by Tom Rankin, APR
President, Thomas Rankin Associates

Marketing PR (often called trade PR or product publicity) is an extremely cost-effective marketing tool, unmatched in its ability to deliver complex messages to audiences across a broad range of markets. Few companies can afford to advertise effectively in all the publications serving all of their markets. However, developing and distributing professionally prepared PR materials can generate coverage—and inquiries—far beyond the scope of even the most ambitious advertising program.

Unfortunately, however, few people who have not been involved in a trade PR program understand the full scope and power of this marketing discipline. Even some of those who purport to practice it don't really have a clue how it works: they seem to think it's "just like advertising," only you don't pay for the space. You send stuff out, and the books run it.

As the Zen Master said, that's like a blind man describing an elephant by feeling its tail.

If you will, then, let me present the following PR program planning and budgeting guide. I apologize if it's too rudimentary, but its intent is to give you a good idea of what we do, how we do it, and what it costs.

PR Is Not Advertising

PR is in many ways the conceptual opposite of advertising (or the yin to advertising's yang), and is often very complementary. Where advertising drives for focus in message and media, PR succeeds through multiplicity. Where advertising is direct, PR is indirect. Where ads employ hard sell, PR uses soft. And while advertising concerns itself largely with the presentation of image, PR is much more effective in delivering substance and content. Both are essential to a good branding effort.

In considering how to apply PR to a company's needs, a very productive conceptual analogy is that of optics. Think of a magnifying glass: light—which represents your corporate or product messages—comes through the lens and is focused to a single point. This is advertising. When it's done right, it generates a lot of heat. Now think of that same lens in a projector. The light is the same, but the focal lines intersect in space, diverge again and project an image onto the screen. In PR, that focal point is our messaging strategy and the screen is the media. If you want to get really cute and stretch the analogy, you can even liken the spectrum of colors in the light to our various PR tools.

Finding News

So the process of "doing PR" involves: 1) identifying newsworthy subjects or resource information; 2) filtering them through our messaging strategy; and 3) delivering them to the appropriate media in as many different ways as meet their needs. To be successful, the process must be active, ongoing and consistent, and must include both message development and editorial support (media relations) activities. It's not rocket science, and it does not require mega-expenditures, but it does require a commitment of time and a modicum of effort.

What constitutes a newsworthy subject? A partial list of viable news topics is included in Industrial Publicity, a book by former Quality Magazine Editor, Joe Quinlan. As you can see, the list is nearly endless—and it was produced before the advent of the internet! Selection of appropriate topics for your program should be based on your objectives, but should not simply be things you want to say: they should be things other people (your prospects) also want to hear. In general, viable topics include:

  • Products—Any new or revised product qualifies, as do any products that have not yet been released.

  • Products for markets—Any new or unreleased product that has a specific market application.

  • Technologies—New ways of making or doing things, new processes incorporated into your products or which your products facilitate or incorporate into.

  • Company news—Major contracts, strategic alliances, acquisitions, new equipment and/or facilities, all are game. New personnel in key technical or management positions are also of interest, as are announcements of speeches, technical presentations and seminars, new marketing campaigns, awards, patents, etc.

  • Trends—Other industry trends or developments can also provide fodder for executive pronouncements which can be very effective newsmakers.

  • Research/background information—Statistics and other data quoted in speeches and executive statement releases are almost always newsworthy.


When we look to the other side of our optical analogy, at the media that will have an interest in these subjects, there are many. The current Bacon's Magazine Directory lists more than 15,000 business, trade, professional and consumer publications in the US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, serving some 90 market classifications. So depending on how many markets you sell into, the list can get large. The good news is that we now distribute releases and photos electronically, which keeps costs down, but as we discuss below, tracking special issues and providing support for key editors can become complicated.

Our first task, when you decide to work with Thomas Rankin Associates, is to research and set up a custom editorial mailing list for you and begin reviewing the editorial calendars of key books for related topics.

Working With The Press

Translating concepts into clips comprises the bulk of our efforts. These efforts are basically of two kinds: proactive and reactive. Proactive items are things we know we want to do: for example, set up and issue a schedule of product news releases, or launch a campaign of articles and releases to support a new technology or initiative. Reactive items are opportunities that emerge from ongoing editorial support activities.

At many of the larger, consumer-oriented PR shops, editorial support is very much like telemarketing. A release is developed and a team of junior staffers mans the phones to call every editor on the list. Oftentimes these conversations consist of nothing more than asking the editor if he or she got the release and if/when they plan to run it. Considering that most editors get hundreds of releases a week, they tend to hate these calls, and have railed against this practice for years.

We don't do it that way. What we try to do instead is become a resource to the press on behalf of our clients. Editors everywhere, and trade editors in particular, are notoriously overworked (and underpaid). If you look at the staff of a typical trade magazine, it is quickly apparent that there is no way they can generate all the material required to adequately cover their industry and fill the pages of their book month after month. They need help and very much welcome the kind of support that helps them do their jobs.

What kind of help is that? Simply, ideas and editorial materials that will interest their readers. Releases and articles they can run without major rewriting. Photos they can use for their covers. Interviews that highlight key trends and cutting edges. Technical features and case histories that bring new solutions to their readers. Serendipitously, all things we can develop from our list of subjects above—things that will increase awareness of and interest in your products and services and help build your brand. It's a win/win proposition.

Done correctly, editorial support is also incredibly symbiotic. What we do, simply, is research the editorial calendars of a selected group of core publications for client-related topics, then contact the editors three to four months in advance to offer ideas, articles, photos, interviews—whatever we mutually decide we can and want to develop or provide. This can be done on an A, B, or C priority basis: for the 'A' (must be in) issues, we go all out, developing custom articles/photos to suit; for 'B' issues, we try to rework existing pieces, set up interviews, offer photos; and for "C" issues, we send current product/application information and respond to any editor requests.

As noted above, support activities can become quite involved. How many books we put on our core list and how aggressively we support them is a function of both budget and our messaging strategy. For example, if we want to expand sales in a particular market with a new product or application, we can really focus on editors of those publications, providing a number of application pieces, features and case histories, and participating in round-up articles. Conversely, if we want to cast a broad net across all markets, we would probably not focus so much on the support aspect, but work instead on developing a number of different broadcast pieces.

Making News

Which brings us back to the proactive items which comprise the bulk of budgeted activity. There are a large number of PR tools that can be used for various purposes (including corporate advertising, according to some), but for product publicity and editorial support programs, these boil down to a relative few. Each of these is designed to achieve a particular result within the context of a marketing communications program—build brand recognition, generate inquiries, increase technological reputation, etc.—and equally as important, are structured and formatted to fit within a specific section of a publication. Some of these are developed exclusively for a single publication, while others are intended for broadcast distribution to a specific group or an entire list of publications.

For convenience, we label these by their acronyms as follows:

  • NRs—These are basic News Releases with which most people are familiar. They can be used to announce just about anything and are the staple of any PR program. For consistency, we generally recommend developing and issuing a minimum of one per month, but it is entirely feasible to do much more than that without cannibalizing pick-up.

  • PARs—In the TRA lexicon these are called Product Application Releases. They are essentially product releases, but are modified to describe a product's appeal in a specific market. They are distinguished from application releases, ANRs (see below), in that they do not involve a specific customer.

  • ENRs—Executive Statement News Releases. These are handy little tools that can serve a variety of purposes, and involve quoting a senior executive of some sort—often a CEO—on a range of issues of interest or importance to the organization. Announcing a new trend in the marketplace that your product or technology neatly addresses is one typical ploy.

  • BNRs—Business-related News Releases. We usually use this designation for releases we send out over the wire that are geared towards the business consumer press.

  • NLRs —New Literature Releases. Most books run literature sections in which these fit nicely.

  • ANRs—Application News Releases. These are 'mini' case histories that typically involve a customer. They are normally broadcast to a smaller list than a product news release, and are excellent tools for generating coverage in vertical markets.

  • Press Kits—Collections of NRs, backgrounders, speeches, graphics, etc., for use at trade shows or press conferences, on press tours, or in conjunction with a special launch of some sort.

  • CHF—Case History Feature. Full-length article on a customer's use of your product or service, placed exclusively with a publication.

  • F—Feature article, typically by-lined. Can be how-to, state-of-the-art, profile, etc. Like a CHF, placed exclusively.

  • OP/Eds—It is not unusual for an op/ed opportunity to come from an ENR. We can also pitch them if we have an issue to address.

  • Cols—We have had very good success over the years in placing ongoing columns in trades (one of which we've been writing monthly for over 15 years and is currently being produced as a book). Column opportunities require broad topics that can be treated objectively.

  • NLTRs—Newsletters. Often a staple for companies with emerging technologies, broad product offerings, or products with wide-ranging applications. These days, newsletters are frequently posted on websites and announced/promoted via email. As such, they represent a very economical, very concentrated way of presenting a complex product story across a broad audience. In the context of a broader PR program, they also serve as "hubs," providing an additional outlet for materials developed for other purposes.

There are also letters to the editor that can be of value, newsletters to distributor or rep organizations, backgrounders and white papers, press tours and conferences, trade show support, presentations of various sorts, direct mail, brochures and booklets—even books—the list goes on and on. One of the best things about PR is the diversity of vehicles available for delivering messages.

On the downside, PR often has long lead times; and we can offer no guarantees of acceptance or that the editors will not edit our pieces. And unlike advertising, which can be set up on a schedule and allowed to run, PR can be very time intensive. If we're doing our job right, we should be pestering you with irresistible opportunities.

Planning And Budgeting

No matter how PR is billed—by fixed retainer, by the project, by the hour, or by any combination of same (and TRA offers all these options)—the ultimate unit of value in delivering PR services is time. Like lawyers and accountants, our business model is structured around the billable hour. Thus, the best way to maximize ROI is to help us operate as efficiently as possible. The better the input for a piece, the less time it will take for us to write it.

I am frequently asked by new clients why we don't just set per project prices and go forward on an ad hoc basis. This way, they say, they can control the process. Well we can, and sometimes do, but it is not the most effective use of resources. As we become more familiar with client subject matter, we can often work faster. And once we have a collection of pieces to work from, we can frequently rework bits and pieces, saving more time. Project pricing does not take this cumulative process into consideration. Plus, in order to work at all, project pricing has to be higher than average to allow for inevitable problem projects.

We believe a better way to control budgeting is to 1) do program planning based on "high-average" project estimates, then 2) allow billing to run its hourly course. This way, our real-time billing will automatically reflect increases in efficiency, and your budget can cover the occasional problem project. This process works whether or not you work to a fixed overall budget figure.

As for program planning, the "official" method is to set up an activities spreadsheet, much like a media calendar, with the months across the top and the different PR tools we intend to employ down the left-hand column. Working in conjunction with our editorial calendar, we can then start filling in the blocks with project items. We also put "Xs" where we know we will want to do something, but don't yet know what. Space on the calendar can be made for entering estimated project costs, and the entire budget—by year and by monthly total—can be seen at a glance. We know what to do and you know what to expect.

But since most PR programs start in an "exploratory" mode, it is often better to begin on a more ad hoc basis. You've probably already got some products you want to generate interest in, or maybe we've mutually agreed that application pieces are going to be a big player for you: well let's get our mailing lists together, start developing some good copy, and get it out there. Even very modest budgets are usually sufficient to produce good results with this approach and then, six months or a year from now, we will both be in a much better position to see how PR performs for you, what additional opportunities are available, and how we want to structure the program going forward.

Getting Started

The bottom line is that we can work with your bottom line. In fact, we frequently prefer to start small and let a program grow organically with our understanding of how your products and technologies fit the market. Or, we can move aggressively across a broad front. We can bring as much capacity to bear as needed. It's your call, and our next step should be to sit down together and start mapping out a plan. Hopefully, this guide has provided you with a sense of what we can do and how we can go about doing it.

From here, anything is possible.

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© 2003 Thomas Rankin Associates


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