Using Public Relations To Gain More Customers

5 November 1999
You've just spent umpteen thousands of dollars setting up your site, advertising is costing more than you ever expected and now someone says you need to develop a public relations plan. Right about now, you're probably saying, "No way, money doesn't grow on trees!" But, pause to consider just what public relations is and how valuable an asset it can be for your company.

"It's much more than writing a good news release and building a targeted media list. It also involves internal communications, investor relations, government relations, crisis communications, marketing communications, grass roots organization, litigation support research and much more," said Thom Gross of Fleishman-Hillard, Inc. ( in St. Louis.

"It's perception management," adds Hank Walshak of Walshak Communications, Inc. (, a PR firm based in Bethel Park, PA.

What can public relations accomplish for your business? Walshak considers it to be an aspect of your business plan.

He outlines the following steps for developing a public relations plan:

  1. Audience - determine whom you're are trying to reach.
  2. Profile - what is the demographic make up of your audience, who are your audience members?
  3. Develop your message - determine what your business needs to have happen and what your customers need to have happen. In your case, you might ask "What's the experience going to be for players who enter my site?"
  4. Choose media - when you have news to tell, such as product development (relating back to your business plan), how do you get the information to the right audience?
    1. First, ask yourself if the news is significant to your audience. If not, there's no need to publish the information.
    2. When you do have valuable information to send out, think in headlines. The information that catches quick notice is most successful.
    3. Teasers - you can build anticipation for a new product or service on your site with the use of teasers, "coming soon, a new way to win big money!" or similar hype.
    4. Determine the budget. You need to know ahead of time how much money you are willing or can afford to spend.
    5. Determine the success of your plan. Measure whether accomplished what you set out to do.

    Walshak also recommends using print media (listing your URL), writing a customer newsletter and working with your association to develop articles for various media. Just because your company name isn't the sole source or topic of an article doesn't negate the public relations value of an article. Just like the public relations companies that shared information for use in this article - even though they're not the focus, their name is used. Someone reading this article just might check out their website and follow up with a request for additional information. It's an opportunity to get free exposure in a publication they would never have thought to use. It's plain old-fashioned public relations.

    Putting together a public relations plan, writing press releases and coming up with public relations strategies can be a lot of work. For some companies, an outside public relations firm would be a better option. Sometimes, too, it helps to have a fresh perspective of your company and its needs. With that in mind, we've put together some information to help you find a public relations firm that will fit your needs and your budget.

    Obviously, you want to find a company that delivers what you need at a cost you find acceptable. Weeding out the big talkers and big spenders takes a little time and investigation. So, where do you begin your research?

    You can begin by looking around to see what agencies other companies use. Then call several of the firms' clients to get their take on the agency. Before meeting with an agency, you also need to look at what your needs are and what you want to accomplish through public relations.

    Some potential clients aren't really committed to using public relations or know what they want. "The client needs to demonstrate how serious they are," said Paul Hicks, Managing Director of the Worldwide Corporate Practice, Ogilvy PR Worldwide ( He looks for clients who have organized their research and needs. When making the final selection for an agency, he says "It also helps to have chemistry, to feel comfortable with the people, have meshing personalities."

    Hicks' suggestions for researching an agency include checking out the company web site, finding an agency that is sophisticated, requesting their credentials and see whether you can get referrals. Also, find out if they have a quick response time to clients' questions and what kind of reputation the company has. Look into their experience levels. Is it in your industry or easily translated for your needs. Ask who would be working on your account. Will it be a senior executive, a junior executive or someone else? Finally, how quickly can they get up to speed for your needs?

    Walshak suggest finding out the amount of money a firm charges and their level of experience. He cautions, "The bigger the company, the bigger the hourly rate." His other suggestions include interviewing the people who would actually be working on your account.

    Like Hicks, Walshak believes that a client needs to have a comfort level with the PR representative who is handling the account. Public relations agencies are a service business, so find out whether you can work with the account executive and whether their responses your questions and needs are acceptable.

    "An agency should be proactive, generate practical ideas. My clients want to look good," said Walshak. "I view my job as being Ed McMahon for Johnny Carson. McMahon made Johnny Carson look good, and that's what I do for my clients."

    Finally, he recommends discussing the accounting work. Will the agency keep track of your budget? Money issues are important in all relationships, even business ones. It's better to have everything ironed out ahead of time, rather than in the heat of battle.

    Determining your public relations budget is a large part of your pre-planning. Different agencies charge different rates. There is no set figure for a company to spend, so you need to look at your needs and how much your company can and is willing to spend. With that figure in mind, you can more easily discuss your goals and needs.

    Agencies usually bill clients in three different ways:

    1. Project Contract - it has set goals and elements, with a specific amount of money that has been budgeted.
    2. Fee basis - also called a "retainer account" in which a price is negotiated for per hour consultation or work. The annual budget is preset, and you are charged each month one-twelth of the budget. Be aware that any additional work other than originally contracted for will be an add-on charge. You should discuss the fees before having the work done.
    3. Hourly fee - Charged for hourly services, like a lawyer does. This is the least common method.

    Simone Valley, Vice President of Shadwick International ( adds some of her tips for finding public relations representation:

    • Look at the agency's overall business expertise. Does the agency understand your business and target market? Are they strong in this area?
    • Ask the agency, "Will you work with me in my budget?" Do they listen to what you want? Is the agency sensitive to your budget?
    • For companies needing international reach, does that agency have the connections? How strong are their connections? Different cultures have different values. The agency needs to understand how to deliver your message cross-culturally.

    When talking with an agency, she recommends having several approaches in mind on how you want to reach your goals. Public relations is unique to each client. Valley found that a candid conversation between client and agency is invaluable. Ask for several approaches to your goals that have different costs and benefits. Then you can choose which plan best fits your budget and needs.

    You can also research public relations agencies through industry associations and publications like the Public Relations Society of America ( and ODwyer PR ( Many agency sites have articles that address a variety of public relations issues. Some sites you might want to visit for general information or to find answers to particular questions include, and You can also contact universities and talk with communications or public relations instructors.

    Public relations can be an important part of letting your customers know who you are and who you're not. It's the tool used to shape your image. Many times, customers' perceptions of your company are just as important as your product. In a volatile and highly competitive industry like online gaming, your reputation can be the only thing that sets you apart from the crowd.

    This article is the first of a three-part series on public relations. Click on the links below view the other two articles:
    Part 2
    Part 3

Vicky Nolan joined the IGN staff in October 1999. She's best known for inventing fire, the wheel and swiss cheese. She can be reached at