Beginning today, and once a week, you can find a Q&A interview here with someone influential in the PR, communication, or social media world.

To start the series, I talked with Mickie Kennedy, the founder of eReleases, about how small business owners work with bloggers to develop credibility and awareness for their products or services.

With some pretty big name bloggers practicing checkbook journalism, do you think working with them is still a good strategy?

You can never judge an industry by the actions of a few. Bloggers should remain an integral part of most publicity efforts. Bloggers, by their very definition, are influencers. If you can explain and show why your product or service is the answer, and the blogger agrees, you have a powerful ally.

Of course, it’s still important to be sensitive to tone and timing; if a particular blog is getting raked across the coals by the people you’re most interested in reaching with your product, it’s not the right blog to ask for a review. If you’re personally uncomfortable with the business practices or journalistic standards of a blog, don’t work with that blogger. It’s entirely possible to approach bloggers as part of a publicity campaign while leaving out some big names.

Are there some steps or a checklist that small business owners can use when approaching bloggers?

I recommend these five steps to harness the power of the blogosphere for a public relations campaign:

  1. Know what you want. You should know what you want the blogosphere to say about you and your product before you even begin to create a list of bloggers to approach.
  2. Read the blog first. Don’t just start typing keywords into Google and then sending pitches out scattershot. This is a no-no that can get you ignored or, worse, blacklisted in the blogosphere. If you’re looking for gadget blogs to review your new solar cell phone charger, don’t target every blog that comes up in a search for “technology blog.” One technology blog may not do reviews at all, while another may be heavily biased against solar energy. A third blog that came up in your search results might not be a technology blog at all, but a blog that simply mentioned a technology topic once last fall.
  3. Woo the blogger. Approaching bloggers with a rote press release will leave them cold. Introduce yourself through a personal email. Or, better yet, get to know the blogger over a period of time by leaving thoughtful comments on blog posts, linking to their blog from your company’s site, or connecting with them through social media. For a busy blogger, someone who takes time to build a personal relationship will leave an impression.
  4. Send a personal pitch. Don’t think that just because you’ve interacted with a blogger once or twice through social media, you can just add them to your press release distribution list and be done with it. When you approach a blogger as part of a PR campaign, especially for the first time, the most important part of your pitch is a personal note. Treat your traditional press release as an additional resource for the blogger, should they choose to post about your product.
  5. Keep Federal Trade Commission rules in mind. In 2009, the FTC began requiring bloggers to disclose any monetary compensation or freebies they received in exchange for product endorsements. So if you give a free widget to a blogger in exchange for a review, expect the entire world to see that you did so.

Other than approaching bloggers, what do you recommend small business owners do to create their own brands?

Small business owners need to focus on approaches that offer lasting value while remaining affordable, both in terms of a monetary budget and the numerous constraints on every small business owner’s time. The new media economy runs on trust and interaction. Campaigns should create a brand by positioning a small business as a trusted resource in its niche.

A few suggestions:

  • Have a blog. Create compelling, original, and unique content. You’ll encourage your existing customers to get news about your brand directly from you, while drawing in new customers who came for your content and discovered your product as a result.
  • Subscribe to HARO. Read the queries and take time to send a short, personal pitch to journalists if you think you’re the source they’re seeking.
  • Publish testimonials. Make sure they come from unbiased third parties who are delighted with your product and happy to tell the world about it. Online customers are more likely to make a purchase if they’ve read testimonials on a business’s website.
  • Use Google Alerts to track organic buzz cropping up in the blogosphere and respond. When a blogger is already aware of your product, half your work is done. Don’t waste the opportunity to build a lasting, positive relationship.
  • Take advantage of social media. Maintain an interactive Twitter account. If you can commit to managing them, create Facebook, Yahoo! and LinkedIn groups. Ask yourself where your customers interact in social media and how you can be in those same spaces, positioned as a helpful resource for them.

How much time should small business owners spend each day creating their own brands?

Creating a brand should be injected into all aspects of a company’s processes. From customer service to handling your own employees, how you interact with people should be at the very core of your brand. A company that has polished commercials, a responsive Twitter account, and a light-hearted blog will suffer brand backlash if it has a reputation for outsourcing work to sweatshops. Branding isn’t something you sit down and do for so many minutes each day. It should be part of every decision and interaction. When you separate creating a brand from other aspects of your business, you will create branding that feels inauthentic and forced.

When do you recommend small business owners begin to outsource their PR and social media needs vs. doing it themselves?

Small business owners wear many hats. However, time and comfort levels prevent many small business owners from adding PR and social media to their workload. As long as small business owners outsource these efforts to professionals who are competent and take the time to understand the company’s brand, such an arrangement can work beautifully. The worst mistake a business owner can make is handing the keys to someone else who has little guidance. Even if a small business’s PR and social media have been outsourced, the owner should stay closely involved and check in regularly with the professional(s) handling these efforts.

Now I ask you, my readers, do you agree with or have other tips for these same questions?

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich