The art of public relations is a marketing strategy that can pay off with big returns. In fact, the Public Relations Society of America measures the average value of a media placement as five times that of an advertisement. While advertising is the only guaranteed way to control the content and timing of your message, positive media coverage can help establish your credibility, enhance your image and influence your potential clients.

The good news is that all editors share the same problem, whether they manage a quarterly trade magazine or a daily paper: They continually need timely, interesting, informative stories.

Now for the bad news: Most editors are inundated with pitches. From e-mail spam to unwanted faxes to reams of mail to endless telephone calls, everyone, it seems, is vying for editors’ attention. How can an advisor possibly compete?

Increase your odds by being relevant, targeted, genuine and thoughtful in your approach. These techniques will help you avoid common mistakes and write queries and media releases that journalists are more likely to notice, read and select for publication.

Understand the purpose
To get your story in print, in most cases you’ll need to contact a writer or reporter and pitch the idea. One way to accomplish this is by sending a brief query letter accompanied with a press release – a short, one-page document that explains something newsworthy about your business. The document generally includes a compelling headline that sums up the information, the date of the release, the news and your contact information.

The straightforward format of a press release enables journalists to quickly understand your idea, decide whether it’s relevant and determine how it might benefit their audience.

Begin with the end in mind
Before you launch a campaign, determine exactly what you hope to achieve. The more specific your goals are, the better you’ll be able to target your efforts. If your news is immediate – you want to promote an upcoming event, for instance – target your pitch to the daily newspapers, plus news directors at radio and television stations. Most magazines, on the other hand, require a lead time of four to 12 months or longer and are better suited for long-term goals like increasing awareness or building image.

Aim your pitch at readers
Editors consider stories from the audience’s point of view, and you should, too. Good pitches are targeted toward the ultimate reader and will persuade the editor that your information will benefit or inform his audience. A bad pitch is filled with self-serving verbiage that quickly convinces a journalist that you’re just a publicity-seeking hack.

Byron R. Moore, CFP, managing director for Ruston, La.-based Argent Advisors Inc., writes a regular column about financial issues for the daily News-Star in Louisiana.

“You must have a genuine desire to give something of value to the media outlet, and you can’t just view the media as a direct means to an end,” Moore says. “You really have to partner with the media in that sense, and it can’t just be all about you.”

Write your press releases to provide good, usable content. For example, most editors will yawn if you send a release announcing your new annuity product. But if you write an informative pitch with a chart that helps people understand how to compare similar annuities on the market, it’s more likely to get accepted.

Target your efforts
It’s crucial you send your query to the exact person who can make the decision; make sure you’re not sending a life insurance story to the lifestyle editor. Avoid “boilerplate” letters and releases and mass mailings; they just don’t work, and they may annoy journalists to the point that your name gets added to the dreaded spam filter.

Your pitch should also be localized to the community or region you’re targeting. Can an advisor seek national publicity? George Blooston, personal finance editor at AARP: The Magazine, says, “I’m looking for bona fide news and real experts, authorities who can inform our 22 million readers about spending and saving issues. There are only so many products that come out, so there aren’t many prospects for individual advisors to promote themselves at the national level unless they’re a noted authority.”

Read on for some tips about how to establish your reputation as such an expert.

News sells
You’ll have a much stronger chance of getting published if your topic is newsworthy. For example, when the Terry Schiavo crisis was making headlines, Moore wrote an article about living wills for the News-Star entitled “Take steps now to avoid leaving a crisis.”

“I’ve learned that stories communicate effectively and help people to understand complex subjects,” Moore says. “The response that I get from readers is ‘You write in a way I can understand you. I feel like I know you.’ Building trust is the ultimate result I hope for.” Watch the headlines for opportunities to share your expertise.

Use good photography
Editors often need high-quality images to accompany stories. If you have an appropriate photo, mention it in your letter. Include a CD and proof in a regular mail package. With e-mail queries, you can insert a low-resolution (25 KB or less) version of the photograph in the copy, but don’t send it as an attachment; just mention that you have a high-resolution file available that you can forward if requested. It’s also crucial that the issues of rights are settled before you offer photography. Unless you own the full rights to the image or have written permission to use the photo, don’t offer it. Be sure to specify if the image needs a photo credit and provide the photographer’s name.

Write it well
Be concise and keep your information to one page of text. Don’t use flowery language or promotional words. Anything that even hints of an advertisement is the death knell for a press release, so avoid superlatives and hype. Don’t write that your product is “world class,” that your service “has a 100 percent money-back guarantee” or that readers should “call today for your free evaluation.” Don’t use all caps or exclamation points. Do include the relevant details (bulleted points are great for that) and don’t forget your contact information.

Be courteous in your tone, check your document for spelling, proofread it carefully and read it aloud before you send it.

Send it to the right person
Don’t send your letter to “Dear Editor.” Call first and get the appropriate contact’s name. Personnel shuffles constantly in the media industry, and the only way to ensure you’re reaching the right person is to call right before you send your information and double-check. Since common names are often spelled in unusual ways, it’s a good idea to verify the spelling of the editor’s name – even if it’s Jon or Nanci. If the contact’s name is Lindsey, Jordan, Alex or even Sam, don’t make gender assumptions – check first.

Send it the right way
While most reporters and editors prefer e-mail, it’s best to call the publication and ask for the preferred method of communication. Faxes, once common for contacting journalists, are now considered bad form because the effort costs the recipient money in paper and toner. E-mails have many advantages because they allow for quick response, are non-intrusive and give the recipient complete control; still, they need to be written and sent with care. (See the accompanying sidebar for tips on sending good e-mails.)

If you’re mailing a pitch, include your company name and address on the outside of the envelope; remember the anthrax scare and make your package as “normal” as possible.

Follow up with care
It’s okay to send one polite follow up e-mail checking an editor’s interest, but don’t expect a response. Editors will generally contact you if they’re interested. And when they do, respond promptly. As a freelance writer, I’m often surprised when publicists ‘court’ me and then don’t return phone calls or take a week to respond. Journalists are often working on tight deadlines, and a prompt response may make the difference between whether you’re written about or written off.

“If you answer questions in a timely and straightforward way, you’ll become known as a trusted and reliable source for the media and you may be called upon multiple times,” Moore says.

Take the long view
Public relations is an ongoing process. Some media placements may happen quickly, and others take time. An editor may file your information away and call years later for a quote. The important thing is to maintain consistent, professional, accessible, friendly contact.

“It’s like investing,” Moore says. “Developing good media relationships is a long-term proposition and you can’t rush the process.”

Consider the professionals
If you’re too busy with daily operations for a solid public relations effort, it may be worthwhile to hire a P.R. professional who has established contacts within the media and can demonstrate proven results. The publicity and marketing assistance you gain may be just what you need to take your business to the next level.