When her friend Ellis was posted to Iraq, photographer Kim Crenshaw decided to send him a care package. Like others hoping to support troops serving abroad, Kim filled the package with candy, soaps and snacks but as a photographer, she wanted to contribute a little more. She invited the soldier’s wife and son into her studio and photographed them lying on a bed, pretending to sleep. She then had the image screen-printed onto a pillowcase and included the bedding in the care package. The letter of thanks that Kim received from Ellis, in which he described the pleasure of laying his head next to his family at the end of a difficult day in the Middle East, brought tears to her eyes.
It also brought her a write-up in the The Apex Herald, a newspaper in North Carolina where Kim runs her photography business.
Publicity might not have been the first thing on Kim’s mind as she looked for a creative way to make life a little better for a friend in Iraq, but it’s certainly a valuable result. Kim’s name is now known in her area. It’s also associated with generosity, care, patriotism and charity. When someone in Apex, North Carolina is considering booking a portrait session, they’ll think of her. She’s stolen a march on her competitors, won the kind of recognition that would have cost thousands of dollars in advertising, and picked up a halo that money can’t buy.
The Principles of Publicity
For many businesses, this kind of marketing looks about as reliable as winning the lottery. The media only has a certain amount of space to fill each month. There are no shortage of stories to fill those spaces, and the chances that a reporter or an editor will choose to write about you can look very small. Far better to put the effort into search engine optimization for your website or tweaking your Facebook ad than to spend it writing press releases that are only going to be ignored.
But while there’s no guarantee of success when you send out a press release about your photography business there are principles that, when followed, can increase your chances of seeing your name in print.
Linking your business to charity work helps. The press, especially the local press, loves writing about businesses that are going out of their way to help others. Bringing the public news about those efforts makes the reporters feel that they’re contributing too. And as Kim Crenshaw’s work showed, the more creative and original the contribution, the better.
Kelli Svancarek, a photographer in New Lenox, Illinois, did something similar. She teamed up with a number of local animal charities to offer a 15-minute photography session and a 5-by-7-inch portrait of their pet. In return, the pet owner had to make a $25 donation to the National Animal Welfare Society (NAWS) and buy an item from an animal rescue center’s wish list.
As a marketing technique, it was a smart move. The offer brought Kelli into contact with potential clients. It allowed her to show off her talent and gave her a way to provide samples. It also let her network with a bunch of different animal charities who might all be interested in using her work in the future. (In fact, the idea came after Kelli had already volunteered for the NAWS, shooting portraits of dogs available for adoption.)
It also attracted the attention of the local press. Like Kim Crenshaw, Kelli’s charitable act might have been made with entirely charitable motives, but it’s still strong enough to deliver valuable publicity, right in her market, and with a powerful brand identity.
Link Your Business to Valentine’s Day
Kelli’s story though didn’t appear just as a tale about a local business giving back. The first sentence of the article describes it as a Valentine’s Day story. Linking your business to a topical issue is another way of helping the media — who will then be more willing to help you in return. The press has to write about Valentine’s Day but they need an angle that they haven’t covered in previous years. Give them a press release that provides that new approach, and they’ll grab it.
That topic can be a date in the calendar but it can also be an issue in the news. When that happens, the publicity can spread much further than your local broadsheet. Andy Dare, for example, a travel writer and photographer, happened to find himself near Macchu Picchu recently just as floods and mudslides forced the Peruvian authorities to airlift stranded tourists. His pictures and account won him a write-up in Wanderlust, a UK travel magazine.
You might require a bit of luck to cash in on this kind of national publicity but that’s not always true. It’s also possible to use your photography deliberately to add a new voice to an ongoing debate — and win publicity for your efforts. As America military leaders review the country’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, for example, LA photographer Jeff Sheng, has released the first in a series of volumes of portraits showing gay men and women in the military. It’s a political issue that’s topical and it gives the press an opportunity to offer a new and human angle on a story that they have to cover. It was important enough to win Jeff coverage in The Los Angeles Times.
Winning publicity for your work then isn’t a matter of luck. It takes a good story that fulfills the media’s need to provide information to the public. A charitable act by your photography business can do it, as can a story related to a date on the calendar or an issue that’s already in the news. Nor does the kind of outlet matter as much as you might think. While a local newspaper will have a relatively small readership, if you only serve people in your area, you won’t need to appear anywhere else. And if, like Jeff Sheng, you do have a product that can be sold nationwide, it’s worth remembering that even the big outlets often take the stories from the small ones, letting you turn one small publicity success into another, giant one.