Every year, fitness facilities across the nation budget substantial portions of their marketing budgets to traditional advertising venues — print, radio, direct mail and, in some cases, TV — while a possibly more cost-effective way of reaching the masses is left relatively untapped. Public relations is the orphaned child of many companies' yearly marketing agenda for reasons ranging from not realizing the importance to not realizing that even the smallest club has something to share with the public.

“Individual clubs can become well-known by helping the media do its job,” says Connie St. John, president of The St. John Group, which used to handle PR for Gold's Gym. “By becoming a source for the media and getting that third-party endorsement it enhances the brand and is more cost-effective than advertising, especially during a downturn in the economy.”

While reaching out to the media as a source or with a story of your own to tell the key, according to many PR professionals, is to remember that speaking to the masses means making sure you have a story they really want to hear.

“One thing that businesses — all businesses including health clubs — need to know is that they have to think about what information the media outlet is looking to get out to its audience,” advises Pam Lontos of Orlando-based PR/PR. “It is important to think of the issues facing the readers such as nutrition, yoga, equipment and exercises for bad backs, etc. You can't just tell them about your club.”

But telling the business' story alone is often the biggest mistake made by many trying their hand at do-it-yourself public relations.

“Effective public relations campaigns are accomplished through consistent campaigns that give information people can use. Concentrate on benefits, not features, says Donna Kozik, a free-lance communications consultant from San Diego, CA. For example, she continues, “a release announcing your facility's new hours will not get you coverage in the media because it's a feature of your business. But a release announcing new hours created after surveying members and finding a majority of them want to start their workouts at 5 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. shows a benefit your business offers.”

GOING TO A PRO

But the question remains, can a small business afford to hire a PR professional to handle the time and needs that go into mounting an effective strategy?

“[PR] is not rocket science and you can go to Barnes & Noble and buy some books that will help. And, if you make a mistake, nobody's going to die on the operating table,” says David Morrison, an independent PR consultant from Alphretta, GA. “But if your skill is running a fitness facility what makes you think you can do PR effectively? You don't have the skill and you don't have the time.”

And while it may cost to hire a big PR agency to handle your publicity, there are alternatives and the costs may pay for themselves in the long run, no matter what size the fitness company is that is doing the hiring and building its brand.

“In the end, the average chain can't compete with the major industry chains, which have huge ad budgets — sometimes in the millions of dollars — and have PR budgets in addition,” says Katherine Rothman CEO of KMR Communications Inc., a New York-based PR firm specializing in health and fitness. “Small companies can't touch the big guys on advertising budgets. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on ads, spending on a PR campaign can get them editorial coverage and build credibility. David Barton is a small gym that has done a great job of this.”

Kozic suggests hiring a free-lance copywriter with experience in media placement to help keep costs down and services high.

“Free-lancers usually don't require a retainer and their hourly rates are less than a full-fledged agency, she says. “Copywriters are also well-connected with others that can help expand other marketing ideas through brochures, newsletters or the Web.”

Even if a club owner decides to use a public relations firm, there are ways to keep costs down while getting similar services as those who are using larger firms.

“The best way to streamline PR expenses is to avoid the larger agencies and find someone willing to work on a project fee basis, rather than on a monthly retainer. Doing so allows you to only buy just what you need and nothing more,” says Suzi Prokell president of Aledo, TX-based Prokell Publicity Inc. “If the PR person is good enough, you won't need an ongoing campaign after your initial launch because you'll have all the items you need after the campaign is completed.”

FLYING SOLO

Still, others will feel they have the time and talents to go it alone, which can also be successful if the right steps are taken.

“If you have a sense for what makes good stories, train a staff person who will be comfortable calling on the media and do your publicity in-house. Get some of the great books that show you how to write a press release and pitch story ideas to the media, and write articles on topics that offer valuable tips on various health and fitness topics,” suggests Roberta Guise, MBA, president of Guise Marketing & Public Relations headquartered in San Francisco. “Fitness is a commodity, and it will take creativity and perseverance to come up with compelling story ideas for media coverage. If you can tie into a community cause, then you have a steady anchor on which to pin your story ideas.”

The first steps on a self-propelled PR campaign are usually baby steps, but steps that build a foundation for future success.

“One of the best things clubs can do is get to know the editors of local newspapers. Invite them in and get to know what they are looking for and give them a chance to know you and your staff,” recommends Michelle Bates Deakin of Arlington, MA-based Deakin Communications. “This relationship can lead to a lot of different kinds of placement by the club from quotes in a story to a regular column. All of which help to show the club as the source for fitness in town.”

This kind of relationship may grow into one of national prominence as well, as national journalists are always looking for credible, expert sources from all regions.

“Gym owners often think that if they are not in a big city they can't benefit from PR locally or nationally. They couldn't be more wrong,” says Rothman. Big city gyms often get more attention because they are spending the money on PR. But these national outlets realize that their audience comes from all parts of the country and they look for sources to match.”

In the end it doesn't matter what size the fitness company is, where it is located or if it's public relations and branding campaign is done by a pro or not, PR can be a cost-effective way to reach the masses and raise awareness both of the need for fitness and the value your particular club provides.

Ten Tips to Generate News for Your Club and Brand

Connie St. John, president of The St. John Group, suggests these 10 do-it-yourself campaigns to generate media interest in your facility:

  • Tie in with news events of the day.
  • Arrange an interview with a local celebrity who works out at your gym.
  • Hold a fitness contest: Interest the media in before or after coverage.
  • Arrange for an interview from someone who dramatically changed his or her appearance, health and life by working out at your gym.
  • Present an award. For example, give a “Most Fit Newscaster” award to a local TV newsperson. Their station is sure to cover it.
  • Celebrate an anniversary.
  • Issue fitness tips for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, etc.
  • Stage a special event. Tie it in with a cause in your community.
  • Customize national reports and surveys about fitness for local use.
  • Tie-in your local news to national campaigns, for example,women and heart disease campaign.
  • A Review of The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR

    Author: Al and Laura Ries

    Reviewer: Michael Hoffman, Heart Communications

    Al Ries' 1981 marketing book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, became a New York Times business best seller, proclaiming that branding success depended 101 percent on your ability to make consumers identify your company with a single word or concept that was compelling and instantly recognizable. Of course, this was not a new idea. Johnson & Johnson has done it for years with Band-Aids and Hallmark cards has done it with “Caring enough to send the very best.”

    But, Ries made such a powerful argument for the importance of positioning, and the effectiveness of advertising in the process, that everyone from One Minute Manager author, Spencer Johnson, M.D. and Vanderbilt University Business School professor, Bruce Henderson, declared him a guru.

    FOURTH BOOK IN THE SERIES

    Ries and his co-author, Jack Trout, kept writing business books and produced two more bestsellers, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, and it was in this last book that Ries began to swing from the value of advertising to the value of PR as a positioning tool. In fact, the third immutable law of branding was public relations, and advertising followed as law number four in effectiveness. Now, still evolving his theories, Ries has written The Fall of Advertising and The Rise of PR, a thoughtful explanation of how and why PR gives birth to a brand and advertising simply serves to reinforce the brand once it is built.

    In a nutshell, Ries' new book has two major theses:

  • PR is infinitely more powerful and credible than advertising.
  • PR is infinitely more cost-efficient than advertising.
  • WHAT'S WRONG WITH ADS?

    Ries carefully substantiates his claims. He cites a recent survey of 1,800 business executives by the American Advertising Federation, which showed that public relations is more highly regarded than advertising. They ranked PR as the third most important marketing function behind product development and strategic planning. Advertising ranked sixth, behind R&D and financial strategies. The executives all said that the weakest link in advertising is its credibility. Most ads are taken for exactly what they are — biased messages paid for by a company with a selfish interest in what the consumer consumes.

    A classic example cited by Ries is the battery ad that says, “No other battery lasts longer than Duracell.” Translation: they're all the same. Reinforcing his belief that many advertising people are only one step above car salesmen, Ries' cites a recent nutrition product ad that said, “Our product contains more vitamins, more minerals and more proteins than any other product on the market,” but does not say how much more, leading a smart consumer to assume that it must not be much more.

    Finally, Ries explains the advertising industry's too-frequent emphasis on creativity and cuteness, at the expense of providing compelling information that will motivate a consumer to believe in a product and service and buy it repeatedly. His favorite example is the Budweiser “Whassup?” ad campaign, the release of which did nothing to stop a precipitous, if only temporary, drop in sales of the beer.

    The author finally takes exception with the cost of advertising. For example, a 30-second Super Bowl TV spot in 1972 cost $86,000 and reached 56 million viewers. Last year, that same ad spot cost $2.1 million and reached 88 million people — a 16 times jump in cost of reaching each 1,000 viewers.

    THERE ARE GOOD ADS

    Image ads, as compared to limited-time or price offers, or unsubstantiated, hyperbolic language ads, are a form of third-party endorsement that qualifies and explains the value of a product or service. Image ads build credibility and trust in the mind of consumers. Ries is a fan of Volvo's strong advertising work that substantiates the value and effectiveness of its cars' reputed structural integrity.

    In our industry, ClubCorp's current image campaign features VIP members at clubs across the country, and in a subtle and tasteful way intimates that if you become a member of one of these clubs, you will be associating yourself with a successful, active lifestyle. There is absolutely no mention of membership prices or offers. The headline, “Who Belongs to‥?” sparks interest and the photos and bios of the members are strong testimonials to the specific reasons they consider their memberships a good investment. The campaign has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for ClubCorp, and any club can mimic a quality campaign of its type.

    Remember, Ries does not say NEVER advertise, he says advertise after your brand has been made strong with media and community relations campaigns.

    WHY THIS MATTERS TO OUR INDUSTRY

    The club industry has not managed to establish a reputable position in the American consumer's mind, though it is improving. Campaigns like Gold's Gyms' recent gifting of memberships to Washington, D.C. legislators and their staffs, IHRSA's first legislative summit in the capitol and the member personality profile campaign Heart Communications orchestrated for ClubCorp demonstrate smart PR thinking.

    At the same time, TV stations and newspapers are choked with the same tired, old price bargain-oriented ads and blatantly false infomercials featuring mostly young, buff models, not the porkier Baby Boomers who are an increasingly large percentage of the club and home exercise product market. And, most club ads still do not clearly state that personal training is not included in the cost of initial membership. These ads are disingenuous and misleading and only serve to perpetuate the image of clubs that frankly do not care who remains a member and who does not.

    Besides, these campaigns are more expensive than orchestrating a consistent media and community relations program. Imagine how much industry image good one of our largest club chains could have done with the money it spent a few years ago on an ad campaign about aliens eating fat people?!

    Ries believes PR is where creativity should be concentrated in your marketing effort, developing strong and original stories of interest to the media and the consumers who will read them. He says it only takes one smart PR person to create more goodwill in a marketplace than dozens or even hundreds of questionable ads. That is why Ries advises companies to boost the percentage of their annual marketing budgets targeted to PR staffing and programs.

    As a parting shot, here are a few of Ries' most pungent quotes:

    Advertising should follow PR in both timing and theme. The purpose of advertising is not to build a brand, but to defend a brand once it has been built by other means, primarily PR. All the recent marketing successes have been PR successes, not advertising successes. To name a few: Starbucks, The Body Shop, Amazon.com, Harry Potter, Sam's Club, a Wal-Mart sibling, averages $56 million per story with almost no advertising. Until a brand has some credentials in your mind, you are going to ignore its advertising.

    I'd like to continue discussing this book with you, but I have to go to the health club down the street; they're advertising a 2-for-1 special, and it expires today. Yikes!

    Michael Hoffman is the founder of Heart Communications, a Southern California reputation management firm that provides PR strategy and campaign services to the active lifestyle industry, lecturers, authors and universities.

    Effective Publicity

    Tools For those who are ready to market a product, service, company or event but have a limited budget, the following grass-roots suggestions from Carla McClanahan of Dallas-based McClanahan PR, are helpful in providing positive exposure:

  • Meet with local media. If you don't know them, meet the reporters who cover your business. Offer to buy them coffee or take them to lunch in an effort to share information. These informal background sessions can be helpful to both parties, if handled professionally. Be prepared to talk about big-picture perspectives and your professional opinion on industry trends, while also providing specific information about your business.

  • Position yourself as a professional “source.” Write how-to or advice articles for industry newsletters, area newspapers, magazines, Web sites and/or trade publications. Being published lends instant credibility among your target audience. Also, reporters are more likely to interview a credible source who offers legitimate information to their readers.

  • Secure speaking opportunities. Contact local organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, rotaries, professional associations or other relevant groups, and offer yourself as a qualified speaker. Of course, you must be prepared with several applicable topics. (To prepare you for public speaking, consider joining Toastmasters.)

  • Participate on relevant boards. Find an organization that you would like to join, get involved on the board and offer your services or experience. These boards can be non-profits, corporate or even professional associations. While this is an indirect way to promote your business, you will (hopefully) develop invaluable relationships, while serving a good cause.

  • Join professional organizations that reach your target audience. If possible, try to avoid the same organizations that your peers join.

  • Pursue radio and TV interviews. Most markets feature many opportunities to appear on local broadcast programs.

  • Leverage trade show or conference appearances. If you are going to participate in an industry trade show, set specific goals, such as generating new business leads, meeting with 50 percent of existing customers or practicing new sales techniques. Since media typically attend trade shows, invite them to your booth to see your presentation or secure an interview to discuss your product or service. The conference planner will provide you with a list of registered media.

  • Invest in a Web site. With the cost of local web hosts being quite affordable, this is an effective way to get the word out about your business. Make sure that the content provides value to the guest and that you update your site frequently to attract repeat visits.

  • Network. Nothing beats getting out and meeting people who may need your service.

  • Heart Communications Resource List

    More Books Every Marketing Manager Should Read

  • Marketing Public Relations, The HOWS That Make it Work Rene A. Henry Jr., Iowa St. University Press
  • Reputation: Realizing Value from the Corporate Image Charles M. Fombrun, Harvard Business School Press
  • Building Strong Brands David Aaker, The Free Press
  • The Anatomy of Buzz Emanuel Rosen, Doubleday/Currency
  • The PR Reporter Newsletter Lawrence Ragan Communications, ChicagoPositioning: The Battle for Your Mind