When cash is tight and the burn rate is keeping the CFO awake at night, many companies start their belt tightening by eliminating their public relations program. Since PR efforts do not translate into immediate sales leads and publication lead times can be as long as 4-6 months, many startup executives mistakenly believe that eliminating public relations is an easy way to save money. Au contraire! Public relations is the glue that holds a strong marketing campaign together.

A well-executed public relations program is one of the most cost effective promotion programs a bootstrapping company can select – especially when implemented with support from inexpensive targeted direct marketing (email, postcards, and sales letters) and an integrated Web marketing program. In addition to helping build buzz about your company and products, a good PR campaign fuels Web traffic and generates fresh content for your Web site, collateral, and direct marketing pieces. The individual elements certainly don’t have to cost a fortune, but together they deliver much more bottom line value than any single effort.

It is true that working with a traditional PR firm can seem expensive. The minimum monthly fee for many firms that accept startup clients is around $5,000. This typically buys a few hours of consulting from an experienced account executive who manages your program and weekly editorial calendar monitoring and story pitching by a junior associate. Once your startup can afford a $5,000-$10,000 monthly retainer, a good public relations agency can offer outstanding value for your marketing program. Until then, here are a few tips for building your PR program on a tight budget:

<strong>1) Do it Yourself via Custom Targeting</strong>
Public relations isn’t rocket science and you don’t have to pitch every publication in the known universe to be effective. Target a set of 10-75 publications that cover your market segment and create your own press list. Read the most important publications regularly and familiarize yourself with the editors and reporters who cover stories in your industry. Visit the advertising sales sections of the publications’ Web sites to find their editorial calendars, lists of the features they are planning for upcoming issues. You can use these to pitch yourself as a resource or send relevant product information to the reporters working on stories related to your business.

When you have news, send each reporter on your press list a copy of your press release – call the most important contacts to make sure they received it and to ensure that you’re sending it to the right person. You can also distribute it via a wire service – the two major ones are PR Newswire and BusinessWire. You have to pay a nominal fee to join these services and a fee for each press release they distribute for you. Both services offer flexible programs to meet your distribution requirements. They also host regular “meet the journalist” events that are quite informative and help you get to know journalists in your geographic area. Business Wire’s Web site has exhaustive lists of the publications in their distribution circuits. This can be a very helpful resource for building your own press list.

Initially, bootstrapping your public relations program is a very time consuming process, but if you establish good systems you can manage it eventually.

<strong>2) Do it Yourself with Professional PR Tools</strong>
For roughly the cost of two or three months’ of public relations firm retainer fees you can subscribe to the press contact and editorial calendar resources that PR professionals use. Bacon’s and Lexis-Nexis both offer large databases of press contacts and editorial calendars. PR Newswire’s ProfNet service will email journalist info requests directly to you several times a day. Using professional tools obviously costs more than the complete bootstrapping approach, but it gives your PR program more reach, allows you to pitch stories more professionally, and takes much less time to manage. I used this technique quite successfully to generate quite a lot of press coverage for a small company in Silicon Valley. Working diligently a little each day resulted in press mentions in Time, CNN, The San Jose Mercury News, CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and many regional and trade publications.

<strong>3) Find an Independent PR Consultant</strong>
Hiring a freelance PR professional is an excellent way to build a high quality public relations program with a smaller budget. Many freelancers are senior PR professionals with agency experience. Since they do not have the same overhead costs as the large PR firms, they can charge less for services. If your budget precludes even this option, you might find an independent consultant may at least be willing to develop a press kit and press list for you and periodically send you an editorial calendar opportunity list. You’ll save a bundle if you do your own editorial calendar pitching. Even if you decide to have the consultant do the pitching, you can save time and money by previewing the editorial calendars list and using your expertise in your industry to help target the most promising opportunities and eliminate the less promising ones. (Make sure the consultant has subscriptions to professional tools similar to the recommendations in #2.) You might have to shop around to find someone who is willing to offer bare bones services like this, but keep looking they’re out there.

<strong>4) Benefit from Other People’s Public Relations</strong>
Be sure to leverage you clients’ and partners’ PR resources. If you do a joint release, work with their PR firm to help get the message out. Many companies – especially other startups – are hungry for regular news and press coverage. Help their marketing and PR teams get coverage and it can help you, too.

<strong>5) Submit Your Own Material</strong>
Write articles in your area of expertise and give presentations to conferences that have press coverage. The more visible you are, the more likely a reporter will contact you for information. Make sure you put your press kit in the media room at each conference or trade show where you speak or exhibit.