To understand the concept of grassroots publicity, you first have to dissect the terminology and get to the core — or root — of the concept.
It might go without saying, but then again, if you want a grassroots campaign, you really have to start with some basic tactics. A high profile media campaign, full of ads, billboards and news features, is not grassroots. You have to think much, much smaller than that, laying seeds, sowing them, and making sure the roots of your new seedling grow deep enough to sustain all types of weather. You want your new crop to come up year after year. You want the figurative harvest to be bountiful.
All new businesses should start their publicity plans with some grass roots efforts — basic outreach, close to home — creating relationships, knowledge, awareness and respect that is intimate, meaningful and long-lasting. The big, showy stuff should come much later, when there is a higher corporate profile, an established brand, a reliable budget and enough activity going on to actually merit the attention of mass media. And, then, even when you are a significant player in your industry, there is still a time and a place for grassroots campaign to garner solid support for new initiatives.
So, what constitutes grassroots publicity? You might be surprised, but here are a few basic elements that should be pretty easy to incorporate into a new or fledgling business. It’s all action, so if you’re tempted by little ads, flyers, pamphlets, and expensive online advertising when your company is young, don’t spend a dime until you’ve considered what you can DO, instead of what you have to print, distribute or post.
- Meet your neighbors. Where is your company located? Is it in an office park? A shopping strip? A residential area? It is very important to give face time and energy to meeting your neighbors. Host an open house. Go door to door and introduce yourself. Offer them tours. Look for areas of affinity in products, services or mission. Learn of their challenges. Offer solutions to problems when you can. No matter where you are located, it’s important to know your neighbors, and your “neighborhood” should be defined to include those very close in physical proximity as well as regional influencers whom you’d like to meet, check out or win over.
- Invest in your local community first. Yes, this means sprinkle a little cash around — and make sure you sprinkle where you want plants to grow. For example, spending sponsorship dollars at a high profile event is not worth the investment until you have established a reputation as a contributor to local schools, civic associations and other causes directly tied to your company, industry or community. Also consider your customer before spending, and be sure they are impacted and aware of initial sponsorships you make. One final thought: you don’t have to spend a lot up front, but you should budget some money towards “goodwill” marketing so you can make appropriate donations at your discretion. And, although it’s an entirely seperate conversation, don’t be shy about asking for a little recognition in a newsletter or something to that effect in return for your contribution.
- Join the business community. As a business owner, this is challenging because your plate is already oh-so-full. However, you must engage in your local business community — meaning chambers, economic development councils, civic associations and professional associations. Spread it out over time if you have too, but again, spending real time with real people will be a very valuable exercise. Benefits include opportunities to promote your business (have your 10 and 30 second summary ready!), a chance to learn about and perhaps gather intel on competitors, and finally, a public good faith effort to impact decisions and keep up on industry and/or community concerns. Plus, its rare that you will engage in these activities and not gain valuable contacts who help in many ways (this would be networking, but I shy from the word because it’s so cliche these days). And, of course, you’re bound to just make a friend or two, and who doesn’t need more friends, really?
- Meet local government officials. This might prove to be the most challenging area of relationship building you face, but it is wise to meet (and keep up with) local decision makers and policy influencers. And, it is very prudent to meet them before there is an issue or concern to share. In fact, meeting them once is not enough. Once you meet, send a note, leave a message or send a reminder or follow up invitation of some sort to move the relationship beyond a handshake. You may never need anything from anyone, but then again, you might have to fight hard against a regulation, a policy change, a budget cut or a zoning rule at some point. Do you want to face those scenarios as an unknown entity, or would you rather have some rapport with the decision makers?
Now, I know you might be wondering why I have not thrown in social media, community newspapers and other more “expected” and “traditional” components of a grassroots publicity campaign. Well, these things are important too, but without some initial legwork and facetime, these other efforts loose their impact. Better to wait until you’ve grown a real-world fan base, gained real “friends” and built a true community on the ground before you take your show on the road.