A Path Toward Small Business Success

12/02/2010 10:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Don McNay Best selling lottery and structured settlement expert

Well the program director don't pull it
Then it's bound to get back the bullet
So bring the group down to the station
You're gonna be an overnight sensation

-- Eric Carman and the Raspberries

As a writer and businessman, I know firsthand the value of a well-written media story.

If you trace the history of almost any national company, you'll find that somewhere along the way a story in a publication put that company in the spotlight.

It's like winning the media lottery. You toil for many years in relative obscurity and suddenly you become an overnight sensation.

It happened to me.

I was 23 when I started my structured settlement and financial consulting business, McNay Settlement Group. For a few years, it grew only by word of mouth.

I did well within Kentucky because two of my first clients, Peter Perlman in Lexington and Frank Haddad Jr. in Louisville, were two of the best trial lawyers in the state's history. They recommended me to their friends and associates. But by age 29, I was still unknown nationally.

That all changed because of a story in the Lexington Herald Leader.

Business Editor Jim Jordan wrote a feature about my work with injury victims that explained it in a way that captivated the reader. It also grabbed the attention of many national publications.

The next thing I knew, magazines like Forbes and Financial Planning were calling to do their own stories.

Next thing after that, potential clients were calling from all over the country.

We went from being a local business to a national business as a result of a few hundred well-written words.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. I'm a writer.

I know that comments in my newspaper column or in my blogs on The Huffington Post have tremendous power.

I've done a number of book reviews for The Huffington Post, and sometimes I've seen the Amazon sales numbers jump within hours after a favorable review.

It's a power I don't take lightly. My readers are looking for guidance and I don't give my "Good Housekeeping seal" of approval to just anyone.

I want to scream when I see small businesses, with the potential to be "overnight sensations," screw it up.

Journalists are not interested in being public relations or marketing people. They are interested in finding good stories. Some business people don't seem to get that.

Byron Crawford spent nearly 30 years writing fascinating stories about unknown people for the Louisville Courier Journal. He told me that every person has a great story. It is just a matter of finding it.

It helps if a business has an identifiable owner or spokesperson.

It's more than just ego that made the late Dave Thomas, who started Wendy's, or John Schnatter, who started Papa John's, star in their company's television commercials. It was a way to remind people that the fast food chains were not started by nameless, faceless corporations.

They were started by entrepreneurs chasing the American dream.

Faceless corporations do not make for a good story. Chasing the American dream does.

If you have some connection to the rich, famous, or powerful, make sure the world knows about it.

I watched Ted Gregory build his small Montgomery Inn, a rib joint outside of Cincinnati, into a national powerhouse. Whenever a Bob Hope or an Arnold Palmer or a well-known celebrity ate at the restaurant, Ted made sure that the world knew about it.

I watched another Cincinnati restaurant owner, Jeff Ruby, use the same celebrity strategy.

Not everyone has a celebrity clientele, but anyone who is successful in business knows how to sell.

Ironically, that selling skill often goes out the window when dealing with journalists.

Business owners who can be charming and customer friendly in business dealings can turn uncooperative, pushy or defensive when talking to the news media.

Business owners need to treat journalists just like any other clients they are talking to on a one-on-one basis. They just keep in mind that the world might be listening.

And as with any good client, once a media relationship is developed, the business owner needs to make sure to keep it up.

Jim Jordan and I remain friends, 20 years later. I call him every year on his birthday (which is easy to remember since it's the day before mine).

The same skills that will make you a business success, like following through on commitments and saying "Please" and "Thank you," will make you successful in communicating with the media.

Maybe enough to be an overnight sensation.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the founder of McNay Settlement Group, a structured settlement firm based in Richmond Kentucky. He is also an award winning columnist and Huffington Post Contributor. McNay is a member of the Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Distinguished Alumni and has masters degrees from Vanderbilt University and the American College. He is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table.