Free press is the greatest marketing tool available to any business. Positive media coverage of your company can be extremely widespread and very powerful, too, because it’s a third-party endorsement of your company. Just imagine how much your business might boom if it were covered by Dr. Phil, Oprah, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, CNN or The New York Times (all of which have covered my company, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?).
But if you’re like most business owners, who have little or no PR experience or training, you’d probably outsource the function. That works for some companies, but not for all and maybe not even most. I learned that lesson the hard way, hiring and firing three top-shelf PR firms as we’ve grown, bringing the operation back in-house after every attempt to farm it out. Why? Because we did PR better than the pros. Sure, they achieved some positive results, but they were also missing huge opportunities that only our staff could identify and exploit.
I got my first taste of PR in 1991, two years after I launched the business. Looking for unique ways to promote my company, I rang the news desk at The [Vancouver] Province. It must have been a slow news day, because not only did I land an interview, but the story appeared on the front page of the paper. My phones rang off the hook, and I was hooked on PR for life! So, every time I wanted to grow my business, I asked myself, “What’s my angle?” and “Who do I call?”
As the business grew, I ran out of time to pitch the press and hired my first PR agency. They were reputable and connected, but after four months (on a $3,000-a-month retainer) the agency’s results were neither sufficient nor improving. So, I swallowed hard and decided to do it myself again, even if it meant dropping some other projects. PR was just too big an opportunity not to do it right.
Overwhelmed with other aspects of the business, I tried outsourcing PR a couple of years later, but it was déjà vu. Then, our U.S. expansion drive launched in 1999. Believing PR was the best way to reach potential franchisees, I asked some American business owners I knew whether they had contacts at any major U.S. media outlets. Several respondents didn’t know any, but they knew who did: a California-based PR specialist I’ll call Paul. Although my initial intention was to do the PR work myself, I called Paul, we hit it off and I hired his firm. But, working with Paul, I learned the key to why doing PR in-house was a better strategic choice for us.Paul got our business, loved our story and pitched it with a ton of passion, but — and here is the big lesson for me — he was the agency, not the business. No one could pitch the story better than our employees. PR is about the personality of a story, and I firmly believe that when you’re telling the press stories about your culture, your growth or even your challenges, you need to be living the story in order to truly capture and communicate its essence. Writers know when they’re talking to a PR agent versus an employee.
We stayed with Paul for months and he did help get our PR flywheel turning, but, at the same time, we learned a lot about what worked for us and why it was time for us to pitch our stories ourselves.
First, we need a lot of press to drive our growth and we couldn’t afford to pay a PR firm to do as much pitching as we needed. Second, we needed someone who was living in the business, identifying story ideas and angles as they presented themselves. Last, we realized that by hiring someone in-house, we could create our own systems and then scale the department. Today, we have a four-person PR team and have received more than 5,000 media hits. The investment has most certainly paid off, and I credit Paul, who helped give us the confidence to get out and hire our first in-house PR manager. In fact, Paul supported our decision to take PR in-house.
We decided to recruit a former franchise partner, Tyler Wright, who knew the business and had incredible passion about 1-800-GOT-JUNK? We trained Tyler in how we refined and pitched a story angle. He attended our all-employee “huddle” every day. As a true part of the team, Tyler could obtain a pulse on the daily business, the energy of the company and the firm’s story. Within a year, Tyler single-handedly landed us on Oprah. In Tyler’s first two years, we grew from 20 to 95 franchises while spending very little money on franchise advertising. As 1-800-GOT-JUNK? continued to grow, we built an in-house PR team to keep track of the countless developments among our far-flung franchisees that we could pitch to their local press.
While some firms prefer to outsource areas that will never be a core competency, PR is priority for 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Sure, in-house PR had a learning curve, but by pitching the press ourselves, we learned enough about what makes a story and who to tell the story to that it’s now one of our key competitive advantages. Why not make your own headlines?