You may have heard the term public relations, or PR; you may even know that many of the "stars" have publicists that control their PR. It has been said that any PR is good PR, but what exactly is PR and how can you use it to your advantage? The University of Phoenix textbook "The Practice of Public Relations" defines PR as the practice of doing the right thing – of performing and communicating the substance of that performance. I don't really like that definition, it's too academic. Wikipedia defines PR as a field concerned with maintaining public image for high-profile people, commercial businesses and organizations, non-profit associations or programs. I think we can simplify it even more; let's just say that PR is more like free advertising.

Now that isn't an entirely accurate statement, because it really isn't advertising, but it's a good way to think about it. Advertising is paid messaging and placement. With advertising you control when and where it appears. With PR, the editor controls when and where your press release appears.

There are different types of PR.There are press releases where you craft a message about something your company has done or is doing. There are public relations stories where you write a public service announcement that positions your company as the expert in your field, and then there's the interactive social media PR that provides interesting information about your company along with links to video or brochures, etc.

Which form of PR you use depends on your budget and what you want to accomplish. But wait a minute, I said the "b-word" and I also said PR was free, so why am I saying you have to pay? The part you have to understand is that PR placement is free; trade editors hate having white space in their publications. You can save money by writing your own press releases, but you know how you feel about do-it-yourselfers. You can apply the same advice to contractors who want to have a PR program. It's simply better to hire a professional and in the end, it will save you money.

PR gets you a cost effective way to tell your story. No one can tell your story better than you can, and this is an excellent way to get your message out. Many companies issue weekly or monthly press releases, and then distribute them to their local newspapers, TV and radio stations, and local trade publications. Many companies also put them on their company website and some release them to Google and other search engines as well.

There are free press release sites on the Internet such as www.fastpitchnetworking.com that allow you to publish your press releases. They also offer promotional packages that allow you to target local newspapers, radio & TV stations as well as an Internet blast to search engines like Google and Yahoo. Another good site is www.free-press-release.com/; you can find more by Googling "free press release distributions sites."

Some manufacturers have targeted PR programs and use syndicators like the North American Precis Syndicate (NAPS) and PR Newswire to release stories each season. These stories typical talk about how people can save money by doing certain actions and then position the manufacturer as experts in the field and by pointing out how their products can save customers money. The manufacturer contracts for an agreed number of stories for each season, a PR agency writes the stories with the help of the manufacturer, and the agency releases the stories through the syndicators' proprietary networks where member editors can search databases for a desired topic, find a story, and run it in their publication.

What's great about these articles are that the stories are timeless and some manufacturers will allow dealers to reuse those stories in their local market (substituting the dealers name for the manufacturers name), these stories can provide the manufacturer with as much as a 16 to 1 return on investment. The manufacturers pay an agency to write the stories and track the results, so for a small investment to have an agency manage the process, the manufacturer gets a substantial return on that investment. If you can use these stories to position your company as the local expert, think of the return on investment you can receive.

Remember that the goal of PR is to position your company as the local expert in your field. When I was director of marketing at a previous employer, we allowed dealers to reuse those stories. The dealers were given permission to remove the manufacturer’s information and replace it with the dealer's information thus positioning them as the local expert. Dealers who took advantage of this program were able to generate increased awareness and business in their markets. If you can do this consistently, you will become the go-to company in your market.

If you're not taking advantage of the benefits of PR you're missing a great opportunity to get your messages out to potential customers, investors, suppliers, employees, and any other stakeholder. In the next newsletter, we'll go into more details on how to write your press release and we'll talk about how you can get these press releases in print.

Andy Fracica is president and CEO of Fracica Enterprises, Inc. He brings over 30 years of sales, marketing, technical training, and product management experience in the heating ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) industry. He concentrates on helping manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and startup companies find their voice in an ever increasingly crowded market place. He can be reached at andy@fracicaenterprises.com.