Deciding whether to hire a PR agency; making prototypes.
I've considered hiring a PR firm to drum up press coverage, but the retainers are too high. Should I do it myself?
president, Cathedral Partners
There's a saying in the PR world: If you don't tell your story, someone else will tell it wrong. You can pay a PR firm to get it right, but you'll probably have to plunk down a hefty monthly retainer, especially if you want to avoid being handed off to a junior rep. And even PR vets may not "get" your company well enough to maximize the ink. That was the conclusion drawn by Brian Scudamore, CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk?, a waste removal company based in Vancouver, British Columbia. "If you hire a talented, high-priced firm, they're still not telling your story with the same enthusiasm you have," says Scudamore, who over several years tried three agencies that charged about $4,000 a month in retainer fees. Those firms landed him mentions in regional newspapers and a handful of magazines, but Scudamore believed the story had wider appeal.
Scudamore wanted expertise in how and where to promote his company, coupled with the kind of insider knowledge and enthusiasm that could really sell it. So in 2001 he hired an in-house PR person. The rep was more affordable than an outside firm ($36,000 a year), learned the company inside out, and gave 1-800-Got-Junk? his undivided attention. Since then, the company has scored thousands of mentions in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, as well as an appearance on an Oprah Winfrey Show segment during which the company cleaned out a cluttered home. Plenty of pitches were rejected as well. If your idea is turned down, ask what's missing that would make it a good story, Scudamore says.
Today, 1-800-Got-Junk? is large enough (255 franchise locations; roughly $60 million in sales) to employ five full-time publicists. Many smaller companies, of course, can't afford even one. Their CEOs often become pitchmeisters general by default. If you're handling your company's PR, consider where it fits into news or trend stories and why it might interest the audience of one publication over another, rather than simply saying what your company does, says Robert Lusch, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona. Lusch also suggests seeking advice and introductions from local chambers of commerce and trade groups that deal regularly with the media.
To CEOs handling their own publicity, Scudamore has this to say: Get on the phone. "When a business owner calls, there's a level of passion that reporters can sense," he says. If nothing else, journalists' responses to personal calls contrast favorably with their frequent reaction to mass-mailed press releases. That reaction? Got junk?
A sourcing agent told me that I can have a prototype of my travel mug made in China, but I would have to pay for a patent search that I've already done. The total bill would be $4,700. Is this bundling the norm?
Sometimes, one-stop shopping is a bad thing. Sourcing agents who both help companies do patent searches and locate prototype makers have a great incentive to find nothing in the patent search: Finding something, after all, could mean the end of the deal. "It's a straight-out conflict of interest," says Robert Lougher, executive director of the United Inventors Association in Rochester, New York.
Besides, plenty of companies build prototypes without the bundling--and for less money. Thanks to recent advances in technology, a number of domestic shops can produce models quickly for under $1,000 using inexpensive materials. Stratasys, a prototype company based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, asks clients to upload a computer-aided design drawing onto its website. A machine that acts like a 3-D printer transforms that drawing into a model using layers of molded plastic instead of ink and paper. The company delivers prototypes within a week. You still have to pay a CAD engineer between $50 and $75 an hour to create the design, points out Sameer Vachani, director of marketing at Quickparts, an Atlanta firm that uses similar technology. But the total cost will be about $2,000, much less than the $4,700 quote you received. (Contact information for hundreds of design engineers and prototype makers can be found at ThomasNet.com.)
Finally, be clear how many mugs you want made--and keep the number low. You're not selling the prototype, you're selling the idea behind it.
For more advice on crafting a media strategy, read Complete Publicity Plans by Sandra Beckwith. To learn more about designing, manufacturing, and patenting prototypes, visit the website of the United Inventors Association.
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