Public relations is the art of activating news outlets, social media sites and influential members of your community to advance your brand. For any dealership, large or small, an effective PR strategy ensures that your most important register-ringing marketing messages reach your target audience.

For some dealers, that target audience is elusive and varied, perhaps limited only by geographic region or a baseline salary. For others, the target audience is much more specific; it can be defined by a combination of many factors, including geography, income level, education, family size, age, gender, marital status and other interests.

When implemented effectively, a public relations strategy puts your financial model on steroids by building a personalized “roadmap” that literally drives your target audience to your dealership. It’s the world’s most dynamic, cost-efficient means for activating new consumers and reminding your past consumers precisely why they should remain loyal. Let’s review the five initial steps to making a PR strategy work:

1. Determine Your Target Audience

Which members of your target audience are of greatest value to your dealership’s financial model? Answering that question is a matter of deciding who your target audience is, as well as who you want it to be in the future. Public relations is not just about where you are at the moment; it’s also about where you want to be in the days, months and years to come. And if the two destinations are different, we use long-term PR planning to bridge the distance.

Think of it like this: PR is a tool for moving your brand from point A to point B. But if your PR team doesn’t understand where you are right now — and where you hope to be in the future — then how can it possibly navigate you to where you want to go? It can’t. 

My advice would be to avoid any self-declared PR guru who starts telling you how to market your business before understanding what your business is, and who you need to activate to remain profitable.

2. Create a Profile of Your Target Audience

How does your target audience think? Whom do they rely on for information, and where do they go to get it? Learn which local TV and radio shows, newspapers, magazines, Websites, social media platforms and newscasts they frequent, as well as which local “thought leaders” and trendsetters they admire. You also want to know which local events and community activities they support.

Dealers who purchase billboard ads on busy streets and highways can catch the eyes of thousands upon thousands of drivers buzzing up and down the highway. But they’re also spending lots of money — probably most of their advertising money — to reach thousands of people who simply aren’t qualified for their message. That’s wasteful.

With PR, your message is more impactful and your marketing dollars go further because it’s infinitely more targeted.

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3. Put Your Best Foot Forward

Decide which of your dealership’s unique attributes (i.e., its brand identity) will have the most meaningful, memorable impact on your target audience. Think of all the things that make your dealership special. Perhaps it’s your commitment to fairness or your ties to the community. It could be your longevity, your location, your inventory, your owner or your staff. Maybe it’s your adoption of technology or pricing. Bottom line, effective public relations mandates that you analyze your attributes, not in the context of what’s meaningful to you — but in the context of what’s meaningful to your target audience.

And if, upon further reflection, your dealership’s brand identity isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be, relax. By deciding what you desire your brand identity to be, you can use PR to manufacture this identity for you. But until you decide for sure, your brand-building efforts will not be optimized.

4. Package Your Story

Package your top attributes in a storyline your target audience can quickly process and immediately understand. Let’s pretend your desired brand identity is that you’re a locally owned automotive dealership that’s committed to helping others in your community. So how do you communicate this to your target audience? By examining all the available facts, and then building a believable, credible supporting narrative. 

For example, when “branding” your dealership as a pillar of the community, perhaps there’s a story you can highlight where your dealership took extra special care of an individual whom your target audience can relate to. Maybe it’s a military family you took care of, local celebrities or sports figures that had great experiences at your dealerships, or crime victims or someone in need that you helped out. It could also be a story of a school or charity you supported.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you develop your own narrative, such as your dealership developing a low-cost instructional Webinar on safe driving for the local schools. You could use your PR efforts to promote the Webinar to the media, which would serve as yet another example of your dealership’s steadfast dedication to helping others.

Whichever attributes you select, it needs to be consolidated, packaged and professionally promoted. 

5. Get the Word Out

Now it’s time to disseminate your carefully packaged stories to the media outlets you know your target audience values and consumes. This includes pitching press releases and media advisories, soliciting interview requests, enhancing your social media messaging, preparing news copy and distributing complimentary storylines.

This stage is more difficult than it sounds. It’s not enough to simply have a great story to share; you also need to communicate this story to the gatekeepers and decision-makers in the media. And if the story doesn’t immediately excite them, they won’t give it a second look. Even in smaller communities, the media members receive dozens of press releases every day. If the subject line in the e-mail isn’t sexy, the journalist won’t bother opening the press release in his inbox.

In a practical sense, what does this mean for your dealership’s marketing strategy? It means that effective PR isn’t just about profiling your target audience — it’s also about profiling your target media.

So, what kinds of stories are journalists most likely to cover? Well, it’s a story that doesn’t require a great deal of work. Remember, those in the media are all on time-sensitive deadlines and are attracted to low-hanging fruit. Stories that fit into their outlet’s existing social narrative make for perfect pitches, as are pitches on community-interest stories, especially if they are about your city’s movers and shakers. Stories about topics they already understand and have previously covered also make for good pitches. Remember, if they’ve covered a particular topic, then that means they believe it to be important to their readers.

So give the media what they want. Package your brand attributes in a storyline they want to cover. In return, they’ll give you what you want. Good luck!

Scott Pinsker serves as director of public relations and global marketing for Viking Media Marketing. E-mail him at [email protected]

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