This is the first of a 12-part monthly series to provide startup and seasoned entrepreneurs alike with a fully developed public relations/marketing plan. While I strongly suggest you either hire an internal person or external agency to manage this program, it is possible to be a DIYer (assuming you have 25 hours in your daily schedule).

You may have chosen a name and decided to build widgets, but that doesn't mean you're ready to go to market.

In fact, many entrepreneurs confuse hanging out their shingle or setting up a company Facebook page with public relations. Those moves aren't public relations. In fact, they're not even close.

So here's step one: Determine who you are. You're actually months away from launching a PR campaign. The first thing you need to do is figure out who you are and, critically, what sets you apart.

We call this a positioning program. Here's how you do it. First, draw up a list of people who know you, and your new company, well. This list could include your lawyer, accountant, investors, partners, and if you have any, employees. Next, draw up a list of external audiences. These could include prospective customers, local business leaders, analysts, the media, and others (in short, anyone who knows the type of business or industry you've just created).

Now that you've got both lists, ask members of each group to sit down with you for 15 minutes and provide you with direct, honest feedback.

Third, draw up a list of competitors who are already in your new industry and create a SWOT analysis. On the off chance you've never created one before, SWOT stands for:

- Strengths

- Weaknesses

- Opportunities

- Threats

Create a SWOT for each player in your field. So for example, if I were launching a new soft drink, I'd create an individual SWOT for Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, etc. The purpose of the SWOT is to help you decide where the white space opportunities might be in your field. For example, there may be room for a new, low-priced soda or perhaps one that won't ruin the drinker's teeth.

Now, let's get back to the questionnaires. Conduct these interviews yourself. Sit down with the individuals and ask them to be truthful as they respond to the following:

1. If you were at a cocktail reception, how would you describe my new company?

2. Based upon what I've told you to date, what would you say are my new company's greatest strengths?

3. In what areas does my company need to improve?

4. What one thing would you say separates my organization from every other one?

You should ask the same four questions of your external audiences to see if there are any differences. But--and this is a very big but--the key question is No. 4: You want to be able to pinpoint exactly what sets your new company apart from the competition. And that differentiator should be crystal clear to internal audiences.

It should also reinforce what you've uncovered in your SWOT.

As part of your SWOT, make sure you think about the problem or issue in your industry and how your company solves that problem differently from your competition. Then, where possible, look at secondary research to support your point. In other words, if your new company is serving an previously underserved demographic or market, that is going to be key in how you position yourself against competitors.

Allow me to illustrate from firsthand experience. When Peppercomm first began, in 1995, I was intent on creating a unique and sustainable positioning that would set us apart from the hundreds of larger New York City-based PR firms and the thousands of smaller ones nationwide.

So I did exactly what I've suggested you do. I determined that our core strength was helping others create their own unique positioning (we employed a methodology that my co-founder and I had jointly created and refined at a previous firm). As a result, I launched Peppercomm's first marketing/PR campaign with a positioning statement: "What separates us from our competition is helping to set clients apart from theirs."

It's important to note that a positioning statement is not a tagline. It's a sentence or, possibly two, that clearly sets you apart. However, once you have your positioning statement, you can, if you choose, create a tagline that aligns with your statement.

I sent out mailers with those words, made sure trade reporters included them in their announcements about our brand-new firm, and sure enough, we began winning strategic positioning assignments. And it was all because we had taken the time and effort to differentiate ourselves from Day One.

This positioning was key for three major reasons. First, it clearly and succinctly told prospects what we do. Second, it allowed us a different entry point from other PR firms at that time. Many others were just focusing on media relations. By going in a different door, so to speak, we were able to win clients for positioning audits that, afterwards, continued with us for other public relations initiatives, such as media relations. Third, it kept us focused on the type of work we wanted in order to build our business.

You can do the same. It really just takes a little hard work. Now, pull together your internal and external lists as well as the SWOT analyses. Trust me, you'll not only uncover what separates you from the pack, you'll have the key ingredient necessary for a full year's worth of marketing/PR.

Before you start going public with your positioning statement, however, try it out. It's important that your positioning line rings true. Go back to some of the people you interviewed and run your new positioning statement by them. Make sure they agree. If it doesn't work for some reason, don't get frustrated. Go back and look at the information you have from your audit and the SWOT analyses, and take their feedback into consideration.

It's best to make sure you really are setting yourself apart rather than just becoming another competitor in an already crowded space.

Watch for next month's column, in which I share best practices for your very first publicity effort. From there, we'll move on to:

- Case studies

- Bylined articles

- Establishing relationships with the press

- Getting included in roundup or feature stories

- Capitalizing on breaking news

- Leveraging editorial calendars

- Creating a digital footprint

- Dealing with your first crisis

- Speaking engagements

- Determining an ROI

- Merchandising all of your first-year publicity.

After you've experimented with these techniques, by the end of next summer you may know more about PR than I do.