When most people think of PR, they think it's all about sending out press releases—to as many media outlets as possible—in the hopes that an editor will bite.

That is one aspect of PR. And it's the most commonly practiced. But it's not necessarily the most strategic approach. Particularly for those who don't have a product to push, but do want to get across a way of thinking or the thought leadership that differentiates them, a more effective approach is to position that expertise via bylined articles.

Think about it: an article that's written under your name and is 100% the message you want to communicate. It's not an ad (and so should be written in an informational manner) and appears in the editorial pages of a publication you've targeted because its readers constitute your buying audience.

Between the extent of the message, which you're largely controlling, and the third-party endorsement value of the editorial coverage, you've got a PR tool of substantial value.

To tap into the power of the bylined article to help build your credibility and reputation, you need to understand the five Ws.

WHAT They Are

The most fundamental lesson is what byliners are. They are articles written under your name—or, in journalism parlance, your byline. Such articles are a vehicle for you to flex your industry-knowledge muscles. The material in the bylined articles should be presented in a way that demonstrates discreetly what makes you an expert in your particular field. Three of the most common types are Op-Ed contributions, trend articles, and "how-to" pieces.

Op-Ed Pieces

An op-ed is so named because it appears "opposite" the "editorial" page. Editorials are publications' official stance on issues affecting the industries they cover; op-ed pieces similarly position the author's point of view on an issue or trend. Strong opinions matter.

We have helped craft various op-ed articles for one of our clients, a consultancy specializing in brand and business strategy. One of our targeted publications for this client is BrandWeek, which accepts contributed op-ed pieces by its readers. We worked with one of this client's partners in creating a response to H.J. Heinz's discontinuation of flavored and blue-colored French fries.

In "Green Ketchup Works, but Not on Blue Fries," he argued that the intent to "stretch" its Ore-Ida brand was strategically well-grounded, explaining why it behooves companies to understand how far their brands will stretch to help drive better business results.

The article added to the consultant's reputation for his thinking on brand issues and also created a strong link between brand strategies and business results—a key underpinning to his firm's mission.

Trend Articles

A trend article, logically, discusses a current or burgeoning trend that has the potential to affect either the public or a specified field. It's generally more informational and less opinionated than an op-ed piece.

One of our clients, a book publisher, retained our firm to create a variety of trend-oriented bylined articles for three of its authors as a means of supporting book sales over the longer term. One author's book revolved around the current state of the practice of marketing.

Our aim was to develop several articles based off its contents that discussed current trends and issues—from the challenge of breaking out of the marketing silo to deficiencies in the planning process. These were created for a management journal and several leading marketing publications, and they further solidified the author's position as a leading authority on marketing, branding and management issues and trends.

How-to Pieces

A third type of bylined article is the how-to piece. Two of our publishing clients' authors wrote books on how to achieve sales improvement that were ideally suited to this type of bylined article approach. We created several dozen articles, based on each book's contents, for each author; they appeared in publications catering to sales professionals, including many that were industry-specific (e.g., real estate, insurance). These placements not only spurred further sales but also increased awareness of the authors among those in a wider sphere of influence.

WHO They Are Appropriate for

Anyone who aims to be positioned as an expert in his or her field can use this approach. It's a successful strategy for various types of consultants. Authors, who by inference are "experts," are great candidates, particularly since they can borrow against their book content for subject matter.

But we've also used this approach with more esoteric clients, such as the innovative owner of a plastics molding firm whose message revolved around the benefits of finding uses for recycled plastics.

Although most publications we've worked with eschew bylined articles submitted by vendors (such as software firms) because of their tendency to "sell" rather than inform, we also have had success in this space by positioning clients on general industry issues and solutions rather than their own, specific solutions.

WHY They Are Important

As our examples illustrate, bylined articles are an excellent way to showcase the knowledge and expertise that make you stand out in your field. Editors who accept your article idea see you as someone with expertise who has something important to say. Readers will see you in the same vein. The fact that the publication thinks enough about your message to run it on the editorial side (without having you pay for the privilege) enhances the value of your article.

Developing a well-written article is challenging, but it is worth your while. While articles help you showcase your thinking, they also give you greater exposure to a targeted audience. And, since you are the one creating the article, you have far more control over your message. And the content is also far more extensive than a single quote in an article written by a reporter. Another benefit is the implied third-party endorsement value of editorial-side coverage.

Another consideration is its longer-term power as a marketing tool. Once you secure the appropriate reprint permissions (for hard copy and PDF versions), the article can be incorporated into your marketing program and posted on your Web site for visitors to browse, emailed to prospects and friends or used as part of your presentation materials.

WHERE They Are Accepted

Most publications accept some form of bylined article. Many major dailies accept op-ed pieces, particularly by well-known authorities (academics or authors, for example).

Other media outlets, like the professional or trade press, often solicit informational or instructional bylined articles, and opinion pieces as well—and often depend on outside contributions because they don't have a wealth of staff.

Professional and trade publications are also an excellent option because they allow you to target the specific readers who constitute your buying audiences. The primary buyer of our brand and business-consulting client's services, for example, is the chief marketing officer. Thus, we have developed good relationships with the majority of the marketing trades and journals, where our client's bylined articles appear with regularity.

WHEN They Are Appropriate

Bylined articles are almost always appropriate—depending on your targeted venue.

Certain types of instructional pieces will always find a home, particularly if they are rounded out with current examples and a perspective that might advance what's already been written on the topic. (It helps, by the way, to research your targeted media market before writing your piece to make sure your topic hasn't been covered recently.)

For bylined articles that respond to a current issue or trend, however, timeliness is critical. Stay abreast of developing news, both generally and in your industry, to help you begin thinking about what's topical and what insights you could provide to shed light on an issue or add to the analysis that is taking place.

The use of bylined articles as a public relations approach is increasing in acceptance as a more strategic tactic that helps build a brand over the long term.

It takes time to put this sort of program in place—from targeting and positioning appropriate media markets to devising storylines that will sell to incorporating the outcomes into the overall integrated marketing program. Yet the return on investment will prove this out as a viable adjunct to the more commonly practiced forms of public relations.

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Sally Saville Hodge is president of Hodge Communications, Inc. (www.hodgecommunications.com), a strategic PR and marketing communications firm in Chicago. She can be reached at shodge@hodgecommunications.com.