PR Firm Growing Pains

Micro public relations firms are able to land new clients the same way many small businesses do -- by offering personalized service or specializing in niche products. But securing growth over the long-term takes different strategies.

Jamie Horwitz spent 23 years offering his public relations services as an employee of the American Federation of Teachers. About a year ago, he left to start prwrk, an Arlington, Va.-based communications firm.

"I started my own firm because it was hard, not because it was easy," said Horwitz, who is in his mid-forties. "It would have been easier to stay, but I wanted a challenge and I was afraid that if I didn't do it now, I wouldn't do it."

His firm has grown rapidly since its inception, thanks to the niche market it has targeted -- white-collar unions representing teachers, professors, federal judges, engineers and nurses.

"There's a lot of suspicion among our clients about larger firms," Horwitz said. "They think that if you walk in the door there with a checkbook, they'll do PR for you. ... The larger firms often use the language of business rather than the language of labor or nonprofits.

Horwitz, whose title is media consultant, had anticipated that he would have to heavily promote his firm to secure clients. But he has never had to do that, and business is "going like gangbusters," he said.

Sometimes the best way to build a client roster is to network through programs and organizations serving the business community.

Laura Van Eperen's 5-person firm, Van Eperen Public Relations in Rockville, Md., reaches out for new clients through Maryland's incubator system. Incubators, which allow small businesses to share office space and resources, often invite experts like PR managers to their sites to offer "advice on how to toot your own horn," said Van Eperen.

Like many small PR firms, Van Eperen also has worked to establish good relations with local chambers of commerce. Her group has worked with economic development organizations to offer seminars such as "Creating Synergies between Your Advocacy and Communications Departments."

The seminars are open to the public. Initially, the firm offered them for free, but found that people would register and not show up. Now, Van Eperen PR charges $25 to attend and has found that attendance increased as "people with a little more skin in the game tend to show up," said Van Eperen.

Horwitz sees only advantages to running a small shop: "A boutique firm can deal with your specialty, and you can tap into someone who has years of experience to talk about your issue."

"If you've got a product launch on four continents, then definitely go with some larger firm or mega-national enterprise," said Horwitz. "But for most people, when they need to talk to someone, sometimes good things do come in small packages."

Summary: There are a lot of public relations firms, especially in the D.C. area. But smaller firms can make themselves stand out by offering expertise in a niche area. Prwrk of Arlington, Va., specializes in services for whilte-collar unions representing professionals such as engineers, nurses and judges. Additionally, small PR firms can secure clients by networking through economic development groups and other local organizations.

By Sharon McLoone |  August 21, 2007; 7:30 AM ET Tools and Tips
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