Like most home improvement company owners, Cliff Hearn, owner of Legacy Roofing in Redmond, Wash., never considered hiring a public relations firm. Until a marketing company he was using to polish his company's image suggested he do so. Last year Legacy Roofing spent about $55,000 with Duo Public Relations, out of a marketing budget of $345,000. And though Hearn now has “leads off the charts,” just how much of that is owed to PR remains somewhat vague. He says 3% of those leads are directly attributable to PR, but it is likely that the actual number is considerably more.

Where Does PR Fit In? Home improvement companies spend big bucks on lead generation, but rarely does PR fit in to their marketing equation. Those who use PR usually do so as part of a branding strategy designed to make their company's name synonymous with its products, with good service, or with civic contribution.

“PR can either help you, or be a complete waste of money,” says Fraser Seitel, author of The Practice of Public Relations, considered the authoritative book on the subject. PR can do for you what marketing can't, Seitel points out. For instance, it can “break through the clutter of paid advertising.” It can also establish your credibility through third-party endorsements.

Grass Roots Stuff Kip Lee, owner of Coastal Empire Exteriors in Savannah, Ga., says such endorsements are three times as powerful as any kind of advertising he could buy. In January, Lee began spending $2,000 per month with a local PR agency called Carriage Trade. That's resulted in near-weekly local news coverage. In addition, the PR firm landed him several speaking engagements as a marketing expert, one of which resulted in a $37,000 sunroom sale. Lee sees PR as boosting the advertising his company has already created. “We're building this momentum,” he says, “so that when they do decide to buy, one of our ads will take them out.”

Legacy Roofing wanted to do some micro-level marketing, such as sponsoring scholarships and awards in local high schools in areas where it seeks new customers. The community loves that stuff, and it builds your reputation,” Hearn says. But, he points out, he wouldn't have known where to begin to start pulling the strings to put programs such as that into place. “The detailed stuff is really a pain. They do all that for us.”

Long-Term Strategy A PR agency might be exactly what your company needs to get itself in the public eye. To begin, Seitel suggests earmarking 10% of your ad budget. Decide what you want to accomplish — be it a sales increase, a cause marketing presence, or increased community profile. Let the PR agency know your budget and ask if it can achieve your goals using that amount. And, he says, be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

“It doesn't work in a month or two,” Seitel says. “You have to be in it for a consistent period of time to see results.”