Many small business owners feel like creating a public relations presence isn’t quite worth the investment.

They assume it either requires a costly partnership with an outside agency or an expensive internal hire (or perhaps that it’s something only big companies with national clientele would truly benefit from).

But in reality, any company of any size can reap the many rewards of establishing a PR presence. It doesn’t matter if you’re located on Wall Street or on a quiet side street in Small Town, USA—leveraging PR is the best way to organically engage your target audience and shine a spotlight on your company.

When you neglect PR, you prevent your brand from receiving key media exposure that establishes it as a legit player in its space. And further, as an entrepreneur, you’re missing out on an opportunity to cement your footing as a thought leader. PR is a great way to share your personal expertise with potential customers, business partners, and employees alike.

Setting the record straight

PR often gets lumped into the same category as advertising and marketing—which is why so many small businesses assume they’re covering all their bases by buying ad space in the local Yellow Pages and sponsoring posts on Facebook.

However, PR isn’t a tangible thing you purchase. It’s not like traditional advertising where, for a fixed price, you’re handed a blank canvas and allowed to showcase your product through whatever messaging and imagery you come up with.

Furthermore, it’s not like marketing where you spend money to serve pay-per-click ads, boost your SEO, and bump your name to the top of Google’s listings. PR is earned media—not paid media—and all it takes to get started is an email address and a great story.

3 tactics to kick-start your presence

It’s really quite easy for small local businesses to get the ball rolling on PR—and it definitely doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

Here are three creative ways to embrace PR without spending a dime on an agency or hiring additional employees.

1. Befriend a bunch of journalists

In one of its simplest forms, PR can be boiled down to forming relationships with journalists, emailing them relevant story ideas, explaining how your brand fits into the picture, and helping them craft a narrative around that.

Though you don’t have as much control over the messaging as you do in a traditional ad, getting your brand mentioned in an article carries more weight because it is coming from a third-party resource. Readers know the journalist isn’t getting paid by your company to write the piece or to be overly complimentary about your product, and that means their endorsement is held to a much higher regard.

Begin the process by assembling a list of at least 10 journalists who either write about your industry or cover a local “beat” that pertains to your brand. Read through their archives to get a feel for the types of topics and trends that make them tick. Then, root through their social media accounts to get to know them as human beings. Understanding their personal and professional quirks will increase your chances of piquing their interests.

The next step is to hunt down contact information—whether that’s an email address you find on an author page or a direct message on a social media account—and begin sending out tailored, personalized notes to introduce yourself, comment on recent developments in your industry, and explain why your company is changing the game.

Keep these messages short, sweet, and authentic. Tailor them to each journalist, adjusting the tone and content to suit his or her personal preferences and interests.

Ultimately, your goal is to create relationships based upon mutual value. If you position yourself as a key source of information who’s aiming to help writers produce great content, they will be more than happy to shout you out in their articles.

2. Create in-person VIP experiences

Once you’ve created your Rolodex of journalists, start inviting them, your loyal customers, and the general public to join you for exclusive events that showcase what you’re all about. Provide special sneak peeks, free samples, and an overall experience they’d never get from walking into your store on an average day.

If you’re a gourmet food and wine company, for example, you could host a special tasting menu night where you invite the local press to preview new dishes before you release them to the public.

If you’re a service provider, an online startup, or any other entity that lacks a physical space suitable for hosting an event, put your VIP experience on wheels and bring it to your target audience. Try creating a traveling demo experience where you hand out free samples throughout town, or post a contest on social media where the first five people to “like” your status get something in return.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you film it, tweet about it, post pictures on Instagram, and direct the media’s attention to how your brand is engaging with its community in fun and friendly ways.

3. Take on a charitable cause

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is all the rage these days, but it’s not just corporations that should be embracing this trend.

Getting involved with charitable causes shows that you’re dedicated to the local economy and the people living in it. When you give back to your community, people take notice, and you’ll see a nice PR boost as a result when local news outlets pick up the story.

A key ingredient of CSR is authenticity, so make sure your community engagement efforts are always tied to the values of both your company and your clients. Send a survey to your loyal customers, asking what they think your hometown’s most pressing needs are. Then, show that you’re listening by taking on a social mission that pertains to their responses.

Get creative with how you contribute to these causes. For example, if you run a sock shop, consider donating a pair of socks to a local homeless shelter every time someone spends a certain amount of money at your store. There are really countless options when it comes to CSR, and as long as your actions are authentic, they will only lead to positive PR.

You don’t need to hire high-priced experts or invest in an agency to start conversations about your brand. All you need to do is form the right relationships, host occasional events, and align yourself with causes that are near and dear to your community.

No matter how small, local, or digitized your business is, PR can and should be a key driver of awareness for your brand.

AvatarElliot Tomaeno

Elliot Tomaeno is the founder of ASTRSK, a PR agency based in New York City.