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Unleash the Power of the National Media

Dan Dye

In December 1994, five years after my partner and I launched what we believe is the world's most unique patisserie, Three Dog Bakery, we spotted a man in our shop who was suspiciouslypickingup every package, examining them, taking notes. He peered into our bakery cases, sometimes chuckling, but insisting he didn't need any help.

Finally, after nearly an hour, he approached our register and shocked us by confessing he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He had never, EVER! seen or heard of a concept like ours--we make canine confections extraordinaire, with PupCakes, Great Danish, and SnickerPoodles among our 125 incredible bakery treats for dogs--and he would love to feature us on the front page of the newspaper's "Marketplace" section.

When the story broke a few days later, little did we know our lives were about to change forever. WOW! We unlocked our bakery door that day to the phone ringing off the hook--at one point, the sheer volume of calls caused the line to go dead for awhile. People were calling from all over the country, requesting biscuits, flyers, information, anything we could shove into a box and ship to them.

By the end of the first day, we were six weeks backlogged on mail orders. By the end of the second day, we were ten weeks backlogged. We were besieged with calls for almost two weeks. After that came a deluge of requests for interviews from so many other national media that we eventually stopped counting: People, Entrepreneur, The Oprah Winfrey Show, USA Today, The New York Times Magazine, National Public Radio, The Tonight Show...

The Power of the National Press

While all of this was going on, we were, of course, tending to the more mundane tasks of building a business. We have managed to boost sales nearly eightfold, to an estimated $7.8 million this year from $498,000 in 1994. (With an expected 42 bakeries by the end of this year, we expect revenue to soar to $39 million in 1999.)

Along the way, we've had our share of setbacks, but at Three Dog Bakery, we've never, EVER! had trouble getting the word out. The national press did that for us--and then some. In fact, since our founding in 1989, we've spent less than $10,000 on paid advertising, mostly for small placements in local newspapers during our early days and currently for tourist-information guides slipped into hotel rooms.

Looking back, I believe that public relations, or PR, has been the single greatest contributor to our company's growth. In our case, the PR was that much more powerful for being national. A single one-page, black-and-white advertisement in People magazine costs $135,000. We got a three-page feature story with color photographs. That's a half-million bucks--for FREE! A year later, we were still getting calls on that story.

Go With the Flow

Given our experience, I believe entrepreneurs must make effective public relations as central to their businesses as controlling inventories and collecting receivables. What's more, they must become wise in the ways of the national press.

Now, I'm the first to admit that as the Ben & Jerry's of the dog world, Three Dog Bakery grabs the likes of Oprah, Jay (Leno), and the folks at NPR in a way few other businesses could. I'll also admit the role of luck in our story: that WSJ reporter just happened to have spotted a tiny ad that we had placed in a local weekly called The Pitch when holed up in a Kansas City hotel room.

Having said this, however, I still believe PR--and, in particular, national PR--has been uncharted territory for too long for too many entrepreneurs. Unbelievably, many small businesses place little or no value on PR. Perhaps their owners are timid (although it's hard to imagine a timid entrepreneur), or don't think what they're doing is newsworthy. Maybe they're ignorant about what PR can accomplish. Or openly hostile to the press.

As for national PR, entrepreneurs might also be intimidated. Big mistake! Oprah, Jay and The New York Times are out there, and as hungry for news as the tiniest local publication. It's a good idea to go with that flow.

Breaking In

Even if your business is more mainstream than our bakery for dogs (and what business wouldn't be!), you can take steps to break into the national media. At the very least, you can avoid mistakes that would cause them to lose interest once they discover you. Here are some "bare bones" pointers to get you started.

  • Start Local, Go National. A journey of a 1,000 miles starts with a single step, a dog-bakery business with one biscuit cutter. The typical national PR equivalent (our experience with the WSJ reporter notwithstanding) is the call from the local weekly or daily newspaper. Seize that opportunity and...
  • Paint a Universal Story. It's your job to explain why your business is more than just of local interest, because local reporters might free-lance for other publications. During an interview with The Des Moines Register, we emphasized the "fun" aspect of our bakery. Turns out the reporter was a free-lance writer who also contributed to People, which was how we were able to get a half-million dollars worth of exposure without paying a cent. And which is why it always pays to...
  • Establish Rapport. We work hard to get to know journalists on a human, or emotional, level. We listen carefully to them. When a reporter for Fox said she was going out of town for a relative's confirmation, I mentioned that my nephew had just been confirmed. All of which might prompt a writer to go to bat for our story, or to bump it up, assuming we...
  • Have Patience. The national press works in mysterious ways. An interview might not become a story for weeks or months, if at all. You must accept that fact. It isn't your job to question, and complaining is a real no-no. Just keep updating your Rolodex--ours contains more than 200 media contacts. When we sent out a press release about our latest book, we figured, maybe they'll do a story, maybe they won't. That was good figuring. It took six months for a call to come from NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien, at which point we...
  • Follow Up Promptly. When a reporter calls, drop everything and pick up the telephone (or return the call immediately). Don't mull things over. Next week might be too late. Then be prepared to provide whatever else the reporter wants: a press kit, an interview, a tour of your company. And do it with a smile. While waiting to appear on a national TV show that goes into millions of homes, we watched backstage as an author complained about having to arrive an hour and a half early. Guess who won't be invited back? Oh, and one last suggestion: If ever we're the ones not to be invited back...in other words, if we can't lick 'em, we...
  • Join 'em! All good things come to an end. In the eyes of the national media, even dog-bakery businesses eventually become more commercial than newsworthy. As guests of NBC's talk-show host Conan O'Brien last December, we were flattered when representatives from the show contacted People, saying, "You've got to do a story, it's very visual: two guys, three big dogs jumping all over them." At which point People said it wouldn't revisit a story it had already done, three years earlier. That was fine with us, because we, too, had moved on...

We'll soon be taping 30 more segments of our nationally televised cooking show for dogs...

And putting the finishing touches on our second book...

And preparing for our new line of children's books...

And introducing a super-premium dog food called BakeryBlend, as well as bakery treats for cats and horses...

Which, in turn, might just bring us full circle, back to where the WSJ gets interested again.

. . . . .

With the national press, one thing flows into another. As you must when working with journalists from these media. Because the cumulative effect is awesome PR. For us, it's been a great gig. If you deal with your own unique situation with all the passion, energy and dedication that you put into your business, it will be great for you, too.

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