Public relations has always been an essential part of doing business, which is probably why most people shell out big money to an outside PR firm. But Adrian Salamunovic and his co-author, Cameron Herold, explain to us in Free PR why we don’t need them and how you already have all the necessary tools in-house to do as good a job as the so-called experts. Adrian and Cameron have taught thousands of company execs how to exploit free media coverage and ditch these expensive and often ineffective outsiders.
Adrian is the founder of DNA 11 and CanvasPop, which he bootstrapped to eight figure sales. He’s also a startup advisor, investor, and PR expert who is passionate about helping entrepreneurs amplify their companies.
Adrian’s companies have been featured in publications like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Today Show, Good Morning America, and more. And, here’s something really cool: Adrian even had an episode of CSI: New York, written about one of his products. He’s going to tell us about that.
Adrian Salamunovic: Well the book’s main purpose is to educate entrepreneurs and startup founders, how they can get free media. Really, the biggest challenge for any startup or any company is getting exposure, right? Advertising costs are increasing, it’s getting harder and harder to get people’s attention. As a startup or even as an established company, how do you get the media to pay attention to you and get your word out for you on your behalf without having to pay a ton of money for advertising?
The book came from our own pain, right? When I started my first company, we only had a few thousand dollars, and we managed to build it into a multimillion dollar eight-figure business by getting press, by getting media.
It was really as a result of being forced to be creative. We didn’t have a ton of money to spend on advertising at the beginning, so we had to find a way to stand out, be different, get the media’s attention. Then get them to spread our word for us. That’s how the book came about.
Rae Williams: What’s the feeling that people usually have when they are trying to get this media attention?
Adrian Salamunovic: I think a lot of people think their companies might not be interesting enough or they might think that it’s a really complicated and complex process. The book is really about demystifying the whole process.
First of all, any business can get PR if you know how to do it, so the book is about teaching the average business owner, entrepreneur, marketing manager, how they can make their company interesting—exactly how to approach the media.
It’s an action book, not a theory book, and then it really demystifies the process and shows how easy it is to get PR if you know how to do it.
It’s a challenge a lot of companies have. They need money to buy advertising, but they don’t have the money—but they have a great product.
So we teach you how to magnify that, amplify that, and get your brand out there, following a series of simple steps that anybody can follow, a process that we’ve proven over the last decade.
It really is a playbook on how almost any business can leverage the power of free PR to get free exposure. That’s really the crux of the book, that’s the focus of the entire book.
Small Business PR Moves
Rae Williams: If I am kind of a small business or a brand and I want to take that first step, what would you recommend?
Adrian Salamunovic: The first thing and the most important thing is to really figure out what are the things about your company that are interesting to your target demographic? What do I mean? First thing that companies struggle with is what makes us different and why should anybody care about what we’re doing?
We spent a lot of time in the book and I spent a lot of time training the startups on how to really figure out what’s unique and different about your company.
It could be anything from your culture to hopefully your product or the way that you work with your customers, or it could be your customer stories. There’s a plethora of ideas that as a startup you can pull from to make your company interesting, no matter what field you’re in.
The second thing to do once you’ve figured out what’s unique or different—and this can’t be underestimated, this is the most important part—is to really understand who your target market is and where they go to consume information.
Again, in the book, we show you how to survey your audience and use data tools to really zero in on your perfect customer, understand where they go to get information and then we work backwards from there to reach out to those media sources to tell your story on your behalf.
It sounds a little bit complicated but if you follow the steps in the book, it’s actually a really simple process.
Rae Williams: What’s your favorite success story?
Adrian Salamunovic: You know, I think there’s a lot of examples in the book. One that stands out that is really out there is when I was starting one of my first companies, called DNA 11, and the company was a really unique company on its own.
Actually, we created abstract art from a sample of your DNA. We would take a sample of your DNA, it was just a cheek swab. We had a special lab, and we would photograph your DNA and make a unique piece of art from it. That was pretty cool on its own.
“It started off as a passion project and we grew it to over a million dollars in just over a year.”
How did we do that? We did it by first of all, the product was interesting but then we had to reach out to the media and figure out how to get their attention without using a PR agency.
We had no contacts, I had no background in PR or journalism or any of that. But I knew that we had something really cool.
Every week, every day really, I would reach out to different media outlets and tell them our story.
One day, I decided to take a risk. Maybe I was naïve, maybe I didn’t know any better? But I wrote a letter to the producer of a show called CSI: New York. It was a handwritten letter because I wanted to stand out. Anybody can find an email address and fire off an email in two seconds. I wanted to do something a little bit different. I wrote a letter, I put it in the mail, and I sent it off to the attention of Anthony Zuiker. What I was shocked by—and I’ve probably done this a hundred times. I have done this many random kind of media reach out like this, and never expected to hear back.
But three months later, I get a call, and it’s the executive producer of the show saying, “Hey, we’ve written an episode about your art work, DNA 11, and we would like some sample art pieces for an episode.”
What was remarkable, it was unbelievable. First of all I thought it was joke. But then I realized that, you know, just a few months later, there I was in my living room watching an entire episode of the most watched show at the time, which was CSI: New York, written around one of my products.
It was a remarkable moment, watching an idea that we had come up with, being sort of thrown into the mainstream on one of the most watched shows on earth. What I realized is that if I hadn’t taken the chance and if I had feared rejection and hadn’t taken the 10 minutes to write that letter, we wouldn’t have shown up in one of the most watched shows on earth.
The lesson here is that you have to take chances in your business, you know?
You can’t be afraid of being rejected or being told no because it’s going to happen a lot. In the book, we talk about something called “99 nos.” What I mean by that is you’re going to get rejected 99 times maybe before you get that one yes, but that one yes can change the entire history of your business.
Where to Begin
Rae Williams: You mentioned a handwritten letter, which is what you did. Do you have one or two other small things that someone can start with?
Adrian Salamunovic: So we talk about small things and low hanging fruit quite a bit, and I actually say do the opposite. Start big! And I know that sounds kind of counterintuitive but thinking big, and going for high targets, maybe targets that make you uncomfortable is uncomfortable, right? Most people want to go for low hanging fruit. The problem with going after low hanging fruit, say, going after a local TV station or radio station, unless your business is local of course, then that’s what you want to do.
“If you’re trying to build something big, you have to think big.”
It doesn’t cost any extra money or take any extra effort to reach higher. It’s just perception, right? It’s like, “I can’t be on Good Morning America, I can’t be on the Today Show, I can’t be on Fortune.” Yes you can. But you’d have to position your company that way and you have to be brave enough and have the almost bravado is what I’d call it, to say, “Hey, what do I have to lose? I’m going to go big!”
One of the things we really encourage people to do is think big.
Reach big, reach for the stars, and if you only go halfway, that’s still better than you would have done by reaching low.
I actually say, do the opposite. Think really big, go for the big goals and see what happens. Because you have nothing to lose, especially when you’re a startup.
No Such Thing as Free PR?
Rae Williams: A lot of people are worried about the money aspect of it and you just gave us a few ways that you don’t have to actually use money. But how free is free PR?
Adrian Salamunovic: It’s as free as you can make it. What we do is we teach companies how to get PR without having to hire an agency, a PR agency.
PR agencies can range in price from $5,000 a month to $10,000 or more dollars per month. It’s usually a three-month retainer, and that’s the opposite of free, right?
You can easily spend $10-, $20-, $30,000 on a PR firm and actually get way less results or even no results with no guarantees, right? That’s something we experience when we’re first launching our businesses. That’s what forced us to teach ourselves how to do PR internally. Or how to teach myself how to do PR.
“PR can be absolutely free, other than the cost of being remarkable.”
So you have to figure out how to make yourself stand out. There’s some time involvement. Time is never free. You have to choose that it’s important, you have to invest the time and the energy and you have to play the long game.
That’s the real cost, right? Is focus.
You should focus on being a remarkable company, no matter what you’re doing. So you should do that regardless of whether you want free PR or not.
The second step is just putting in the effort to reach out to the right people, influencers and media, that your audience already listens to and trust and then knowing how to pitch them in such a way that it’s irresistible that they just have to write about you or interview you or whatever the case might be.
You know, later on, as you scale, you may want to obviously, you don’t want to be doing PR as the CEO of your company for the next 10 years. So you want to start hiring a team, right? As soon as possible. You can hire an in-house PR person for a fraction of the cost of what it will take to hire a PR firm on retainer, and you can have PR all year round.
The only investment after a while is, yeah, you want to buy some relatively inexpensive software tools that we go over in the book, and you want to invest in hiring somebody who can then continue the momentum of getting your free PR all year round. But essentially, for a startup, you can do it for absolutely free, for no cost at all.
The Untold Story of Airbnb
Rae Williams: So, what are some of your favorite success stories? Some of your favorite brands maybe that have used free PR, tell us about those.
Adrian Salamunovic: There are so many great examples in the book, one of them that stands out is actually Airbnb, and I know they’re huge today and they’re multibillion dollar company that we all know about. But back when they were launching, they were $20-, $30,000 in debt, they were running out of money, and they had to get creative.
They did something called news jacking, and news jacking is when you take something that’s trending in the news and then you create a story angle around that item.
As the journalist are picking up anything about this trending story. They look for story ideas, right? It’s called news jacking. A perfect example of this is during the Obama elections, McCain and Obama.
Airbnb, which we all know today as a platform for finding places to live and vacation spots and things like that. Well back then, they just wanted to get PR exposure, so they ended up creating two cereal boxes. One for Obama and one for McCain. They filled it up with cereal, and they gave it cool names, and then they went out to the news and said, “We’re selling these cereal boxes, limited edition cereal boxes during the elections.”
They were selling them for $30 a pop, so you could buy a McCain cereal or you could buy an Obama cereal depending on who you are voting for. They ended up selling out and making tens and tens of thousands of dollars getting out of debt and getting a ton of free PR exposure.
Alot of people don’t know this story, but it is one of the ways that Airbnb was able to get mainstream exposure not only for free but make money from it very early on in their history. So that is one fun example.
Rae Williams: How do we come up with these kind of small, but big ideas?
Adrian Salamunovic: So in the book, we give you a handful of story ideas or angles that you can take advantage of. So almost any business can find an angle or an idea within those handful of story ideas that we give you. So one of them is news jacking, the other one is talking about your culture, or the other one is a product announcement.
There’s always different angles that you can explore and see which one matches what you are doing. So the idea really is to connect the dots, right? You usually want to be on trend.
One of the biggest things we talk about is understanding where things are going and what’s trending. What are influencers talking about, and what is the media talking about? And then the tricky part, but it is not really that tricky, is just to find something that your business is doing that latches onto a mega trend.
The idea is if there’s a big wave or a trend coming, you are surfing, right? Let us use the surfing analogy, you want to catch that wave at the right time. Whether it’s a product announcement, whether it’s a new feature that you are announcing, or whatever, it is so much more powerful if you are on trend.
One of the main principles of the book is to understand what people are looking to consume and read about, what journalists are looking to write about, and make sure you associate your company with those trends. It makes your life so much easier to get media exposure that way.
Rae Williams: In terms of dealing with journalists and working with the media, especially if you are doing something like news jacking, give us the highlights of how we should go about doing that.
Adrian Salamunovic: I think the biggest mind shift and the first thing you should do whenever you are going to explore, going out to the media and pitch them, is to understand that you work for them, they don’t work for you and so what do I mean by that? I mean if you want to be successful in getting PR, you want to go in with the attitude that you’re helping them come up with a good story or a great story for their audience. So, that’s first and foremost.
“I have always gone in with an attitude of servitude towards journalists.”
“I want to help you, I want to collaborate, I want to bring you a great story that we can do together.”
So that is one, and then two, it is really doing your research. Journalists really appreciate when you know who they are, the types of things that they write about and most importantly, who their audience is.
So if you can align those things in your pitch and keep your pitch really short, really punchy and to the point, and we show you how to do that in the book, then your chances of success are exponentially higher right?
So what we do in the book is we teach you how to be empathetic towards a journalist, understand how they think, how the media works, and then how to create pitches that get their attention and help them do their job better and in turn, help them get your message out to their audience in a more efficient way and that is really the secret to getting great PR.
The Real Cost of Ad Space
Rae Williams: So now what happens when people don’t do this?
Adrian Salamunovic: The cost of not being remarkable or not being interesting to the media is very expensive and what I mean by that is you are seeing advertising costs even pay per click advertising, Google AdWords, Facebook, the costs are skyrocketing.
So do you absolutely need PR to succeed as a business? No, you don’t but if you don’t use PR you are going to be paying way more for advertising. You are going to have to spend way more money to get the reach out there.
It is not organic, so people are – we are training ourselves to ignore advertising, right? Like ads are becoming more and more of a nuisance, and invasive and people are getting better and better at ignoring them or using ad blocking software, etcetera so the cost and the competition is so high on bidding that the cost are getting out of control. So if you’re not investing in what we call PR or earned media then you’re going to be paying a premium for your conversions.
You are going to be paying on average $14 more per click in the consumer space. You are going to be paying up to five or 10 times more for leads in the B2B space.
And the other thing is there is nothing more authentic than a brand that people are talking about. So whether it is journalists, influencers, or your customers, there’s just the best companies that you can think of are the companies your friends tell you about or that you read about in the media and that third parties are basically validating, and saying, “Look how great the software is or the service.”
There is nothing better than that. So it can be very expensive not to follow what’s in this book. It can be done, but you are going to have to pay a premium for it.
Brands Who Get Free PR
Rae Williams: All right and tell us about some of the people who have gotten the most out of this. So whether they’re your personal clients or brands that you’ve helped?
Adrian Salamunovic: I always like to start off with our own story, and just a little bit of background there is my first company, I only started with a couple thousand dollars and so we were able to build DNA 11 and then later on a company called CanvasPop. Through the years we created over $35 million in sales, and 90% of that is done with no advertising. So only a small percentage of those sales are directly attributed to advertising costs and that is remarkable, right? To be able to generate tens of millions of dollars without having to pay for advertising.
It takes a little longer. It is more effort, but to me, it’s amazing to be able to build a company with tens of millions in sales without having to pay for it directly through advertising. So that is one big success story, and then also, my co-author Cameron Herold, one of the big things that helped 1-800-GOT-JUNK go from around $3 or $4 million when he started to over a $180 million was they got a ton of press.
So they saw it firsthand that when they were able to get local press coverage and international press coverage on shows like Oprah and Hoarders on A&E and a whole bunch of other media, and they got tons and tons and tons of exposure that helped them, the word got out like wild fire.
They were able to expand 1-800-GOT-JUNK to other franchisors and all of that using the power of free PR.
So just between our companies, those are two great case studies. But in the book, we also look at companies like Airbnb, Tinder, even companies like 3M and dozens more that have all used PR in a variety of ways to create huge brands.
Rae Williams: Nice, so your advertising obviously did work because I didn’t know CanvasPop as you but I have heard of it all the way in Jamaica. So good point there.
Adrian Salamunovic: There is another person that I personally admire greatly and when I think of free PR, I think of Richard Branson and Virgin. Through the years he has done so many cool media stunts and have created so many great brands. Some have failed and many have done extremely well and a lot of that has to do with Virgin’s ability and more specifically Richard Branson’s ability to get media attention.
Apple, same thing. Apple wouldn’t be Apple if they don’t have the ability to capture the media’s attention every year where they do their announcements and throughout the year with all their amazing products and all of that.
So they are already great companies, but they are using media and PR to amplify their brand, amplify their message, and get people talking.
Rae Williams: What is one thing listeners can do this week, an idea from your book to kick start their brand, their free PR?
Adrian Salamunovic: One of the biggest ideas in the book is the idea of before you launch any new product or any new announcement is to write the press release first and that is before you have written a line of code or created a single product. Now why do we do this?
So the idea isn’t mine exclusively. It’s been done for years, but Amazon really popularized this concept of starting with the press release and why we do this is because writing a press release on your computer, just headline and sub-headline and then all the components—the who, what, when, where, why of the press release, forces you to think about the product in advance, what is interesting about it, what’s different, how are you going to make your headline stand out, who are we targeting, how much is it going to cost, when are we launching it?
It basically serves as a tool that not only is a mini-business plan in essence, it helps you very quickly see if this is interesting or not. Because if you can’t make your product launch interesting on a single sheet of paper then how are you going to make it interesting to the market or to journalist, right? And so you can iterate very quickly, you can get your team on it and you can change things around on paper very rapidly without going through all the effort of trying to launch something only to find out that nobody cares after the fact, so that is something that Amazon has done.
And in the book, we actually give everybody a free template, a link to a free template that they can use to use the power of the press release before they launch their next product.
The last thing is that a press release is very powerful is an actual visualization tool, right? If you think about it by putting your ideas on paper and formulating this really nicely structured press release, you are actually visualizing a successful launch of your next product or announcement and it really helps everybody get on the same page and to differentiate and standout.
How to Get Free PR
Rae Williams: As we wrap up, is there anything else about Free PR, whether the book or just some of the practices even just the process of writing, that you want people to know?
Adrian Salamunovic: The book is really an investment in taking what Cameron and I have built over the last two decades in real life, in the trenches experiences, scaling multimillion-dollar companies. You can absorb that book in a couple of day and get all the fundamentals, all the ideas, to really understand how easy it is to get media if you know how to do it.
So the only intent with this book is to bring value to the world, teach all our fellow entrepreneurs and marketers out there the power of the media and earned media and free PR, and we really just hope people enjoy and get value from it. So far the feedback has been incredible, so we’re really, really happy with it.
Rae Williams: How can our readers find you?
Adrian Salamunovic: Well, I always like to give people one thing to do. Instead of saying, “Do these five things,” just go to freeprbook.com, you can go there, you can download the first chapter for free and you can contact us there.