In the wake of the past few years, it’s a safe bet that your small- to medium-size business (SMB) is struggling on one or more fronts. The statistics for SMBs that shuttered their operations permanently in the first few years of this decade are sobering, to say the least. The Covid-19 pandemic is estimated to have permanently closed approximately 200,000 more businesses than had been expected. Across the past few years, roughly 600,000 companies went out of business annually.
Assuming your SMB managed to scratch its way through the office worker diaspora of 2020 and a subsequent near-total loss in foot traffic, it’s likely you are looking to rebuild your business model to survive an unpredictable future. Of course, one obvious answer is to move an increasing percentage of your revenue stream into online sales. So your first instinct might be to overhaul your website and call it good.
However, launching and maintaining an SEO-friendly website — as daunting as that can be — is really only the first step.
Online marketing is hotly competitive, as anyone will tell you. Taking a “Field of Dreams” approach isn’t nearly enough. You can build it, yes, but there are zero guarantees that anyone will come. Effective PR certainly includes maintaining an SEO-friendly website, but that’s just one piece in an increasingly elaborate puzzle. There’s a lot more to PR than just getting a noticeable bump in your website analytics.
Finding a PR Agency That Specializes in Small Business
Competing for eyeballs online, in print, and in the local community can be intimidating for SMB owners new to search engine optimization (SEO) and other tools associated with PR. It might feel a bit like you’re trying to launch a small personal aircraft using the same runway as an Airbus A380.
You can relax…that sensation of feeling ill-equipped to compete with larger companies that have deeper pockets is completely normal.
Start with the one thing your SMB brings to the table that global retailers and big-box stores can’t. Namely, your local presence and the great reputation for customer service you’ve built up over the years. A well-rounded small business PR agency should be able to quickly discern what makes your SMB special. They will then optimize the entirety of your PR approach as a solid first step toward leveraging those advantages.
Here’s what to look for when you sense you might be getting in over your comfort level.
Punchlist for a Small Business PR Agency
1. Find someone who knows the difference between advertising and PR.
If the agency you interview leaps immediately to putting together a beefed-up budget for advertising, keep looking. Far too many “experts” still, to this day, confuse improved public relations with “strategic media buys.” Yes, that’s definitely another part of the equation, but it’s not the whole enchilada, either.
Instead, a small business PR agency will know, without being told, that your ad budget is probably already stretched to its breaking point. They will want to know what, if any, ROI you received for those expenditures. They’ll be very interested in the specific data points your advertising outlets provided at the end of your campaigns. (You did ask for data-driven accountability from your media outlets, right?)
2. Look for an enthusiastic willingness to work with what you have.
Similarly, the small business PR agency won’t seek to enter your workplace and start flipping over any tables. Be wary of anyone who brings a cookie-cutter approach they’ve developed and seeks to cram what you do into their new, exciting, proprietary mold. Instead, a truly helpful PR agency will look to elevate your strengths and promote widespread awareness of what you are already doing right.
Yes, you might incur some expenditures as your company expands its outreach efforts. Examples might include new signage, the services of a graphic artist, or subscriptions to automation software packages. You might offload some routine tasks associated with chatbots, answering the phone, social media posts, and so forth. These might all be well and good, but any and all expenditures must undergird the promotion of what makes your company special.
3. You want a PR company that underpromises and over-delivers.
Be wary of over-promisers. There’s a delicate balance to be struck between lowering your expectations too far and guaranteeing you’ll knock Amazon out of first place within two years.
For example, small business PR agencies that know their stuff are well aware that the leading search algorithms change frequently. What works well online today might — or might not — work quite as well next week. And besides…your online performance isn’t the only metric a competent PR expert cares about.
Depending on the niche your company occupies, online performance might not even be the most important metric! Of course, you will want to make sure that you can put numbers to performance both before and after implementing recommended changes, but these might include rate of turnover, on-site foot traffic, events hosted, suppliers added or subtracted, and so forth.
4. Ask your PR prospects to share their understanding of the value of relationships.
Your small business is situated within a community. This is true even if you are working out of your basement with no local office space or retail square footage to speak of.
What investments, if any, are you making in its wellbeing? Does your small business enjoy a favorable reputation with other local business leaders, municipalities, and city officials? Sure, your sales and payroll are contributing to the state, federal, and local tax base, but would anyone care if you suddenly uprooted everything and moved to another community?
One of the most recognizable features of a small business PR agency who knows their stuff is asking for your list of local media outlets, yes, but also opening your eyes to other relationship opportunities you may have missed. The PR agency you want to work with will ask about things such as the number of speaking engagements your team has accepted, who you are connected with via the local Chamber of Commerce, whether your suppliers truly enjoy working with you, and so on.
5. Remain open to out-of-the-box thinking and solutions.
Anyone can open up a web browser and come up with a few new ideas about public relations for the small- to medium-sized business owner. Such an approach might indeed prove fruitful — there’s nothing at all wrong with you conducting some regular research.
However, for PR pros this sort of approach is lazy and lacks imagination. Additionally, it does nothing for providing recommendations that are specifically and intentionally fashioned for your small business.
PR agencies who know what they are doing, on the other hand, take a more methodical approach. They will be slow to formulate their recommendations tailored to your actual needs. They will want to spend more time on the front end asking a lot of questions.
Yes, it’s 100% fair for an SMB owner to ask for a best-guess delivery timeline in the context of an initial meeting. After all, if a consultant spouts off several ideas you can find using Google, why are you thinking of hiring them?
6. A focus on long-term reputation management.
Hustlers tend to show up as “the new sheriff in town” and make extravagant promises. PR professionals tend to show up and provide information about your specific niche, its penetration in the local and online marketplace, and some relevant case studies they use as background information for your initial conversation.
They bring all this and more to the table before you’ve even agreed to cut a check. PR pros aren’t playing for a temporary boost in your sales. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s insufficient.
The PR shop you want to bring into your stable is playing the game for keeps. They want your SMB to thrive this year, yes, but they also want you to still be in business five, 10, and 25 years from now. They know this will only happen when they help you begin moving toward an ever-improving reputation.
Suppose your business does not enjoy a good reputation for customer service, quality products or services at fair prices, and commitment to causes other than the bottom line. In that case, they will fearlessly share that insight. They will also show you what it might look like to reclaim that turf.
Effective PR? Optimize Everything You’re Already Doing Right!
For most SMB owners, public relations is not what motivated the founding of a new company. Any PR efforts should not in any way detract or distract from keeping the main thing the main thing. You want to commit your products and services to continuous improvement, so effective PR is merely that which takes what’s already true about you and makes more people aware of it.
Doubtless, your PR campaign may cause you to reexamine long-standing policies, practices, and operations. That’s OK. It’s part of the deal.
Keep a journal in whatever medium you are most likely to use at a moment’s notice. You might discover issues that need to be addressed immediately, but these are typically rare. Instead, you can expect to find areas for improvement that you can take on at your own pace.
A qualified PR agency will present ideas and options in an agenda-free manner. They will have done their job whether you accept their recommendations or not. You’ll know you’ve found the right PR professionals when you sense that they genuinely delight in your victories as much as you do.