By Bob Nieman | Apr 16, 2009
A few months ago, Tom Rhodes saw an opportunity to do something nice – and get some free publicity for his laundry business.
A columnist for Rhodes’ local newspaper, the Hometown News, had lamented in a recent column about her overworked husband and her malfunctioning dryer.
"It seems that her husband was working 80-plus hours a week during the months following the two hurricanes that struck the area, and never found the time to fix the dryer," said Rhodes, who owns Sunshine Coin Laundries, a chain of laundromats headquartered in Vero Beach, Fla. "After listening to his wife complain for two months, he finally got around to looking at the malfunctiong dryer. The problem was that, while he had pulled apart the dryer to find out what the problem was, he hadn’t actually fixed it. And there the dryer lay in the garage, disassembled, for another two months."
So Rhodes wrote to the newspaper, mailing the columnist a gift certificate to use for wash-dry-fold services at any of his stores. The letter was published in the newspaper, thus giving Sunshine Coin Laundries invaluable publicity:
I read about your malfunctioning dryer and overworked husband. I, too, am a husband like yours, who has the best of intentions with household projects, but never seems to get around to finishing them! Starting them is easy; finishing them is a different story!
We own a chain of laundromats in Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Vero Beach, and sympathize with your plight. So for Valentine’s Day, we are mailing you a $50 coupon for free wash-dry-fold service for you to use at any of our locations. This will buy your husband some extra time getting the dryer fixed and hopefully ease any marital strife that the malfunctioning dryer may have caused in your life. Drop off your clothes, and let us wash, dry and fold them for you.
"Being a publicity hound, I ate it up," Rhodes said.
Apparently, Dan Kachadourian, who opened Mr. Stadium Coin Laundry in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1972, also has a taste for good publicity. Based near the University of Michigan campus, he lets his college customers promote his business through Mr. Stadium T-shirts. In fact, over the years, intramural teams have used his T-shirts as uniforms, and former students have sent photos from all over the world of themselves in Mr. Stadium garb.
However, Kachadourian’s laundry business scored some A-list P.R. in the recent romantic comedy “The Upside of Anger,” where Kevin Costner can be seen wearing a maize-on-blue Mr. Stadium T-shirt.
According to the Detroit News, Costner was preparing for one of the scenes shot in suburban Detroit when he decided that his attire wasn’t quite right. The “Bull Durham” star pointed to a Mr. Stadium shirt that a crew member was wearing. “I want that one,” Costner decided.
And in the promotional footage for the movie, the shirt is clearly visible beneath a sweatshirt. Upon hearing the news, the store immediately sent the cast and crew dozens of shirts and caps. In addition, the shirts are available for $9 at the laundromat, or $15 if purchased online at the store’s Web site.
“Public relations is human relations and a critical aspect of growing your business,” said Jill Lublin, owner of Promising Promotion, a full-service public relations agency located in Bel Marin Keys, Calif., as well as the author of “The Insider’s Edge to Powerful Publicity.” “Everything you say and do is part of your P.R. campaign. It is the image you project every day to everyone you meet. It is about you and your company becoming a force in the public eye on a regular basis. P.R. that you undertake yourself can be a primary way to grow your business and become known without major expense.”
Unlike advertising, public relations does not involve payment for the positive exposure you receive. It’s generally free. And in those cases when it’s not free, positive public relations can often be obtained at low costs.
An example of positive public relations activities are the various worthwhile fundraising drives conducted by churches and charities. For instance, by participating in a Red Cross blood drive (and having the Red Cross bloodmobile parked in your self-service laundry’s parking lot a couple of times a year) and getting a mention or two in your local newspaper, your store will appear to be community-conscious. And the free publicity will remind potential customers where your store is located.
Another option would be to sponsor a charitable activity that involves your existing customers and fills a community need. Promote “Toys for Tots” or “Coats for Kids” through your laundry.
A couple of laundry owners recently did just that.
Matthew Andras, owner of Laundry Mill in Matawan, N.J., turned his store into a holiday-themed staging ground for a month-long Toys for Tots drive this past holiday season, along with a little help from Matawan Cub Scout Pack 179. Organizers said that the drive was a huge success, covering the tops of roughly 25 feet of washing machines with gifts.
“It was great, better than we expected for our first time out,” said Mary Ann Reis, Pack 179’s Cubmaster. “We ended up with probably close to 10 bags of toys.”
“We’ve been very much trying to portray ourselves as a community-oriented store and wanted to do something that’s good for the community,” Andras said.
As far as clothing drives, residents of eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire donated 64,603 coats this winter to the annual drive conducted by Anton’s Cleaners. The final tally was a nice surprise for Anton’s, which has been running the drive for 10 years and cleans the coats for free.
“It was a remarkable display of giving,” said Charles A. Anton of the most recent effort. “It is especially gratifying to see the students at local schools getting behind the program. They are learning that giving to others is in itself a gift.”
Anton’s also participates in a program called Belle of the Ball, which provides dresses to high-school girls who might not otherwise be able to afford to go to their proms.
“Belle of the Ball is about creating a magical night for high-school junior and senior girls,” Anton said. “Every girl who wants to go should have the opportunity to go to her prom. We want to help make that possible.”
Reading programs are also great community promotions (and public relations ideas). In fact, every first Wednesday at Super Laundry in Gardena, Calif., children can gather to the voice of Community Library Manager Tina Carwile for a fun-filled, educational experience. During the readings, children listen to classic stories, laugh and sing songs as well as play with stickers and collect coloring sheets, while parents wash their clothes uninterrupted.
“I wanted to create a sense of community,” said Super Laundry co-owner Crissie Hassannia, who pitched the idea to Carwile and the library staff. “We need to show the importance of education and reading, and kids are a great start.”
Hassannia hopes to expand the program in coordination with the library’s new Hispanic-oriented section.
There are literally hundreds of public relations opportunities for you. The little extra work it takes to pull off a successful public relations event is well worth the positive publicity you will receive.
Perhaps invite the high-school home economics class to use your laundry as a lab for a day. Wash flags free for your community’s 4th of July celebrations. Offer your store as the site for a charitable auction or social gathering. Donate all of the abandoned clothes you’ve collected to the homeless. Clean firefighters’ or police officers’ uniforms at no charge. Be on the lookout to tie into a local community event that already is getting media coverage.
Looking for something more offbeat? Do what Gene and Julie Ringley did. Last Halloween, the owners of Kleen Gene’s Laundromats in Harrison and Lake George, Mich., celebrated by dressing up as dirty laundry. The couple, sporting laundry baskets that were held up with suspenders, handed out candy to local children. Now there’s a newspaper photo op.
Keeping the mood light and taking advantage of its location, a Lucy’s Laundrymart in Los Angeles would host live comedy on Wednesday nights. The performances even received a review in L.A. Weekly.
If you’re looking for a more mainstream way to promote your coin laundry, consider sponsoring a Little League baseball team in the spring, or an adult softball team in the summer. How about sponsoring a bowling team in the fall? It’s a donation to a popular community function (and a potential tax write-off). And every time a member of the team wears his or her jersey out in public, it’s free advertising for your business.
Furthermore, participating in any organized community sporting activity – whether as a player, referee or fan – enables you to make new friends, while introducing yourself and your business to the community.
If your community has established a program where it helps the needy or homeless clean their clothes, donate cleaning coupons usable only in your store. That makes great news for the local newspaper and/or radio station. One of the great things about sponsoring community-oriented promotions is that your store is getting free publicity, while at the same time, you are doing something good to help those around you.
Another way to make your public relations event more successful is to involve your current customers. When running a promotion, set a goal, and post the various stages and the end results in your store – such as how many toys you plan to collect, how much money you wish to raise, how much blood you want to contribute and so on. Send out press releases throughout the event so that you can receive continuing coverage, and so that your customers can pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Again, customer involvement makes for a more successful activity, and a successful activity give you a reason to contact the media in your community.
There are several ways (and reasons) to promote your coin laundry. The first thing you have to do is decide who you want to target for the promotion. You might choose to offer an in-house promotion to your regular customers, by offering a punch-card for a free wash or dry; or by offering a free turkey drawing at Thanksgiving, or a free ham drawing at Christmas. Those types of promotions are geared toward thanking your existing customers for their patronage.
If you’re opening a second store, perhaps hold a contest to pick a name for the new store. Your customers will feel more connected to your store, knowing they played an important role in your new venture. When you give the winner his prize, be sure to have a camera handy, and send a press release and a photo of the winner to your local newspaper.
Remember your grand opening? Many coin laundry grand openings include free balloons for the kids, a free wash or dry to attract new customers, free soda, and a lot of colorful streamers and signs. Maybe you hired a juggler or local celebrity to greet visitors. Perhaps you invited a local politician (they’re always looking for publicity).
Did you call your local newspaper to come out for the ribbon-cutting ceremony? That makes a great photo in the paper. And the same celebration can be held again for one-, five- and 10-year anniversaries.
Also, when you add a new service such as drop-off drycleaning, purchase new equipment or expand your facility, you can use those events to promote your business in a newsworthy press release to the local media. Make the press release short and simple, adding a quote or two to spice it up a bit.
Make your promotions as exciting as possible, and continue to keep the media informed. Every time your name appears in the news for this promotion, you have received free advertising – and you have helped someone else at the same time. In this way, you have successfully developed a favorable image of your store in the public’s mind. In addition, it shows that you are truly committed to the community in which you do business.
Of course, doing positive work in your community and with your coin laundry business is great. However, if you don’t build a relationship with the local media, your efforts may not be truly appreciated, because you won’t get any coverage.
Like anything else, it takes practice. If your local community college offers a class in public speaking or media relations, sign up. You’ll pick up tips that will be worth the effort. However, the real key to dealing with the media is understanding the world from their point of view, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. Here are some pointers:
• Reporters are always on deadline. When they call, you have to take the call or call back immediately. Otherwise, someone else will be quoted in the article.
• Make notes on what you’d like to say, but don’t read them verbatim. Speak easily, as if you were talking to a friend. Your quotes will sound better in the newspaper or on television, and reporters will come to value you as a source.
• Be honest and helpful. Say, “I don’t know,” if you don’t, or offer to get back to the reporter as soon as you can with the answer to a question you’re uncertain about.
• If you like, ask the reporter to read your quotes back to you. This is fair game and allows you to correct or clarify your statements. However, it’s not OK to ask to see the written story before publication. Almost all journalists will take this as a professional affront.
• Reporters appreciate a scoop. News tips are their products, just as working washers and good customer service are yours. When you can become a source and build a trusting relationship with a reporter, you’ll create a valuable asset for the future.
• Ask who else the reporter plans to speak with, or if he’d like you to suggest others who may be good resources. Often, they may appreciate the help you can provide.
Above all, remain professional and positive. Your image comes across whether you’re talking by phone to a print reporter, or you’re on camera for a live television interview.
“Always know how and when a reporter wants to be contacted,” said Peter Granat, senior vice president of MediaMap, which develops communications management solutions for public relations agencies and corporate communications departments worldwide. “Some reporters want phone calls, other prefer e-mail, and still others want news the old-fashioned way – by snail mail. In the case of breaking news, some reporters even recommend that you call them on their cell phones if they can’t be reached at their desks. Contacting reporters inappropriately or at the wrong time – such as on deadline – can lead to damaged relationships.”
Also, follow up aggressively, Granat suggested. While some reporters will provide coverage after one phone interview, that is often not enough. It is important to be in front of reporters on a consistent basis with compelling information that demonstrates what you are pitching is viable, credible and worthy of coverage.
In addition, whenever possible, pitch by phone. “This will get you better results and allow you to build the relationships you need to ensure consistent success,” Granat said. “Plus, it’s much easier for a reporter to delete an e-mail or send a quick ‘no’ than it is to hang up on you. When using the phone, leave one message only, and then continue to call the reporter at different times of the day until you catch them live.”
As for specifically writing press releases to be submitted to your local newspaper, here are a few rules to follow:
1. Keep your press release short and simple. If you write a long-winded press release, chances are when it hits the desks at your local newspaper, it will sit unread because no one wants to take the time to muddle through it. Keep your press release down to one or two type-written pages, and keep it as simple as possible.
2. To make the press release easier for the editor to read, make sure it is typed and double-spaced. Write the words “For Immediate Release” in the upper left-hand corner of the page, and the date in the upper right-hand corner of the page.
3. Write the most important facts about your events first. The six questions you must answer early in your press release are: who, what, where, when, why and how. Be sure the store’s name and address are in the first sentence.
4. Make your press release interesting to the reader. Keep in mind that what you might find interesting might not be interesting to the general public. You want to write your press release with the widest appeal possible.
5. Check and re-check your press release for spelling and/or factual errors. The more professional your press release appears, the more likely it will be published. If your press release requires major revisions to make it printable, then it’s likely it will not be used by the newspaper.
6. Remember that the reason you are writing the article is so that you can promote your activity.
What should you write about? Getting publicity for your self-service laundry doesn’t require some glitzy, expensive mega-event, but it does require news of some sort. And you may be surprised to know that, once you think about it, you’re actually doing a lot of newsworthy things.
Are you adding some new equipment? Renovating? Sponsoring a sports team? Donating clothing items to charity? Hiring a new employee, or naming an employee of the month? Celebrating a five-year anniversary? Holding a raffle? Starting a recycling program? Implementing a time-of-day senior citizens special?
Of course, the Coin Laundry Association’s FiveStar Laundry advertising program is a great way to get local media coverage for your business. Just the fact that you’ve been deemed a “five star” facility by your industry’s national trade organization will be considered worthy of coverage by most editors.
What’s more, the FiveStar marketing kit includes a pre-written press release for you to simply customize and send to your local newspapers to promote your new rating.
Another way to get your name in the newspaper is to write an “op-ed” piece, which may be public relations’ most underutilized tool. In fact, one of the best ways to gain credible visibility is to have an opinion piece you wrote get published.
“In an op-ed, you essentially state your conclusion first,” explained John McLain, a former journalist and now a national media consultant. “You make your strongest point up front, then spend the rest of the op-ed making your case, or back-filling with the facts. Done right, it is persuasive writing at its best. You will help the company win converts and gain high-quality publicity.”
Here is McLain’s checklist for keeping your op-ed on track:
• Focus tightly on one issue or idea – in your first paragraph. Be brief.
• Express your opinion, then base it on factual, researched or first-hand information.
• Be timely and controversial, but not outrageous. Be the voice of reason.
• Be personal and conversational; it can help you make your point. No one likes a stuffed shirt.
• Be humorous, provided that your topic lends itself to humor.
• Have a clear editorial viewpoint – come down hard on the side of the issue. Don’t equivocate.
• Provide insight and understanding: Educate your reader without being preachy.
• Near the end, clearly re-state your position and issue a call to action. Don’t philosophize.
• Have verve, and “fire in the gut” indignation to accompany your logical analysis.
• Don’t ramble or let your op-ed unfold slowly, as in an essay.
• Use clear, powerful, direct language.
• Emphasize active verbs, forget the adjectives and adverbs.
• Avoid clichés and jargon.
• Appeal to the average reader. Clarity is paramount.
• Write 750, double-spaced words or less. Fewer is always better.
• Include a brief bio, along with your telephone number, e-mail address and mailing address at the bottom.
First and foremost, public relations is a tool. And it also can be a huge advantage for those laundry owners who take the time and make the effort to use it properly. If you learn to use public relations creatively, you can enjoy a substantial competitive advantage over the other laundries in your marketplace who don’t.
With a little practice, public relations and promotional ideas are quite easy to come up with. It’s up to you to make each event as successful and newsworthy as it can be, to get your store’s name in the local newspaper or on the radio for free.