It pays to take a systematic approach to small business public relations.

Public and media relations, known as PR, is a powerful small business marketing tool. By PR, we mean getting positive mentions in the press about your firm in local, trade and national publications.

These mentions are powerful because they are viewed as coming from unbiased third parties, so they are more believable. People may think ad messages are just sales hype, but when they read about how great you are in the local business journal...well, it must be true!

A lot of people think that gaining positive PR is luck. But that's not the case. It's the result of a systematic commitment to generating media coverage.

The hardest part is getting the PR machine rolling. Once you get coverage, there are ways to ensure it keeps on coming. The more coverage you get, the more the press will keep coming back to you. Here's our step-by-step system for generating positive press coverage.

Step 1 - Build relationships. Target your media sources, including a growing list of Internet-based media and news resources. Start networking with these media targets today by requesting editorial calendars, sending industry information, commenting on stories they write, passing on surveys and data, and inviting them to workshops.

Tip: Network with the advertising sales folks at the publications too, since they will give you lots of good information about who does what and where in the course of trying to sell you an ad.

Step 2 - Create three or four central media themes that support your core-marketing message.

Step 3 - Create a list of 10 to 12 minor, but interesting, marketing-related themes for ongoing PR. You need to fill in with volume while you are working what could be the front page feature.

Step 4 - Create a PR calendar and assign a PR theme and goal for each month. Focus on one publication or one writer and you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish. Remember to target editorial calendars. (Publications will often assign monthly themes, so match your pitch to the theme.)

Step 5 - Write a fully developed pitch (here's a sample Media Pitch Letter), for each of your major themes. A pitch is a story idea that you can "pitch" to a member of the media. This is not a press release, but more of a sales job. Wrap your story idea around a news angle or trend and package it to interest the readers of a specific publication you are pitching. You can change and repackage your pitches as needed. These are reserved for your central media themes.

Step 6 - Formulate one-page press releases with catchy headlines for each of your minor themes.

Step 7 - Once a month, target your core media list and distribute a press release or pitch for a major theme. Post all press releases on a national wire service, and send copies of your press releases to clients and prospective clients. Don't forget opinon pieces and letters to the editor.

Step 8 - Follow-up with your core media list by telephone and offer some new piece of news or trend angle that you did not include in your pitch or press release.

Step 9 - Track media coverage in local and trade press, set-up Google Alerts for a number of key related terms and reprint for marketing purposes any media coverage you've received.

Step 10 - Send handwritten thank-you notes to members of the media to thank them for an interview or mention.

Are you starting to get a glimpse of how combining advertising, PR and referrals can build momentum and create marketing energy? Try it and see the results.