The Simple Secret of Free Publicity

Whether you operate a large or small chain, there are deals to be made that can attract a lot of positive attention to your company.

I know some of you don’t place much of a value on publicity, but when was the last time you priced the cost of a retail ad in the local newspaper? The “secret” for free publicity is much the same as the secret to effective selling—match the right product with the proper occasion at the perfect time.

For two straight years, around the Fourth of July, I garnered the front page of an area newspaper—in full color at no cost. The second year I became the centerfold and, if you look closely at my picture, you’ll know I’m not centerfold material. Yet, all it took was a phone call to get this primetime publicity. I simply called the editorial department and asked them if they would like to snap a picture of Uncle Sam on July 3rd handing out American Flags in advance of their July 4th issue.  The rest is history.  Making the media’s job easier gains you many opportunities. In this case, they came to one of our stores and used the Amoco sign as a back drop.

The next year, I made the same phone call and the same editor said, “sorry, we did that last year.” I replied, “what if Uncle Sam was on rollerblades?” Not only did they run a small color shot on the front page, but I found myself as the centerfold.

Radio Days
If you’re not into having your likeness spread all over the media, fear not. There are other ways of gaining free publicity. During my time as the CEO of a seven-store chain in upstate N.Y., I was approached by a local radio station trying to sell me on being one of eight sponsors that would be involved in giving away a trip for two to Aruba. Each sponsor was asked to pay $6,400. My brain quickly calculated the station was raising more than $50,000 for the trip. I was hesitant and declined instead determined to reverse the entire scenario.

First I obtained prices from a local travel agent on not one trip, but four—one trip each to the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Disney World and a cruise. The total cost was $16,000 after negotiating a discount from the travel agency for using their name on all print ads.

I then went to a radio station whose signal covered our entire marketing area and pitched the idea of making them a full partner in all four trips in return for free advertising. They loved the idea and bought in on the spot. Several times each day they’d announce their call letters, our company name and announce, “the 10th caller will automatically be registered for an all expenses paid trip for two to the Super Bowl.”

Winners were interviewed live on air and future promos were made as each winner called in live from the venue and gave rave reviews. It is so important that customers know there really is a winner.  We also partnered with one large and four small local newspapers and received free promo ads from them for adding them as sponsors. Each drawing was held live on air by the radio station in the lobby of the largest newspaper.

If this little idea is starting to pique your interest, the best is yet to come. Eight of our best vendor partners each paid $2,000 as “official sponsors” and this mighty seven-store chain got major free ads and promos all year long while giving away four great trips, all at no cost to us. Certainly business and reputation were greatly enhanced. Email me, and I’ll send you the actual promos.

The lesson here is don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Not all thoughts are going to come to fruition, and there will be times when you might wish they hadn’t, but sometimes, when your budget is stretched and your cash is strapped, keep thinking until you come up with a winning idea. If it worked for a small seven-store chain, just think what it could do for the big guys.

Jim Callahan has more than 40 years experience as a convenience store and petroleum marketer. His Convenience Store Solutions blog appears regularly on He can be reached at (678) 485-4773 or via e-mail at


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