public relations can be cost effective because the media—rather than the marketer—takes on the expense of delivering the information to the intended recipient. So instead of sending a direct mail piece to 100,000 prospects, the marketer can publish an article in a magazine that is delivered to these same prospects at the much lower cost of creating the article and convincing the publication to run it.

Obviously, many companies that have products to sell compete for the limited space in these media outlets. Those that are able to obtain more than their share of this valuable real estate have a tremendous competitive advantage, and sometimes a decisive advantage if competitors are closely matched in other areas.

Just as understanding the requirements of your market is important in selling a product or service, understanding the needs of the relevant media is critical in a successful public relations effort.

Reliance on Contributed Material

The most important differentiating factor among media is the amount of editorial matter they generate themselves versus that which is contributed by outside experts. Typically, publications that target a very large audience (newspapers, national business publications and the largest trade journals) generate most of all of their own editorial material.

For example, the editorial staff of Information Week, which covers the entire enterprise information technology industry, creates nearly the entire magazine. The critical factor in success in working with such publications is your ability to keep in close contact with the editors and generate topics of interest for them to write about. The best way to reach these publications and stay in continual contact with them is to either hire a full time public relations staff or contract with an agency.

On the other hand, the vast majority of trade journals specialize in narrower fields that do not generate enough circulation or advertising revenue to support a large editorial staff. These publications by necessity rely on outside companies to provide a large proportion of their editorial material.

Although these publications are willing to publish material submitted by interested parties, they are typically highly selective regarding the type of material they publish. So, success is determined, first and foremost, by your ability to produce often quite technical yet clearly written articles. Another important success factor is to stay in touch with the publications to determine what subjects they are interested in at that particular time.

Reliance on in-House Editorial

These publications and online media require a different mix of public relations efforts. Conventional public relations agencies typically do not have the necessarily skills to reach them, because they often lack the technical writing skills that are most in demand by these publications.

Another drawback of traditional public relations agencies is that they typically require a substantial retainer (often ranging into five figures per month) for a substantial period of commitment. This retainer limits the flexibility of the marketer in responding to ebbs and flows in the public relations workload.

Several other types of public relations suppliers have stepped in to fill this void. One type is freelancers, with technical knowledge in a specific industry. Often former magazine editors, they can provide knowledge in producing articles in a specific technological area. Freelancers, on the other hand, are typically individual operators who handle only the writing and not the associated tasks of working with editors to place the articles, working with information sources on approvals, obtaining illustrations and so on.

Another option is the emergence of a new breed of project-oriented public relations provider that combines technical expertise in providing contributed articles in a range of technical fields, along with a staff that can fulfill the ancillary tasks required to bring an article to publication. Project-based agencies are typically paid only for work completed, such as an article written. They often charge only for success in their placement efforts.

Matching Material to Outlet

The next step is to look at the mix of contributed articles that you are producing.

There are two major types of contributed articles: Case histories, also know as success stories or customer stories, feature a real customer talking about how your product solved a real problem; thought-leadership articles, also known bylined articles or sometimes white papers, appear under the name of your company's executives and technical staff.

Most technical publications publish both types, but each publication has its own specific editorial mix. For example, some publications focus the great majority of their editorial coverage on either case histories or thought-leadership articles. Other publications write most of their own thought-leadership articles but publish many externally written case histories.

To get the best and fastest placements for your articles, it's important to know the editorial mix of the publications that you are targeting. For example, several of the leading publications in the chemical industry—Chemical Engineering, Chemical Engineering Progress, and Hydrocarbon Processing—use many externally written thought-leadership articles but no externally written case studies. On the other hand, Chemical Processing, another leading publication in this field, accepts many externally written case histories. Knowing these distinctions is important in choosing among various article topics.

Product Publicity Opportunities

It's also important to stay on top of opportunities in product publicity, which typically requires less-specialized technical writing skills. In-house staff members, even those who do not specialize in public relations, often write these releases. Public relations agencies, freelance writers and project-based agencies write them, too.

Most print and online publications are short-staffed and first priority is given to feature articles, so there is very little time left for editing product announcements. Thus, first priority is generally given to announcements that have been written in such a way that they can fit right into the publication, with little or no editing. An equally effective way of increasing the publication rate is to unobtrusively follow up with key editors to be sure that they received the release, to otherwise bring it to their attention and to ensure they have all the information they need and so on.

Public relations offers the most credibility and best bang for the buck of any marketing communications vehicle. For just that reason, there's a huge amount of competition to get space in media that reach major buyers.

To maximize your return on your public relations investment, be sure that your effort fits the operating practices of the media you are trying to reach.

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Jerry Fireman ( is president of Structured Information (, a company that provides marketing communications services on a project basis.