A: Ah, the shoestring budget. Most of us entrepreneurs know it all too well.
Even if you don't have much to spend, take heart. There's no rule of thumb on how much capital you should allocate to PR. Besides, you can more than make up for a shortage of cash by promoting yourself creatively, and if you're doggedly persistent, you'll sell more products and services than if you spent thousands of dollars on advertising.
Here are some guidelines that should help you and other start-up entrepreneurs determine where to spend your PR money and energy:
The basics: Buy good-quality business cards, letterhead and a marketing piece such as a brochure. The brochure should concentrate more on how you can help people than on specific tasks you perform.
Paid advertising: Don't spend money on paid ads early in the game. They're usually very expensive and sometimes not effective. There are far better ways to promote yourself. These include:
Speak, speak, speak. Speak for free to audiences that are part of your target market. That could include Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and trade associations. Public speaking engagements give you instant credibility.
Write, write, write. Write how-to or advice articles for your weekly and daily newspapers, local business magazines, trade publications, and print and electronic newsletters. Be sure you maintain the copyright so you can offer the same articles to other publications. If you can't write, hire a freelancer who can ghostwrite them for you under your name.
Teach classes. Your local adult education program might need your services. You won't get rich, but teaching will give you valuable exposure.
Do media interviews. Call local reporters who write for publications read by your target audience. Invite them to call on you when they need background, commentary or story ideas about your industry. Small-business news is hot right now. Tell reporters you're willing to discuss the challenges you're facing in your business. Position yourself as a helpful source.
Start a newsletter. Publish an e-mail newsletter, and pack it with helpful information and special offers. This is much cheaper than a paper-and-ink newsletter because you don't have to pay for printing or postage. When you eventually get a Web site, be sure to link the newsletter to your site.
Build strategic alliances. Introduce yourself to other businesspeople who don't compete with you but sell products or services to the same target audience. Offer to promote them if they promote you. Make sure they're people you like and trust.
Do pro bono work. Offer your free services to an influential nonprofit group. It will give you a chance to get in front of their board members, who may be in a position to hire you for their own companies.
Keep doing what works and stop doing what doesn't. Then look forward to the glorious day when someone says, "I see your name everywhere!"
Joan Stewart, a media relations consultant and professional speaker and trainer, works with companies that want to use the media to establish their expertise, enhance their credibility and position themselves as the employer of choice. She also publishes The Publicity Hound, a bimonthly print newsletter featuring "tips, tricks and tools for free (or really cheap) publicity," as well as tips booklets on how to find and keep valuable employees.