No magic formula exist for getting stories about your company into the press, but it is easier if you follow a few simple rules. Steve Manton provides an insight into the spin-doctor's art....

How valuable is PR compared to advertising? In the US, the barometer of marketing trends, major firms seem to

be diverting funds from mainstream advertising into PR. Certainly PR can be more cost-effective, allowing for corporate messages to be broadcast more frequently and implying third-party endorsement through editorial mention.

There is a mystique about PR, but, as with most activities for business success, it relies on thorough planning and preparation, a little research and lots of application and perseverance.

The main requirement is to ensure your activity is part of a sustained programme. In this area, familiarity breeds success.

Think about how you will handle PR with internal resources. The first thing is to define your target audience and hence your target media. Whom do you want to reach? Consumers, current and potential employees, businesses in vertical market sectors, a general business audience? Which publications, broadcasters and regional news agencies serve them? Draw up a list.

The next thing is consider the media's needs. You can source magazines' forward-features lists through their advertising departments. And don't be afraid to call the editorial desk, introduce yourself and ask if there are any plans to cover insurance issues in the near future.

Remember, all corporate visibility can build brand awareness among customers and employees. So take every opportunity to publicise community involvement. If you're handing over a cheque to charity, call the local paper's picture desk, or submit one yourself with a suitable caption (if possible, use a professional photographer). In all PR activity, the cliché holds true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

In submitting material, the number one priority is to remember that all media operate to tight deadlines. Research editorial schedules to discover the optimum time to have your story land on the journalists' desks.

Writing for the media is a skill that improves with practice. Success depends on finding an “angle” – an interesting or even contentious way of presenting your event or opinion. Remember that journalists are bombarded with material and you are competing for attention. So your story must be summarised in the first two paragraphs, detailing the answers to four key questions: who, what, when and where?

Always give contact information at the foot of your material and do make sure your contact is available to take press calls. Otherwise, your story won't appear and you'll annoy a potentially influential contact.

If you say you will ring back always do so, and take the time to prepare beforehand. Work out what it is you wish to get across rather than merely respond to the journalists' agenda.

Increasingly, journalists are refusing to countenance “off the record” discussions. My advice is that until you have established a relationship of trust with a specific journalist (not just the publication), don't mention anything that you would not be happy to see in print or to be broadcast.

If you're asked to contribute feature material, try to develop a writing style that uses as few words as possible to explain your point.

Three golden rules of PR will increase your chances of making it work for you.

Firstly, don't be discouraged if what you regard as a good story doesn't make it into your targeted publication. Professional magazines can receive more than 100 press releases every day and you will be competing with professional PR outlets for their attention. Simply plug away. PR can be like a dripping tap and it might be the third story you try to place that generates the coverage you are seeking.

Secondly, be tolerant. Few journalists are out to do you down, but they frequently operate under intense pressure and mistakes happen. If it's your story that gets mangled, or your quote that goes missing, be philosophical about it and try to turn the situation to your advantage. A short note pointing out the error and offering help on a future occasion will pay far greater dividends than a demand to the editor for a correction. Never forget that today's junior reporter on a trade publication could easily be tomorrow's business correspondent on a national broadsheet. PR is a long-term game.

Finally, it is essential that you dovetail your PR programme with all the other elements of your marketing activity and involve all the members of your executive team.

It is all too easy, especially for owner-managers, to go off on a personal ego trip. PR can be a powerful business tool, but resources expended in this area should always be measured against your marketing and overall business objectives.

  • Steve Manton is a Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He is managing director of specialist insurance marketing, PR and creative agency M Consulting.