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Do-It-Yourself Public Relations

Hiring a top PR firm is often out of the question for start-ups. Here are five tips for how to handle your own public relations.

For most journalists, taking a meeting with a vacuum salesman would be right up there with getting their teeth pulled. But when we worked as reporters and James Dyson came to town, we always took the meeting.

Dyson—the founder of the eponymous appliance company that's best known for it's see-through vacuums and quirky commercials—isn't just a brilliant inventor, he's the perfect pitchman for his company. But it wasn't his fabulous British accent or those memorable ads that got him the coverage in our magazine. In fact, at the time, his ad campaign hadn't crossed our radar yet and his company was relatively unknown in the United States.

What was it that set Dyson apart from the chorus of PR pitches we'd hear on a regular basis? He was passionate, animated, and honest. He built his company from scratch and was able to share all of the personal stories (like failing 5,000+ times in his quest to perfect his vacuum cleaner) that go along with being an entrepreneur. And it was that ability to tell real and interesting anecdotes that made us want to write about him.

While Dyson always made it look easy, getting media attention is far from simple. You've heard this before, but it's still true: the best way to get coverage inside a glossy magazine or on a national news show is to get to know someone on the inside. And that's really tough if you're running a company outside of New York City or any major metropolitan area. And that's where a large PR firm comes in handy—they make a living developing contacts in the media world.

Unfortunately, if you're an entrepreneur running a start-up (and are not yet as successful as Dyson!), you probably won't be able to afford a top PR firm. So until you reach that size, here are five tips for how to get your story told.

1. Authenticity is key.

The silver lining to the sad fact that you can't afford to hire a fancy PR firm is that, like Dyson, you are the most authentic spokesperson for your business. You are the biggest champion of your brand and no one knows your company better than you do. Such authenticity is impossible to buy. Even the best (and most expensive) PR folks can't fake it. And journalists love to hear the real story-how did you dream up the company, how did you get funded, where did the name come from? The flip side is that journalists often hate to hear your story from PR folks. So feel confident that you are the right person to be leading your PR efforts.

2. Do your homework.

You know your customer better than anyone else, so figure out where he or she spends their free time. Are they on fashion blogs, glued to CNBC, or watching the Today Show? Once you figure that out, develop a list of your media targets (magazines, TV shows, blogs, etc.). Make a long list because this process isn't easy! Once you have that list, you'll need to dive deeper and try to find the individuals at each outlet who cover your industry. Be sure to read their articles, follow their tweets, or watch their show regularly, so you know their beat or their interests well.

3. Track down contact information.

This will most likely be your toughest challenge. The benefit of a big PR firm is their hefty Rolodex and their relationships with journalists. But don't despair-thanks to social media, it's easier than ever to find someone's contact information. Check their company's web site first. If there's no clear contact information on their corporate site, move on to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. See if you can find a direct email on Facebook. You can even try to get their attention by tweeting at them about your company. Often calling the main office number and being friendly to the operator can yield the best results about who covers what you are pitching and how to reach them. Finally, we often check helpareporter.com. Journalists post detailed queries for sources and anyone who signs up can email a pitch if they think they're right for a certain story.

4. Fill their niche.

Once you have contact information for the journalists you want to reach or once you get a meeting, be sure to have a story to offer that will fit the content of the publication. Journalists need to constantly fill the pages of their magazine or the segments on their show. When we pitched O Magazine, we knew they did a regular story on women who switched careers. It was the perfect page for us since we'd left Fortune Magazine to create Altruette.com, our philanthropic line of charms. And eventually they profiled us in that section. Make their job easier by tailoring your pitch and you'll improve your odds of getting your story told.

5. Don't take silence as a rejection—but definitely take the hint.

No response? Keep trying. You're message probably isn't getting to the right person or he or she is simply too busy. As journalists we found the most effective PR people used the "pleasant pest" approach. They checked in often and stayed on our radar, but never got annoying.

Getting any press coverage can take a long time. But if you're willing to be persistent—and patient—DIY PR can truly pay off.

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Last updated: May 18, 2012

LEE CLIFFORD AND JULIE SCHLOSSER | Columnist | Co-founders, Altruette

Lee Clifford and Julie Schlosser are the co-founders of Altruette. They make a line of classic charms that each benefits one of 35 different charities. Previously, they were both editors at Fortune magazine.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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