Sep 28 2009

PR: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Recently, I’ve been getting questions from people regarding PR. Unfortunately, many businesses confuse PR with marketing. They are different, but they do work in tandem. Or, in some cases, PR might be part of an overall marketing strategy.

Another common misconception: many people think “press releases” when it comes to PR, but that’s just one teeny-tiny part of being a PR specialist (and press releases rarely work at getting press these days; some companies issue them over wire services in an effort to get the all-important back links, but that’s usually all you can expect from press releases.)

So let’s take some time understanding what PR is and what it isn’t, why your eCommerce company should be thinking about it, and how to go about, well, “doing” it (or at least getting started).

PR: What It Is

PR stands for public relations. In essence, your company engages with the public in certain ways so as to shape and mold the public’s perception of your business. How does the public perceive your company? Since perception is reality, the goal of PR is to have customers and prospects view your company in the best possible light. Myriad ways exist for your PR folks to accomplish this. Here are a few of the most common:

1. Landing articles where your company is mentioned/highlighted or where someone from your company is interviewed. Could be in local, regional, or national press.

How It Happens: Pitching ideas to reporters and editors via email and/or phone. The key is finding the right angle. Reporters don’t want to hear “This company is SO great because of x, y, and z. Please write about it.” If they do hear that, they’ll likely say, “Go buy an ad.”

You need to think of a hook. For example, let’s say you’re a woman-owned online retailer that sells cool bowling shirts, and you’ve been in business for a decade. Pitch an idea to a reporter about women-owned online businesses and whether it’s easier or harder for women to succeed in this medium as opposed to brick-and-mortar set-ups. Let the reporter know that your company’s owner/CEO would be willing to give her insight. A good PR person will then prep the owner/CEO for the interview by providing potential questions he or she may be asked and helping the person rehearse answers.

Hint: Reporters are always on the prowl for good stories, and good sources. A great resource that you or your PR person should subscribe to is Help A Reporter Out. It’s free.

2. Landing expert article assignments “authored” by someone in your company (the byline will be of someone in your company, but often these pieces are ghostwritten).

How it Happens: Pitching article ideas to editors/managing editors. Be familiar with the publication and the type of articles they publish. Most publications will have writer guidelines on their website, so be sure to review those. It makes sense to pitch your idea (have it fleshed out) first rather than writing the whole article and submitting it (although I do know people who have been successful submitting pieces “on spec”).

3. Landing Radio & Television Interviews

How it Happens: Similar to #1, the PR person will pitch an idea to a television or radio show producer. Again, it’s all about the hook. For example, let’s say you sell golf vacation packages online. You’d be a perfect guest on a radio or television show about the best golf courses in the southeastern US because you’re seen as an “expert” in golf vacations.

4. Linking the Company in Positive Ways to Current Events

How it Happens: Now more than ever, a company can respond instantly to news events and reach masses of people quickly through things like Twitter, Facebook, email alerts, etc. Let’s say you’re an online retailer who sells five varieties of organic cookies. Now, let’s say there’s some sort of natural disaster in the state you operate out of–flood, fire, or tornado–and you want your company to help by sending packages of cookies to the hundreds of volunteers and victims at the Red Cross stations etc. Not only that, but you’ll give $1.00 of every sale that you make for the next 30 days to the disaster recovery effort. A good PR person will have to organize this on many levels: getting the word out to existing customers (through social media, email, etc.), letting the press know, making the company owner available for interviews, and then follow-up down the road: maybe a picture-op with a large check showing the donations, and a personalized thank you to every person who placed an order during that 30-day period.

5. Responding to “The Bad”

How it Happens: Your business will be faced with “the bad” someday, even if it’s indirect. Going back to the previous example, let’s say your peanut butter cookie is a top seller. Well, what the heck did you do last summer when there was a recall on certain brands of peanut butter? Your PR person should have responded immediately to customers and potential customers by letting them know what was up with your company’s peanut butter, whether it was affected by the recall, etc.

PR: What It Isn’t

It won’t necessarily be a huge lead generator, nor will it directly increase sales. PR might accomplish these things indirectly, but that’s not the primary goal. “But,” you might be thinking, “isn’t increasing sales always the primary goal?” At first blush, it might seem like that’s the case. But the thing you have to remember is that you’re selling to human beings, and we humans buy for many reasons, not just because we’re in need of something and not just because you happen to sell what I need.

Let me illustrate this abstract thought with a concrete example.

Scenario One
Let’s say Rose Company and Daffodil Company are both online florists. Let’s say I do a Google search and both companies come up at the top of the search engine results page (SERP). I’ve never heard of either company. At this point, the playing field is quite level. The reason I click on one over the other might have to do with the meta description, which one shows up first, or whether I like roses more than daffodils.

Now let’s say I actually visit both sites and realize that they offer the same items, the same services, and all for pretty much the same prices. Which one do I choose? Who knows?

Scenario Two
Instead, of the above scenario, let’s pretend I do recognize one of the company names in the search engine results. I remember reading an article in Family Circle about Daffodil Company and how it donates daffodils every spring to the cancer wards of hospitals throughout the country in conjunction with the American Cancer Society. I decide to click on the Daffodil Company URL as opposed to the Rose Company’s URL, even though both companies sell the same items and for the same price.

Now you might be thinking, “Didn’t that PR just generate a lead and, mostly likely, a sale?” Well, yes and no. Consider this: the Daffodil Company didn’t just decide one day to hand out flowers to hospitals in the spring and then ask Family Circle to write about it. A bunch of other PR steps happened along the way: local press, promotion on the website, promotion at the hospitals, and, more than likely, several years of the project under their belt. Those smaller PR steps probably didn’t yield a ton of leads or sales (if any), but what it did do was build momentum, create a positive perception in people’s minds, and help brand the company in a positive light.

Could “Poor” PR Hurt Sales?

What’s an example of “poor” PR anyway? Let’s say a positive article appears in the regional paper about your innovative company. Good PR will leverage the heck out of that article by posting it on your website, tweeting about it, posting a link on your wall on your Facebook page, sending an email to your newsletter subscribers with a link to the article, getting reprints that you hand out at seminars, tradeshows, etc. Poor PR would stop with the article itself. This strategy won’t hurt your company per se, but it certainly won’t help with reaching out to as many people as possible and helping to create that positive perception of your company.

“Okay,” you might be thinking, “But what if there’s a crisis? Don’t you need good PR in those situations so that sales don’t nosedive (think Tylenol poisoning from the 80s, or think Motrin and the mommy blogger fiasco from last year)?

Well, “poor” PR won’t cause the sales to nosedive–the situation itself will cause that. What good PR can do is damage control. The better your crisis management plan (which is a subset of public relations), the better chance you have of riding out the storm. I’ve heard it said many times that the reason Tylenol didn’t go under in the 80s is because of its stellar handling of the crisis, including its transparency with the public and its regular updates on the situation.

Effective PR: How to Make It Happen

The biggest thing you need to keep in mind is consistency and dedication. PR isn’t a one-trick pony that shows up for your August birthday party. It’s something that you need to think about, act upon, and leverage regularly. To that end, it helps to have someone whose responsibility is “PR,” but I realize that not all businesses can carry someone with that title. Here are some other ideas:

Outsource to a freelancer. Put a posting on Craig’s List, or browse through the members’ directory on a place like the Public Relations Society of America.

Use college interns. I’m amazed at how many people don’t take advantage of these eager-to-please young men and women who are on top of the latest PR and marketing strategies, not to mention social media. Yes, there will be turnover, and yes, they’ll be a little green, but be smart and plan to have your outgoing intern train the incoming intern.

Have your marketing person take on the PR role. Not all marketers will want to do it, nor will all be great at it. Let those who can do both, do both. Those who can’t should be in charge of monitoring interns. 🙂

DIY. Sometimes this has to happen, but I do think that even if you do the legwork, such as researching potential publications and writing the pitches, you need someone else to pitch it for you (it comes across as self-serving if you’re pitching yourself). Find someone who’s good on the phone (it could be your sister, your mother), create a company email for this person, and have this person do the emailing and follow-up via phone.

How does your eCommerce company handle PR? I’d love to hear what you do. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Blue Acorn

For all your ecommerce needs, Blue Acorn provides an integrated team of designers, developers and strategists who work together to deliver engaging shopping experiences for your customers and efficient processes for you. Whether you’re looking for a fundamental or incremental change, the team at Blue Acorn will adopt your ecommerce KPIs as our own and deliver the results that matter most to your organization. For brands like The Real Real, Peter Thomas Roth, and Too Faced Cosmetics, we provide services such as ecommerce design, systems integration, A/B testing, new feature development, and personalization.


neon signs
Dec 12 2010

Are there PR firms that specialize in ecommerce websites?
I guess you guys do that too?

Owen Carver
Aug 04 2017

Nice thorough PR explanations. Thank you!


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