The audience was small, just forty or so people. The venue was obscure, the cafeteria of a seniors center. The time was not prime, 7:15 on a Tuesday night. The speaker was an unknown to those in attendance, yours truly. But I was engaging in public relations, reminding myself that PR can mean community outreach as much as working for a big client or company.
I took the podium at what amounts to a town meeting, at least in New York City. I spoke for three minutes about a problem impacting some local businesses. I implored the members of my Community Board — a fifty-strong citizen’s committee with City Council backing — and my community to pay attention to the issue that I was raising.
Then I cornered a representative of a city agency, and I pounded my message home. A representative from my assemblyman’s office asked me for more information, which I gave unwillingly. Two local business owners, including one Community Board member, pulled me aside to get more information. I shook hands, exchanged business cards, and promised to follow up. Most important, a writer for a local newspaper took me aside for a quick interview. If this type of community outreach wasn’t a good public relations strategy, I don’t know what is. Of course, most people engaging in public relations get paid.
My experience was part of my mission to better serve my community. I figure that after almost a decade of living in my neighborhood, and a decade of complaining about various things going on in my neighborhood, I should do something to improve things.
After being approached but some local business owners about the problem, my first thought was to contact some friends at some major New York newspapers. Then I thought about it the issue: Is it newsworthy? In our community, certainly. Outside of our community? I couldn’t imagine anyone caring much. More to the point, there wasn’t much of a hook for journalists. There was no poor widow or crying child, no homeless family or corrupt politician. What we had was a little locally-grown soap opera with a small potential audience.
Eschewing the media angle, I first called my local assemblyman. At least he returned my phone calls, probably because I mentioned that I was a former journalist. Realizing that I needed to be a bit more vocal, I decided to attend the Community Board meeting. I brought some of the business owners with me, but acknowledging that I had public speaking experience, they decided to send me to the podium.
Although I only got three minutes to speak, the payoff was worth every minute I had to wait. (And that includes the infuriating 20 minutes that someone from the MTA took to explain to us that our subway line would be closed for two consecutive weekends.) I got my group’s message across and made some good contacts, and we may get some publicity of out the whole thing. And all it took was 90 minutes of my time.
Our time is precious, of course. We have our families and friends, our jobs, and our own individual passions. We are, however, each a part of a community. As such, more than just being part of a collective tax base binds us, and our skills in public relations can go towards helping our communities.
To this end, I picked up a second “client” at the Community Board meeting. He is being forced out of his business after almost 40 years because the city won’t release a relocation grant from a fund for businesses being displaced by a massive rezoning. He needs to get some publicity in order to force someone into action.
“I’ve got cancer also,” he told me. “Exploit me all you want. I just want to save my business.”
I like having a public relations client who knows the game.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.