STORY BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND
Free opportunities abound for boosting your business, but potential pitfalls await the unwary.
Everyone on Sanibel Island, FL, knows Lily & Co. Jewelers. And it’s not only because the business was named for a dog. According to Dan Schuyler, who co-owns the store with Karen Bell, public relations of one kind or another drives the entire business. Because they promote themselves (and Lily) as local celebrities, others see them that way, too.
“People say I am everywhere,” Schuyler says. “I am the face of the company, but when I go to Chamber of Commerce after-hours events, it’s not just me, it’s the whole staff and we are wearing the Lily & Co. T-shirts.”
Rebecca Hasson, former marketing director for Bernie Robbins Jewelers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, experienced the fast-changing PR landscape over the 10 years she spent with the company.
“Traditionally, your PR firm maintained your reputation and got you editorial placement,” she says. “Now, the first thing customers do before they shop is go online and read reviews. Every single person has a voice now.”
Traditional PR used to be one of the few ways — other than paid advertising — for a small business to get noticed. But increasingly, public relations means finding your own voice through traditional media channels, visibility in the community and social media.
“Today, there are so many ways that you can get noticed that do not require going through mainstream media,” says David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR. “You can create your own original content in the form of a blog, or images or videos. The whole world of public relations is open to us.”
The first step, according to Scott, is to ask yourself, “How do I best reach my potential customers?” Start with the idea of WHO you are trying to reach and then figure out how you can understand and reach them.
From an agency perspective, Lilian Raji of the Lilian Raji Agency in Atlanta says her role has grown to encompass a wide range of responsibilities.
“While I call myself a PR agent, I also do what is traditionally considered marketing,” she says. “I create a strategy based on what a client needs. That can be press outreach, it can be building relationships with consumers directly. Traditional PR focused exclusively on media relationships, but in this day and age, you can’t really do that. The consumer is making decisions about where and what to buy based on their own research.”
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in social media and online reviews, though, that you forget the basic people skills crucial to survival, says Schuyler. Although Schuyler takes on social media with as much enthusiasm as he does everything else, he doesn’t do it at the expense of traditional media channels or of building relationships offline.
“If you want to sit around and be a sad ass and do nothing, that’s your choice,” he says. “If you want to be a glad ass and get out in the community, your business will be successful.”
In a nutshell, PR, whether directed in-house or by an agency, should be both your bullhorn and your buffer. As author Ed Zitron writes in This is How You Pitch: How to Kick Ass in Your First Years of PR, you need both to get out the good news about your brand and to protect your reputation.
Kent Bagnall’s Kent Jewelry is in Rollo, MO, a county seat of about 20,000 with an influence area of about 50,000. Students at the Missouri University of Science and Technology make up a third of the population. The town is also 100 miles away from three metropolitan areas, putting them in the middle of nowhere (or everywhere), Bagnall says.
When Bagnall opened his store in 1990, he became active in the Chamber of Commerce, Ozark Actors Theatre, Rotary Club and other groups. He realized early on that the best response he had for his marketing dollar was the local radio network. He did live radio commercials on the popular radio show called “The Morning Mayors” on weekday mornings from 7 to 9 a.m.
“I would use my weekly three minute ‘ad-libs’ to talk about the current events in the community, theater, arts, chamber, sports, farmer’s market, and then mention that I had a jewelry store.” The spots grew from three to 10 minutes, and he sometimes has a free platform as well.
“One day I was asked to substitute for a vacationing ‘mayor’ and was used as a temp for about a month during an illness of one of the permanent hosts. Now I’m the go-to host when one of the regular ‘mayors’ is ill, on vacation or has another commitment.”
Al Louis of Designing Jewelers in La Cross, WI, trades banter once a week with the hosts of the lighthearted local “Lead Balloon Show” on AM radio. Its long-running holiday special is broadcast from the store, where the local rabbi sings Hanukkah songs and other performers deliver their own Christmas carols.
The time to prepare for a bad review is before you get one, Scott says. If you are regularly active and responsive on review sites, you can build a good reputation for customer service and create a following. “If you are reviewed on a particular review site where you have zero positive reviews and a negative review comes up, that can affect you. But if you have a lot of positive reviews and a single negative review comes up, I think that’s a good thing. It shows the reviews are real.”
“If you’ve done a good job online and somebody says something negative about you for whatever reason, others will come to your defense and say, ‘Oh, this person isn’t really like that,’ or ‘I love their products.’ That can only happen if you are already active on that social network.”
Fortunately, Lynelle Schmidt, digital marketing director for Long’s Jewelers in Burlington, MA, had taken the steps to build a positive following on social media before disaster struck in November 2015 when she watched Long’s almost perfect five-star review on its Facebook page plummet to below two stars — overnight. “I noticed that we had received over 100 fake one-star reviews from profiles that were clearly not real people. The reviews came all within a matter of minutes.”
She sought support from inbound.org, a respected online community. The website’s editor and top contributors determined the reviews came from a site called Fiverr, where reviewers can be hired to write fake comments for $5.
She decided to post a public message on Facebook, letting followers know what had occurred and asking for honest reviews to balance out the fakes. “We garnered hundreds of positive five-star reviews. We were able to take a negative experience and completely turn it around.”
Schmidt says the best thing to do in a similar situation is to take screenshots of the evidence, report the attack to the offending site, and also tap into your loyal customer base of followers and ask for help without asking for five-star ratings.
In 2015, Debbie Fox of Fox Fine Jewelry in Ventura, CA, teamed up with a local radio station to create a “Golden Lawn” contest to spread the word about water conservation. People who brought in a picture of their “golden” (rather than green) lawn were entered into a drawing for a $1,000 shopping spree at Fox, to be given away during an event featuring conservation vendors. Concurrently, the radio station ran a “Gold is the New Green” contest; people who posted signs in their yard and photos on Facebook qualified for prizes.
Fox has a history of attracting media attention by demonstrating a high-profile interest in the community. During the recession, unemployment in California had reached 10 percent in 2009 when Fox realized that a lot of locals wouldn’t be able to buy Valentine’s Day gifts.
Deciding to give away 100 sterling silver pendants to the unemployed, Fox contacted a reporter at the Ventura County Star, who published a brief announcement. Word spread quickly — first all over California and then all over the country.
“By the time I got to work, all of the networks had shown up,” she says, while the jobless lined up in front of her store for the necklaces, some driving several hours to get there. Beginning to realize the appeal, Fox contacted IJO and asked fellow members to join her. She gave away almost 200 before Valentine’s Day, while 46 IJO members also committed to giving away at least 100 necklaces each.
“If I had been giving out loaves of bread, it wouldn’t have been news,” Fox says. “It became a symbol for many people about what each of us could do. Jewelry sales is an area in which you really need to develop trust. People have said anyone who is giving away something for nothing is someone I can trust.”
Get to know local media representatives, says Lydia Baehr, a PR professional in Houston. “Remember, you can’t tell the media what you’d like them to say. The best thing to do is get to know them. If they can count on you to have a good story idea, they will get in touch with you.”
Becoming the jewelry authority in town has been a work in progress for Wattsson & Wattsson Jewelers in Marquette, MI. President Chris Wattsson sends out press releases about everything that happens at the store, big or small.
“Because our market is so small, the TV and print media are always on the lookout for stories that are positive and community-minded,” Wattsson says. “We’ve been able to get to know the reporters, which makes it easier to pitch story ideas.”
Wattsson’s tips for writing press releases:
1. Be yourself. Be real.
2. Make it easy for the reporters. Include quotes and photos in case they aren’t able to do an interview.
3. Include all the information, especially about events.
4. If you’re not sure if it’s news, ask, so it won’t be mistaken as an advertising pitch.
5. Follow up. If you say you can send additional information, do it, and do it quickly.
6. PR is not as scary as it seems.
And make the most of advertising partnerships to connect to editors. After Rex Solomon of Houston Jewelry had been advertising regularly with the Houston Chronicle daily newspaper, he asked his ad rep to arrange a meeting with editors and reporters in the style and business departments. He let them know he could be a resource for information about shopping trends, retail, jewelry, crafted precious metals (gold buying), and the store’s free education exhibit of life-size replicas of the crown jewels.
HOW TO REBOUND FROM PR DISASTER
In 2008, when the bank seized David Nygaard’s home, his seven jewelry stores in Virginia and all of his inventory, he experienced what he describes as a public disgrace.
Running a multi-million dollar business with multiple locations meant he was a public figure in his market and his financial troubles attracted attention. But because he was well-regarded in his community, his fall from grace wasn’t as debilitating as it might have been. “Because we did a lot of charitable work in the community, a lot of people supported us,” Nygaard says.
The key to being able to start over, he says, was being up front and "owning whatever problems you bring to the table."
“One of the first things we did was work to protect the interests of our clients.” Nygaard refused to turn over any inventory belonging to his clients if it had been paid for or if it was in his possession for repair. “We took the items to the one store we were able to reopen and gave refunds to those who were unhappy. Things we were able to deliver, we delivered. We took care of our responsibility and they supported us."
He did his best to tune out the noise around him. “Regardless of what everybody is saying in the midst of a situation like that, you need to do the right thing and look after everybody’s best interest.”
Then he started over in a new direction.
“When the inventory was seized, all I had was two software keys of Matrix and some old brass and glass samples, and I used those two pieces to create a new business model," he says. "I rebuilt a supply chain and in some cases we were able to work on the relationships with the same suppliers to do business again.”
He rebuilt his local reputation painstakingly, with one custom job after another, and now specializes in custom engagement rings, using 3D printing and CAD modeling.
“I’m going back to the old tradesman approach to the business,” he says. “I’m a tradesman and my jeweler is a tradesman. We do the work in house, except for casting. These days I think you have to be a tradesman and you can’t just be the business-management guy. Yes, I have an MBA but I also am a certified gemologist appraiser. Now I think you have to actually be a jeweler to be in the jeweler business.”
His PR strategy focuses on reviews and social media, and charitable donations within his more limited means. His CRM software sends out emails and surveys to clients after they’ve picked up their rings, and also automatically requests reviews. As one of only 40 master gemologist appraisers in the United States, he continues to receive attention from the press, too, as a local expert. His approach to PR, marketing and advertising is radically different these days from what it was pre-recession.
“Our niche is custom engagement rings, and that’s a thin market to do broad-based TV advertising like we used to,” he says. “Now, we’re marketing to young men getting engaged and we might be talking to about 500 guys in a market of 2.5 million people. It’s silly to hit 2.5 million people to talk to 500 guys.”
In the event of a high-profile setback, Nygaard recommends looking for opportunities in whatever rubble is still around. “You never fail until you quit.”
“It’s been a grueling decade,” Nygaard says. “But I’m happier now in many ways. I went through hell, including a nasty divorce. My home was foreclosed on by the bank. We had predatory creditors. Banks that were desperate for cash made mincemeat of me and my family. An employee who had embezzled money from me wound up buying my house. But in the end, I was able to buy my house back. I’m back in the store in Hilltop, back living in my home in Virginia Beach, after eight years in the wilderness.”
MORE TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR IMAGE
PINPOINT YOUR GOALS. When you are trying to identify your message, do what Beth Cevasco did. She owns Scott's Custom Jewelers in Columbus, OH, and also has a degree in public relations. “We put a piece of paper on the wall that said, `What is our core?’ We are deciphering what we want to be as a company, what is our main business and what are we going to focus on. PR is a very important part of that. Having goals helps fuel other aspects of the business, too.”
STUDY UP. Media has changed, but the need to understand it has not, says Beth Cevasco of Scott’s Custom Jewelers. “I had to relearn everything,” she says. “I got books like SOCIAL MEDIA FOR DUMMIES and BLOGGING FOR DUMMIES. I had to figure out the media and how they worked, and look at my core business and figure out how that is going to be supported by them.”
THINK OF SOCIAL MEDIA LIKE A COCKTAIL PARTY, says author David Meerman Scott. “Do you go into a cocktail party and ask every single person you meet for a business card before you agree to speak with them? Do you try to meet every single person, or do you have a few great conversations? Are you helpful, providing valuable information to people with no expectation of getting something tangible in return? Or do you avoid the social interaction of cocktail parties altogether because you are uncomfortable in such situations?
PRACTICE DETACHMENT. "It’s hard to listen to an angry customer," says Debbie Fox. “So I imagine I’m an outside consultant and this isn’t happening to me. Then I can better sympathize with the client and diffuse the situation. As painful as the process might be, and as right as I believe I am, many important business changes at Fox originated from disgruntled customers.”
OFFER STAFF INCENTIVES. The staff at Lily & Co. is motivated to be brand ambassadors and attend events alongside the company's owner. “They work on an incentive program based on the revenues of the store. I share the profit with the staff, so it’s their store, too,” says Dan Schuyler.
ANTICIPATE ISSUES. "If a customer is unhappy, don't hold your breath, cross your fingers and hope nothing blows up on you," says Kate Peterson. "If a customer is unhappy, and you KNOW when a customer is unhappy, get in front of the situation before it blows up online. Assume that if there can be a problem, there will be a problem."
INTEGRATE PR AND ADVERTISING. Dan Schuyler supplements his social media and relationship building with widespread advertising to reach his target customer: middle-age women. “You have to use the drip, drip, drip theory. I hit everything – newspaper, radio, TV, magazine. I cover it all. Do it every day, every week, every month. Don’t stop. Keep moving forward. When you rest on your laurels is when you get caught. When people are in hard times they cut back their advertising. I would cut my salary back first.”
TRY PUBLIC SPEAKING TO FIND YOUR VOICE. Dan Schuyler suggests jewelers who aren’t comfortable in the spotlight take a public speaking class. Schuyler credits much of his success in PR and marketing with a Dale Carnegie course he took.
TIE IN GUEST STARS. At Star Jewelers on High in Columbus, OH, Rachel Howard and her family brought in a jewelry appraiser who works for the PBS TV show, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. The guest met with delighted customers by appointment.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of INSTORE.