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From sandwich boards to skydiving parties:
8 secrets of a professional spotlight grabber

How to grab the spotlightWhen Peter Shankman was downsized out of a job in 1998, he was nearly out of money.

But what his former employer couldn't take from him when they stripped away his ID card and e-mail address was a knowledge of how media works and how to use it to build and promote a business.

As a result, Peter's company, The Geek Factory, a public relations and marketing agency, expects to gross more than $1 million in revenue in its second year of operation.

While Shankman has made a career out of having chutzpah to spare, you don't have to have his audacity to use some of his techniques to grab media attention.

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Here are some publicity stunts that worked for Shankman -- and the underlying rules behind them, because the same basic idea can get media attention for any business.

Rule 1:
Word of mouth is the best publicity, so give people something to talk about.

When Shankman first launched his high-tech consulting business, he donned a sandwich board and stood on the corner of 51st Street and Park Avenue in New York. He handed out resumes and fliers, which cost him $20 to have printed at a copy shop.

Two hours of effort during a busy lunch hour netted him 189 phone calls, 74 interviews and 37 offers of work. He took on several opportunities, including the one that appealed most to him -- helping the New Jersey Devils hockey team build a Web site.

Rule 2:
Reporters like stories that have a sense of immediacy, so look for ways to link your company's message to the big story of the day.

Shankman didn't have enough money to buy the computer equipment he needed to get his new consulting business up and running. The hottest news and entertainment story of the day was the popularity of the hit movie Titanic.

Shankman took his last $1,800 and bought 500 T-shirts on which he had imprinted a picture of the ship and the words "It Sank -- Get Over It."

He took the T-shirts to New York's Central Park and set up shop, selling them for $10 each. Two hours later, he'd sold all 500, making a tidy profit of $3,750.

Rule 3:
Toot your own horn.

If you don't tell the media what you've done, they'll never know. So prepare press releases and get on the phone to the people you most want to hear your story.

Shankman, a regular reader of USA Today, suspected that the writer/editor of his favorite column might be interested in his story, so he gave her a call.

Rule 4:
Timing is everything.

Shankman called on a slow Sunday, the slowest day of the news week. The USA Today editor was thrilled to hear from Shankman because it's hard to write a column when there's not much news. A bright, enterprising story like Shankman's made the reporter/editor's job easier.

Rule 5:
Don't be old news.

No media wants to report on events that have passed. Offering news about things while they are happening will not only get you valuable attention, but also sell more products.

The first question the reporter/editor asked Shankman was whether he was going to continue selling the shirts because she didn't want to write about something that was no longer for sale.

Shankman assured her he'd be selling the shirts. She asked where -- on his Web site? Shankman didn't have a Web site, but he didn't let that stop him. "Yes," he said, "I'm selling them on my Web site."

Then he went home and built a Web site.

Rule 6:
Be prepared for the impact of your promotional efforts.

Have the goods ready to sell and the systems in place to make it happen.

The next morning, the Internet Service Provider hosting Shankman's site woke him up. The 35,000 responses to his site in three hours that resulted from the USA Today article had crashed four of the company's six servers, and they wanted to know if this was going to continue.

Rule 7:
Don't stop now.

Keep those press releases coming. While you can't always expect a published follow-up report, media outlets always like to know when they've had an impact, so share your success.

In all, Shankman sold 8,000 T-shirts at $15 a piece and, after paying his upfront expenses, pocketed about $80,000 toward his business startup costs. The ink from USA Today got picked up and published in such far-flung publications as the San Diego Union Tribune, the New York Daily News and U.S. News and World Report.

Rule 8:
Be nice. Say thank you. Media people are customers too.

After Shankman got his business off the ground and grew it in less than a year to eight employees, he decided to hold a picnic and invite people who had helped him out along the way. It ballooned into a skydiving party to which 75 media people and clients were invited. Among the guests who ultimately wrote about their experience were reporters from Forbes magazine and Business Week.

Shankman is modest about his successes and offers only one piece of advice. "Don't be afraid to do something stupid," he says. "The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work."

Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan

--Posted: Oct. 5, 2000


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See Also
How to get publicity for your business (10/5/00)
The best places to spend your ad dollars (4/12/00)
Using a PR firm to get your message to the masses (10/25/99)
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