Extra Edition / Business Management

Free Advertising: Promoting With Publicity

March 6, 2003
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Adams Hudson
You’ve heard these common terms before — publicity, public relations, and press releases. But you may not know the difference. It’s simple, really. Publicity is what you want. Public relations is the organized process to seek free publicity. Press releases are one of the most common tools used in this effort.

Advertising, of course, is the most direct way to promote your company. You control when it runs, where it runs, and what it says. In newspaper advertising, for instance, you select the size and placement of the ad through your contracting process. You also have the “sign-off” authority on ad content.

The beauty of advertising is that you’re in the driver’s seat. That also means you bought the car.

If you want to stretch your advertising dollars as far as possible, publicity is the way to catch a “free ride.” Free publicity can’t replace direct-response advertising as a way to generate leads. But it can increase your company’s name recognition and remind your customers of your existence. It also helps with “top of mind awareness.”

My friend and publicity expert, Tom Peric, has helped me innumerable times in publicity. He has been on the other side of the editorial desk and knows what editors like, love, or want to set afire. His insight is largely responsible for any success I may have had in gaining publicity.

Publicity builds credibility in a way that’s beyond the scope of advertising. It puts your message of professionalism and quality service in the hands of an independent authority figure, such as a newspaper reporter. It has been calculated that publicity is worth three times the cost of what the ad space would cost you in sheer credibility.

The trouble with publicity as a promotional tool is that many people think that, since it’s free, it doesn’t take any work. Actually, it does. Generating publicity requires a plan and procedure just like any other mission that must be accomplished. However, there are common methods and established traditions that are simple to duplicate once you know what they are. In this section, I’ll go over some of the public relations methods you can use to draw attention to your company — for free.

Press Releases

As the name implies, you use a press release in order to release information to newspapers, newsletters, and magazines. Releases are the news and announcements that you want the world to know about. They are intended to inform, not to sell or advertise. If a release is strictly promotional, it will be tossed with other junk mail. Use your press release to solve a problem or fill a need. Write the release for the benefit of the reader.

However — and this is really important — your informative release positions you and your company as a voice of authority, thus implying credibility and merchant worthiness. It is invaluable in terms of its ability to attract the best kind of prospects for future business.

Press releases can cover a variety of subjects. In the case of HVAC companies, releases most often come from a few general categories: company news, industry news, safety issues, and weather/seasonal changes.

Company news is the easiest part. Most major daily newspapers have business sections in their newspapers that allow companies to announce new hires. When you hire a new salesman, technician, or office worker, make that announcement by sending a press release to your local paper’s business editor. Include a photo and you significantly increase the chances of being published.

You can also send announcements about office expansion or relocation, increased services, company mergers and acquisitions — any news from your company that you want to let the public know.

The other three categories I mentioned — industry news, safety issues, and weather/seasonal changes — may overlap. Safety and seasonal changes may tie together for an opportunity to let the public know that annual furnace inspections can help prevent house fires or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Industry news about indoor air pollution can give you a chance to discuss ways that the public can protect their indoor home environment. Anything on IAQ that helps allergy sufferers find relief may be printed during the height of allergy season.

Industry-related releases depend on your insight and experience as an HVAC professional. You are using your expertise to provide a valuable service to the public. You are giving them important information that can help improve their home’s safety, reduce their energy costs, or protect the environment. This is news, plain and simple, and editors want news.

Being successful with such “timely” issues as these begins with your awareness. You must be paying attention to opportunities to serve. When the weather starts to change, that should trigger you to give the public some useful information. When you hear an industry announcement, that’s another trigger to serve the public.

Style And Format

Press releases have a certain look. They follow a standard format and include the same basic elements.

First, use your letterhead to give your release the authority of a “company announcement.” Then make sure it’s clear who in the company is sending the release and who needs to be contacted if more information is needed. Put your name, title, and phone number — even your e-mail address — beneath the letterhead information.

Next, the phrase “For Immediate Release” should appear at the top of the page, flush left, under your contact information.

Leave one or two blank lines, and then write your headline in bold. Use a strong headline that makes it clear why this information is important. Skip a line, then add a “dateline” that gives your location (city and state) and the date of your release. A long dash usually separates the dateline and lead paragraph.

The first paragraph is crucial. You need to grab the reader’s attention, and you also need to make sure it includes the essential “who, what, when, where, and how” information. Fully explain your message in the paragraphs that follow.

Perhaps 2/3 to 3/4 of the way into your release, attempt to squeeze in a “soft sell” approach that tells the reader you can solve this particular problem for them.

Briefly, include something like, “Mr. Furnace added, ‘No matter who you use for service, make sure you get a carbon monoxide check.’ He noted that his company is giving Baytown homeowners a free carbon monoxide inspection with seasonal checkups.”

See? This is a very soft sell, positioning you as the good guy, and displaying your ability to solve the problem without screaming at them. Your release will not be printed unless you adhere to information and news above company bragging and sales. In fact, any blatant sales attempt will likely get your entire release thrown out, even if the rest of it is great.

Use the last paragraph to solidify your company’s credentials. Tell your location and years in business and include information about the kinds of products or services you provide.

For samples of press releases that you can use for your HVAC business, see “Sidebar: Press Release Templates” below. Simply copy the templates and fill in the blanks with your own information to begin generating publicity for your company.

Press Release Distribution

Now that you’ve written your release and are ready to send your helpful information out to the world, there are still a few general guidelines to follow. First, send your releases only when you have something worth saying.

Sending lots and lots of releases won’t increase your chances of publication if they aren’t any good. If an editor begins to notice that the releases you send have little or no value, the editor will start to ignore your releases.

But don’t be discouraged by the fact that editors don’t want to waste their time — who does? Remember that the purpose of the media organization is to provide helpful, interesting information for their audience. If your release will help them do that, they will use it.

If you know the name of the reporter or editor, you can address the press release to that specific person. If you don’t, address it to the appropriate title. The general rule for titles in most media organizations is as follows:

  • Daily newspapers: City Editor (or Business Editor if it’s company news)

  • Weekly newspaper: Editor

  • Magazines: Editor

  • Radio Stations: News Director

  • Television Stations: News Director

    Once you’ve sent the release, resist the temptation to follow up. You will annoy most editors by calling to see if they got your press release.

    Sidebar: Press Release Templates

    The following templates cover three common press releases that HVAC contractors can distribute.

    New Hire Releases
    Most daily newspapers publish announcements of employee hires and promotions in sections that focus on business news. The editors look for simple facts:

  • The employee being hired/promoted;

  • The position to be held;

  • The name of the company;

  • The employee’s education or work background;

  • General information about the company; and

  • A photo of the employee (which will help get it printed).

    Space is always tight in newspapers, so editors appreciate the short-and-sweet approach.

    “Time Change” Releases
    If you want to time your press releases for the “news of the day,” you’ll have two consistent opportunities every year — going on or off Daylight Savings Time.

    For years, home safety advocates have used “time change” weekends as a means to remind people to check the batteries in their smoke alarms. Contractors can tie into this opportunity for a “home safety checkup” by reminding people to check the safety features of their air conditioning and heating system, before the heavy-use seasons kick in.

    Energy Savings Releases
    During heavy-use winter and summer months, send press releases offering energy saving tips. Articles of this kind run almost every year. Give yourself a chance to be quoted on a topic that matters to everyone who receives a utility bill.

    Remember, when formatting your release, start with your company letterhead, give the name of a person to call if the editor needs to confirm information, and make sure you double-space the release itself.

    Copying The Press Release Templates
    The following press release templates can be freely copied and used for your publicity purposes. Copy the template into your word processing program and insert your name, company name, etc., as indicated in the template, to create your own press release. Then simply send it out to your local media.

    To copy one of the following templates using your PC, use the copy and paste functions as follows: Move your mouse to the first line of the selected press release template, left click, and while holding the button down, move the mouse down to highlight all the lines you want to copy, then release the button. Now click on "Edit" on the main menu at the top, then click on "Copy." Open your word processing program, such as Word. Click on "Edit" on the main menu at the top, then click on "Paste" to insert the template into your word processor. You can now personalize the press release template for your company.

    --------------------------------------------------

    New Hire Template

    Your Company Letterhead

    Contact: (Name of person media can call to confirm information) (Telephone number)

    For Immediate Release:

    (Name Of Company) Hires New Associate

    (Name of company) is pleased to announce that (name of person) has been appointed to the position of (name of position). (Mr./Ms. Name) has (number) years of experience in (state the person’s experience). (He/she) will be responsible for (state the person’s responsibility).

    “We’re happy to have (Name) join us,” said (Owner), “because it’s getting harder to hire quality (position) these days. We’ve looked long and hard to fill this spot and are super pleased.”

    (Name) joins the staff at (company) which has specialized in providing quality heating and air conditioning installation and service for the last (number) years.

    # # #

    --------------------------------------------------

    Home Safety Template — Fall

    Your Company Letterhead

    Contact: (Name of person media can call to confirm information) (Telephone number)

    For Immediate Release:

    “Time Change” Is A Good Time To Prepare Your Home For Winter

    Fall back! This month’s change from Daylight Savings Time is a great time to get your home ready for the colder weather issues that increase safety and energy concerns.

    “Taking a look at your furnace before you have to depend on it every day is the best way to make sure it’s ready for heavy use,” (your name) of (your company) said, adding, “You wouldn’t go on a long trip in a car you hadn’t driven for six months without an inspection.”

    A seasonal tuneup reduces the chances of a mid-winter breakdown, (your name) said, and it can save energy dollars all winter long.

    “A furnace is your best friend in the winter, but it can also be your worst enemy if it’s leaking carbon monoxide,” (your name) said. Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless, and poisonous gas that can be produced by a faulty heater. This killer often goes undetected and generally kills victims who are sleeping.

    During a pre-season tuneup, (your name) said, qualified heating and air conditioner contractors will be able to test your system for carbon monoxide. In fact, (name of company) is offering free CO tests with pre-season tuneups. Call (your phone number) for more information.

    ###

    --------------------------------------------------

    Home Safety Template — Spring

    Your Company Letterhead

    Contact: (Name of person media can call to confirm information) (Telephone number)

    For Immediate Release:

    “Time Change” Marks Good Time To Test Home Indoor Air Quality

    This month’s change to Daylight Savings Time is a good time to check for indoor air contaminants that may have been multiplying all winter in your cooling system.

    According to one local contractor, poor indoor air quality is a factor of modern times — developing from tighter, more energy efficient building construction. “Airtight houses are great for keeping energy bills down,” (your name) of (your company) said. “But they can also trap dirty, allergy-triggering contaminants that are spewed out when the air conditioner is first turned on.”

    Common molds and other contaminants can bring on allergies, asthma, sinus infections, headaches, coughing, and eye and throat irritations.

    “Air circulation helps reduce mold contamination,” (your name) said. “That’s also why air conditioning systems that have been shut down for months can become breeding grounds for mold.”

    Before launching into full summertime use, (your name) recommends having your air conditioning system checked by a qualified air conditioning and heating contractor. A pre-season tuneup can help clear the air of mold growth, and it can also improve your system’s energy efficiency — an important point when summer utility bills start pouring in. Call (your phone number) for more information.

    ###

    Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink. He can be reached at 800-489-9099, 334-262-1115 (fax), or visit www.hudsonink.com.

    Publication date: 03/10/2003

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