How to get free Publicity

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but you can with a little effort and planning get free publicity for your business.


When we talk to small businesses one of the key issues that comes up is the need to get more customers. Often the service or product has been well thought out, but finding customers has been left much to chance and there is little money available for expensive advertising.

So what can you do? Every day journalists have to fill page upon page of newspapers, magazines and even websites in order to earn their living. If you are able to give them something interesting to write about, they will gladly put your story into print.

The important word here is "interesting". What that is will vary depending on the market that the journalist is writing for, but almost certainly they won´t be interested in your latest product spec. This is where your creative side has to come into play. I´ve given some pointers below to get you started.

There are a few rules to follow in writing your publicity story and in how to find and contact journalists that will determine the success or otherwise of your efforts. Remember, although this way of getting the visibility to win prospective customers is free, it is costing your time, so it´s worth thinking about it and getting it right. You also don´t want to alienate the journalists that will be writing about you, through unprofessional conduct or sloppy writing.

There are of course entire books written on the subject of PR, however for a small business following just 5 simple steps could get you some free publicity and most importantly, get you noticed by customers.

1. Think of some thing to say...

Unless you are paying for a press release about your latest product or new service and hoping that a relevant trade journal will pick that up, to get free publicity it has to make the journalist believe that his readers will want to read what he has written. Use your imagination; look at the sort of stories that do get published in the newspaper or magazine that you are aiming for.

Generally journalists look at stories as either "news" or "human interest/articles":

News Ideas:

  • A real scientific break through.
  • Expansion plans that mean more jobs.
  • A fascinating new product (only if it is fascinating and novel).
  • Take over of another company.
  • Latest survey/poll giving statistics of interest (you may have conducted your own survey to get this).
  • Awards or big orders won.

Articles (presenting yourself as an authority can get publicity for your company):

  • Industry or economy commentary.
  • Articles that explain concepts or give advice (like this one).

Human interest:

  • A story of how one of your customers used your product/service.
  • An unusual use of your product.
  • How your service saved someone´s life (okay that´s rare, but get the imagination flowing).
  • Animals that have benefited from your product/service (always of interest).
  • Locally, events you have supported and some stories of hardship eased, or fun that people have had.

2. Write the story...

Now there´s a bit of planning needed here. You can learn a lot by looking at how the type of stories published by your target journalist or newspaper are written.

Key points:

  • Follow the structure described below.
  • Put the most interesting things first.
  • Write in the "active voice" (if you´re not sure what that is, do a web search on the term).
  • Write in the third person (unless you are providing an authoritative article under your own name).
  • Use plain, clear, English (watch your grammar and spelling – typos are a no-no).
  • Use the 5 Ws to ensure you have included everything - Who, What, Where, When, Why



Heading – Brief, eye catching, captures the essence of the story. You don´t need to be overly clever, or adopt the style of a Sun newspaper headline, however the headline is going to be your first chance to gain their attention, so give it some thought. A length of less than 10 words is required.

Opening paragraph – This will contain all the "Ws" (you could however leave out the "Why" at this stage). It will be a short paragraph that can almost stand on it´s own and if a reader is in a hurry, could give a good sense of what has happened. Importantly, it is also your hook to make the reader want to carry on reading. Aim for a length of 2-3 lines.

Now is a good time to pick up a copy of any newspaper and look at how they have structured their stories. Notice how the first paragraph explains What has happened, to Who, Where it occurred and When. The rest of the story goes on to explain the detail.

Body of the story or press release – Here is where you will put all the detail of the story. Still keep it concise and make sure you don´t stray from the subject. The style is going to depend on your target publication and can be chatty or more factual, but remember to make it a logical progression of information.

Break the body up into suitable paragraphs and it can help to include a quote. This by itself breaks the story into more readable sections and allows opinions to be expressed. The quote may be by an authoritative or public figure on the subject, the person or people involved, or even yourself (if writing the rest of the article in the 3rd person).

Now how are the public going to be able to contact you? There are various ways, for instance you can build yourself or your company into the story itself (without making it obviously a sales pitch!), or you can add company details at the end of the story, which the editor may include (most suitable for magazines or business sections of papers).

One page is the longest you should aim for and ideally it should be a whole lot briefer than that. Again have a look at the length of story printed by your target publication.

3. Layout for sending to a journalist...

The journalist has to be able to read it quickly, know exactly where it starts and ends and who to contact for more information. If you don´t make it easy for the journalist, they will go on to another story.

Unusual, good quality photos that illustrate your subject can help, but I wouldn´t send any attachments with your first mail, since journalists may not want to risk opening it, instead ask if you can send a photo should they be interested.

When sending mails, plain text is best. That way it is quick for the journalist to read and they may not in any case have the right application to otherwise read it.

Leave plenty of space around the text and between the heading and the title, don´t make it cramped. When press releases were mainly sent by fax, it was accepted that double-spaced lines was the norm. In today´s emails that can be overkill, but keep it clear and clean looking. If you do send by hard copy, you may want to go back to using double-space and certainly leave generous (40mm) margins. You should use bold or capitals for the title (do not use all capitals for the main body!) and avoid underlining any words.

If it is a human-interest story for a local newspaper you will not need the official looking "For immediate release", or "Dateline", but still include all the rest. You can use a layout similar to this:


For further information:
[telephone + mobile]


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE              [Tells the journalist that they can use this copy now]

--------------- BEGINS ---------------     [This tells the journalist where your copy starts]

HEADLINE   [put your headline here in bold or capitals]

Dateline      [the date of the release]

Opening Paragraph         [2 - 3 lines]

Body of Text      [The main body of the story or press release arranged in short paragraphs]


########## ENDS ##########    [This tells the journalist where your copy ends]


NOTES FOR EDITORS    [This can be background on you, your company, or the industry that the Editor can use to understand the context of the story better] 


4. Finding the journalist...

You should aim to build up a list of potential journalists that you can send your story to. The easiest is to start with local newspapers or even local radio. They will always be willing to include you if your story is in any way interesting. They will not be willing to give free publicity unless there is some angle to your story that will appeal or be attractive to their audience and you will get just one shot, so do your preparation before hand (see points 1 & 2).

Buy the all local papers and note down the name of the journalists that cover the business part of the newspaper or a section that might print your story. Use the web to find out more about them and their interests. You can also find out more about which local radio presenter may be most suitable. Make sure that you are approaching people that write about, or present your subject.

Send a mail saying that you have something that may be of interest to their readers / listeners and give the outline of it. If you have put together the press release or story outlined above, then include that below your personal message to them. The key is to make it personal, since a generic mail will much more likely go the way of spam. Mention something they have written or presented to establish credibility as a local person able to contribute to their media.

With National papers, magazines, trade journals or even television it is more difficult but can be done. Find a compelling, unusual angle to your story and it will stand a good chance. Even if it isn´t used the first week, as long as it isn´t too time critical, they may use it another week when there is a lack of content available.

Freelance journalist also shouldn´t be ignored and getting your story or press release around a number of them can see it popping up in all sorts of places.

Media directories such as PIMS UK, Willings Press Guide and Benns Media Directory can provide details of useful press contacts. They may be found in the local business reference library.

Always try and address your mail or contact to a specific named person. Occasionally this won´t be possible, but a mail to an individual stands a much better chance than to a generic "Dear Sir" or to a news desk department.

5. Timing and follow-up...

Journalists are always working to deadlines. You will get the best response if you can time it such that they receive your contact at a relatively less busy time. Just after the publication has gone to print is ideal since it is at this time that they may be thinking about their next story.

For weekly publications the day that they come out is a good indicator, but what about daily papers? These are likely to be more responsive earlier in the morning, since by the afternoon there is a rush to get everything ready for print. Bear in mind that monthly publications often need an entire months notice.

The bigger publications will have an editorial calendar. That is a list of dates during the year that certain topics or features are going to be covered. Although they use this to solicit related advertising at that time, you can use this to contact journalists with a suitable story on that subject which they may use. Just ring up the publication and ask for it.

There are times during the year, such as August and December when there is not much news. You may get more interest if you have an useful story that can fill the gap at these times.

You should where possible follow-up on your initial contact and if you haven´t heard anything check whether what you sent was of interest. It may remind them of your story, or they may tell you the name of a journalist that is more suited for your topic.

Journalists are not all the hard-nosed editors you see on television shows. Follow-up can be fairly easy and informal, as long as you observe a few points.

  • Chose the right time, when they are likely not to be rushing to meet a deadline.
  • Be polite and don´t go into a long sales mode.
  • You are just checking if it was of interest and if so whether you can add anything to it, or even provide a photo.
  • Ask at the start if they have a minute and if not when it may be best to ring back.
  • Should they not be interested, don´t feel bad and don´t try the hard sell. You don´t want to alienate them and they may yet print it in an entirely different publication, or at another time.

With a bit of planning, some imagination and persistence you can get free publicity and you will get your business known to your marketplace. You can even start a press cuttings book to impress your customers.

If it all gets too much there are now-a-days quite affordable PR companies that will only do as much as you want them to do, if you send Company Partners a mail, we´ve got the names of a few we could recommend.

Additional resources:

UK and Worldwide English Newspaper web sites