, glamour, and spectacle. What your firm does need to do, according to Rubenstein, is take a few simple steps to make your company media friendly. Then discover the best tactic for your business to raise your company's profile in the public eye.

Laying the Groundwork

Before embarking on any publicity campaign, Rubenstein suggests laying the groundwork with a few basics:

Define your goal. What should your PR effort accomplish for your business? Name recognition, product awareness, an issue your company supports, business reputation, crisis management?

Remember ethics! Set an ethical line that you won't cross in your PR efforts. "Let ethics dominate the actions you take in business," says Rubenstein. "Everything you do in the future of your business will be measured by everything you've done."

Determine your target audience. Whom do you want to hear your message? And then determine the best way to reach them.

Once you've laid the groundwork, begin cultivating relationships with key reporters and editors. Study bylines and get to know the writer and editors who cover topics that relate to your business. "When I started, I had tiny accounts, but I called the reporters who I thought would be interested anyway," recalls Rubenstein. When you do get a reporter's ear, make sure you're respectful of his or her time, including deadlines. "Inexperienced corporate people will call a reporter right on the reporter's deadline and the reporter will hang up on them," says Rubenstein. "To this day, I always respect a deadline and keep my comments short, sweet and to the point."

Also, be sure to offer reporters as much information as possible, including any relevant research or background information he or she can use to help make reporting your story easier. If the story requires third-party expertise, offer sources to the reporter. In essence, just make it really simple for the reporter to do his or her work on your behalf.

Delivering Your Message

Besides making a personal pitch to a reporter or editor, small businesses have many other options for delivering their messages to the media and the public at large.

  • Press releases -- When writing a press release, always remember to lead with your news, says Rubenstein. "Generally if they open your envelope, they'll read the first paragraph and they won't go on if it's too boring," says Rubenstein. Two more details to remember: Double space the text to make the release easy to read, and whenever possible, assign a human element to your release. A human element can show people how they too can benefit from your product or service.
  • Letters to the Editor -- Try writing a short letter, two or three paragraphs, to the editor of your local newspaper. If there's a news story breaking that affects your business or has something to do with the type of business you do, you can relate it to your letter. "Letters have an enormous readership," says Rubenstein. Leveraging that venue for promoting your business will get your name in front of many potential customers.
  • News conferences -- If you think your company has significant news to share, hold a news conference. Besides how you'll present your groundbreaking news, you'll want to think visually when planning the conference. Ask yourself, "What would interest a photographer or the local TV station?" "If you think creatively, you can come up with a good visual," says Rubenstein.
  • Op Ed columns -- Your local daily and weekly papers will take opinion pieces. Take a topic that is issue oriented, and write no more than 600 or 700 words. "If it isn't timely, it won't be used," says Rubenstein. Just because your business manufactures widgets means nothing, but if it can be related to a larger issue like today's topics -- security, terrorism, the economy -- then it's likely to get picked up.
  • Third-party validators -- Align yourself with other companies or organizations that could help get your message out. "From the largest to the smallest clients that I have, I encourage them to get involved in civic and charity work," says Rubenstein. "Make a name for yourself as an activist." And remember: Don't just send in your dues -- look to be an active participant in these groups.
  • Sponsor or host events -- Offer to help organize an event or throw one yourself. Many communities conduct forums on civic matters. Go to your chamber and express your desire to host the event. Or, invite the public to an anniversary party for your company or the opening of a new factory, or throw a reception for the community during the holidays.
  • Attend business breakfasts -- When you're at one of these events, don't be shy. "Work the room, don't just sit in your seat and only meet person to left or right," says Rubenstein. Get there early, introduce yourself, and hand out business cards. But, don't be overly confident. "You want to look like a modest person meeting a lot of people, don't be boastful, don't be arrogant and listen a lot," Rubenstein instructs.
  • Participate on a panel -- If you're an expert on a topic, offer to be a panelist. Rubenstein handled a few real-estate accounts, became active on the real-estate board of New York, and quickly became known as a real-estate public relations expert available for comments.

The Bottom Line

You don't need a big PR agency or a grand publicity stunt to gain a little notoriety in your community. There are plenty of tactics you can use that will cost you little more than your time that can give your business the publicity boost it needs.

Sidebar: Always Remember...

A few pieces of parting advice from Howard Rubenstein.

Be accurate -- Don't get careless and do as much research as possible to support what you have to say.

Return all calls from the media -- Make this a priority. Once you've gotten their attention, do you really want to risk losing it by being rude?

Remember that your reputation is your biggest asset -- Ask yourself, "How much is my good name worth?" Once you start to break into the news columns, the public's attention will be focused on you. You're opening yourself up to scrutiny, so be sure your business actions are ethical.