An owner of a small (less than $5 million) company asked me last week why companies engage in PR. It seemed so obvious, that I had to go back to the basics...

You know your company does great work. Your employees and clients know it, too. But until you start telling your story-and sharing your successes-with wider audiences, you're likely to remain the proverbial "best-kept secret."

Enter public relations. PR can help a company reach new audiences, achieve top-of-mind awareness, establish a leadership position and enhance image. In fact, some say the only difference between the no-name shops and the big-name firms is PR.

If you aren't already doing PR, you should be. And if you aren't sure where to begin, read on.

1 - Getting Started - First find your PR agency partner. Whether you follow an initial "gut" feeling or engage in a lengthier selection process, chemistry is likely to play a role in your choice of PR consultant. A PR consultant should become an integral part of your team-someone who you'll trust, be comfortable with and enjoy working with. To that end, most smaller firms are likely to prefer working with a small PR agency or sole practitioner in a principal-to-principal relationship. Large PR agencies-while ideal for huge corporations-are unlikely to deliver the level of service you need.

2 - Arranging the Terms - As with any service, there are various ways of contracting for PR consulting. Most agencies and consultants recommend that clients pay a monthly retainer. Of course, you also have the option of hiring them on a project basis with an hourly billing structure. Before you sign a contract, be sure to inquire about what services are included in your monthly fee. Whatever pricing structure you choose, it might be wise to begin with a six- to 12-month commitment. Long enough to get PR going and to test the waters, but short enough that you can make changes if it's not going to plan.

3 - Setting PR Goals - Once you begin your relationship with your PR consultant, it's important to have realistic expectations. For starters, don't expect overnight success. It will take a bit of time for the consultant to become intimately familiar with your firm and to build or update an arsenal of basic tools, such as your background, fact sheet and bios. And keep in mind that many publications are monthly or bimonthly and have long lead times. So even if your consultant makes contact quickly, it will likely take three to six months before you see any results from thier efforts. Above all, experts advise against expecting to garner a certain type of coverage in a particular publication. Rather than creating such limiting goals, focus on building a workable plan that will guide your activities and provide metrics for measuring your success. If a plan is put into place that provides a consistent approach and is strategically focused, goals will be met. The results you get will be equal to the amount of time and effort that's put into it. A consistent stream of pitches, press releases and meetings with the media will produce the best results.

4 - Maintaining Momentum - Even after the initial excitement wears off, you'll need to continually re-energize your commitment to your PR program. That will require frequent, consistent communication with your consultant. PR cannot be conducted successfully in a vacuum. It requires a time commitment from the principal to work with the PR consultant, share what's going on with the firm and actively participate in the process. A PR consultant should become an integral part of the team and be viewed as an investment in the future of the firm. In other words treat your PR effort as you would your most important client. The more attention you give it, the more satisfied you'll be with the results.

5 - Measure - Make sure the factors for success are clear from the beginning, so both the client and the agency know where they are heading and how they are doing against SMART goals. This allows for a meaningful conversation between the client/agency on a regular basis - focused on business requirements.

Good luck! The global economy is dependent upon these smaller businesses, so let's use PR to make them great, create jobs and stimulate growth.