“Public relations” is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but understood by few. This may be due to the fact that it’s a pretty specialized field that without personal experience, you may not be familiar with all that it entails. Or, maybe the confusion comes from having seen too many episodes of Sex in the City, where PR seems to be all about fancy parties and club openings.

So what exactly, you might ask yourself, is PR? In my opinion, in simplest of terms – it is what you do to help build a relationship with the public – your public, your community, your target audience or customer base.

It’s extremely important as a business or organization to maintain a positive relationship with your community, because that relationship has a huge impact on which companies the public ultimately chooses to patronize. Cost is important, as is a quality product or service, but what people think about you, and their perception of how they will be treated by your business, may end up being the determining factor over whether you or your competition gets their loyal patronage.

PR firms are often hired to revamp a company’s image or boost visibility, and it can be a large undertaking. But as a small business owner, I hope you’ll familiarize yourself with PR on your own level, and consider undertaking some tasks that – for a low cost – will give you fantastic results in terms of return on investment.

USE SOCIAL MEDIA IN UNIQUE AND INTERACTIVE WAYS. It’s easy to create a Facebook page for your business, but just having it exist isn’t enough to be effective. I urge you to really interact with fans and potential customers. Host contests or giveaways. Encourage employees to participate and get your name out within their own networks. Give people a reason to interact – offer coupon codes, daily specials or helpful tips. Make sure people know you have a social media presence by including your information on all marketing and press materials.

One of my favorite restaurants shares its daily specials with friends, advertises special events and recently shared a location change to keep loyal patrons in the loop about goings-on. Frequent posting puts a personality behind the business and allows people to participate in the conversation, but try to avoid information fatigue that can result by posting too many times about things that your audience may not deem interesting, important or useful. More isn’t always better when it comes to social media.

Twitter is an invaluable resource when used appropriately too – companies like Southwest Airlines and Comcast use the outlet to communicate with customers who Tweet positive or negative messages, and share company information. Twitter has the capability to search for key terms, allowing you to easily find customers who are open to interaction and have relevant questions, comments or concerns.

PARTNER WITH NEARBY OR COMPLEMENTARY BUSINESSES. Recently, while browsing online for happy hour options, I sought out new downtown eatery Pizza Rock’s website. There, I learned of a Wednesday night partnership between the restaurant and neighboring developments Dive Bar and District 30. Each week, if patrons purchase one drink at any of these establishments, they’ll receive half off all drinks at all three businesses from 9 p.m. to close. It’s a great deal for the late night crowd, and I’m sure these partners have all gained a pretty penny as a result of the incentive offered to customers who may have otherwise visited only one of them – or purchased only one drink.

Think about your business – what type of similar partnership might you be able to establish to encourage new and repeat customers? A pet store might offer reciprocal discounts with dog walkers or groomers. Retail stores can partner with salons that cater to similar audiences. In this economy, everyone is looking for a good deal, and if you can sweeten it through a partnership with another favorite business, you might just gain a new, lifelong customer.

SEEK MEDIA OPPORTUNITIES. There’s the traditional way to get your name in the media – distributing a news release – but what if you don’t exactly have an announcement about your business, but would still like to go the media relations route?

For those business owners who offer themselves as a contributor to print publications and broadcast news organizations, there’s a wealth of potential customers to be gained just by simple exposure of your company name. My favorite morning news station has professional contributors from all types of businesses. A doctor is on once a week to offer health advice. A personal trainer regularly contributes workout tips. There’s even a lawyer that answers viewers’ legal questions.

One way to get in touch with journalists for precisely this type of partnership is HelpAReporter.com. This service allows potential contributors to enter their specialty into a database, and concurrently allows reporters to search for experts on any story topic they are writing. When there’s a match of needs and contributions, both parties benefit and achieve their goal. Chances are that you’re an expert in something related to your field of work, so identify it and get in contact with your local news organizations.

START A COMPANY NEWSLETTER. Newsletters can be a great way to keep in contact with loyal customers, but don’t waste your time and money printing and mailing hard copies. Electronic newsletters via email accomplish the same task and are just as effective.

I’ll tell you which ones don’t get the automatic “delete” button from me (and other consumers):

  1. I don’t receive them too often, and they have something new to tell me.  Avoid overdoing it – consider a quarterly newsletter that has more meat over a monthly one that you have to stretch to have content.
  2. The information benefits me. If there’s a special discount, recipe or tips that pertain to my life, I’m more likely to read it and possibly follow a link to your website – or better yet, forward the newsletter on to a friend or colleague. A reminder of your services doesn’t help me – I’m probably already familiar with them if you have my email address.
  3. It’s visually appealing. The newsletter just can’t be a block of text – I don’t care to spend my time scanning for the content that interests me, so if it’s not easy to read I won’t read it.

Give some (or all) of these options a try if your public relations strategy is in need of a boost. They’re some of the lowest cost but best ways for reputation enhancement and customer attraction and retention.