08/07/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

An Honest Look at Dishonesty: 5 Tips to Unleash the Power of PR

Let's be honest.

Public relations as we knew it is dead. Gone are the days when national news crews and reporters roamed the country with reckless disregard for travel budgets in the search of news. In the old days, news would trickle down to local media outlets. Today, that process has been reversed -- news trickles up.

A story originating from Middle America suddenly becomes national news because strong local coverage often bolsters national interest. It could be Vermillion, S.D., Omaha, Neb. or Indianapolis.

In a recent campaign for Honest Tea, my team was able to generate considerable media coverage for the National Honesty Index. The light-hearted social experiment visited all 50 states & Washington, D.C., gauging honesty in America by setting up unmanned kiosks stocked with bottled drinks next to a Lucite box asking for $1 on the honor system. Data was recorded (including characteristics like gender, hair color and facial hair) on who paid and who didn't. When all the data was tallied, the states were given an 'honesty rank' due to the number of people who paid for or stole drinks. Alabama and Hawaii were the most honest states with 100 percent of people paying for their beverages, while Washington, D.C. was the least honest location in the country with 80 percent of people paying for their beverages.

Local newspapers and television stations were able to localize the story for their audiences. For instance, the mayor of Louisville, Ky. paid for his tea. A teenage girl stole 2 bottles of tea in Charlotte, N.C. and came back four more times throughout the day, bringing friends with her to steal each time. In another city, someone had thief's remorse and mailed an apology letter to Honest Tea along with $2 for the beverages he stole.

In Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Star ran an article on the experiment highlighting Indiana's third place finish. The Indy Star is owned by one of the largest media companies in the country, Gannett. With newspapers and television stations across the country, as well as the flagship paper USA Today, Gannett media outlets often share content in an effort to reduce redundancies and lower costs. In this instance, USA Today picked up the Indianapolis Star article and adapted it for a national audience.

The story went from local to national in only a few hours -- from grass to mass.

Harnessing the power of PR in the new media landscape takes a special understanding of the media. Here are 5 tips to propel your next campaign:

1. Understand the New Media Reality
When corporate conglomerates decided to invest in the world of television, news outlets had to change. Now news operations are expected to make a profit. Over time, that has led to fewer news crews which are tasked with creating more content. To get the footage they need, national news programs now rely on local affiliates to cover big stories. We're not just talking about video, but on-air talent as well. How often have you seen a local TV reporter on GMA or TODAY wearing a "LIVE 5" or "Action News" logo jacket? This is the trickle up effect of news. The same is true in the print world; what starts in the Patch could end up in the Washington Post.

2. Know the Story
Not every story is a fit for every outlet. Understanding what the media is looking for allows you to frame your story for each outlet's needs. For instance, on the Honest Tea campaign, we knew the media would gravitate to two elements of the story. First, Washington, D.C. came in last on honesty. That fits into a number of existing perceptions about our nation's capital. Second, the President & TeaEO of Honest Tea had his bicycle stolen while he was visiting one of the experiment locations. Ironic? You bet. The media ate up both of those elements.

3. Start Small
Yes, you want your story to be featured on the national news, but often that's not the starting point. By starting small, a groundswell of coverage can lead to national interest. In the case of Honest Tea, the story was featured on FOX News a full six days after the results were released. Sometimes it takes time for story to take hold. By starting with smaller outlets, your story has the potential to grow, much as the Indianapolis Star piece developed into a USA Today article. Even if the story doesn't end up on a national outlet, it isn't a failure. After all, most people still get their news from local sources.

4. Be Social
Once you have a hit -- particularly in the case of an online publication -- make sure to merchandise the hit. Spread it through your social media channels. We call this amplification. Make sure everyone in your office is looking at it, because online outlets constantly monitor the web traffic to their stories. If a story is doing well (aka. getting a lot of clicks), then it will receive a higher placement on the website, which leads to even more clicks and interaction with your story.

5. Harness Virality
By doing all the things above, you have positioned your story to be picked up by a mass audience. Keep in mind websites that aggregate content, like Yahoo and MSN, can yield massive results. These sites look for hot stories with "sexy" headlines that are often reported elsewhere. If you can supply that, you have a good chance to go viral. Then, hold on! You're in for a fun ride as the hits roll in.

Keep these five tips in mind when developing your next public relations campaign. With a mind toward the limitations of the new media landscape, you can use this new reality to your advantage by turning a small hit into national success.

Mark Pettit is president & CEO of Creaxion, one of the nation's leading marketing firms. Mr. Pettit has more than 20 years of marketing experience and is an expert in grassroots marketing. A former TV newscaster and published author, he also serves on the board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and on the marketing committee at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Follow Mark on Twitter @PettitMark and online at