Since launching her blog in 2008, retailer Alice Cunningham has run almost 900 posts about everything consumers may want to know about hot tubs and saunas.

The blog has generated tens of thousands of views, brought traffic to Olympic’s website, and perpetuated Cunningham’s reputation as an industry expert. That blog keeps on giving, says Cunningham, former co-owner and sales and marketing director of Olympic Hot Tub Company, a multi-location retailer in Washington’s Greater Puget Sound area. (The business was recently sold to longtime employee and former vice president Don Riling.)

Clearly, it’s been an Olympic medal-worthy public relations venture.

To some pool and spa retailers, public relations may seem to be a lower priority than salesmanship, advertising and offering attention-getting specials. But it plays a crucial role.

“Public relations is creating your brand by creating the reputation you have in your community,” says Lynda Sisk, vice president of Hot Springs Spas of Santa Cruz & San Jose, which has locations in both those California cities.

That includes capitalizing on traditional media, social media and community involvement to place a spotlight on your company, position yourself as an industry expert and go-to retailer.

With well-planned initiatives, this discipline can have powerful results.

Good press
Most local newspapers, weekly magazines and other media outlets have small editorial staffs. This reality can work for or against retailers.

On the one hand, editors, reporters and producers are overworked and often inundated with mail, calls and emails. If you send information to them, you may never hear back. On the other hand, they always are looking for good stories and good sources. You can provide both.

To make this connection, try to identify which reporter or editor would make the best fit for pool and spa subject matter. Write up a story idea, complete with all the key facts, in a concise press release or email. If possible, include good photos. The story should provide timely tips or significant news of general interest.

“Don’t brag about yourself, because no one cares,” advises Brett Abbott, president of MYM, Austin, Texas, a marketing firm specializing in the pool and spa industry. “If the story isn’t newsworthy, no one is going to run it.”

The release should be written so that it can be in a number of ways — used as-is, edited, or tapped as part of an article. Even if editors choose not to pick up the story, a well-prepared pitch could help you land on a list of sources to call when other pool and spa related stories come up.

Sisk goes a step further, writing bylined articles. “Local magazines are looking for content and are usually grateful,” Sisk says.

When a story covers a topic that matches their needs, they will get picked up. For the health and recreation issue of a quarterly magazine, for instance, she wrote about the health benefits of hot tubs. “Especially if I am running an ad in a magazine, I propose to do an article too.”

When writing these articles, professionals should aim to establish themselves as thought leaders in the field, says Greg Turner, vice president of Ball Consulting Group, LLC, a strategic communications firm in Newton, Mass.

If media relations or writing are not your strengths, get help. Services are available online and around the country to handle business marketing and communications.

“I really think that they will have better results if they work with a local professional who has knowledge of the uniqueness of the specific market and the media,” says Laurie Batter, owner and president of Carlsbad, Calif.-based BatterUp! Productions, who specializes in marketing for the aquatics industry.

Online buzz
Of course, more and more businesses do at least some of their marketing on the Internet, via their own websites, as well as social media and e-mail blasts.

Dan Lenz runs a robust online PR program, including plenty of email blasts to categorized segments of his 27,000-strong customer database, as well as social media.

“A good review on Facebook is as good as a referral,” says the vice president of All Seasons Pools & Spas in Orland Park, Ill.

To do this, companies should set a clear strategy. “Online reputation and brand building is the focus,”says Rebekah Decker, marketing manager of Spring Dance Hot Tubs, with three stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She also is co-owner of Method Agency, a social media and online PR agency.

Her approach includes regularly posting of online press releases to her website. But the same rule applies as any other press release: They report legitimate news.

Also capitalize on any good PR that appears online by repurposing stories, videos or social media testimonials featuring your company on your website, Decker advises.

Cunningham has turned online reputation management into a science. A big part of her Internet presence traces back to her blog on the company website. The posts cover important issues about hot tub use and care and help establish Cunningham as an industry expert. “It’s been amazing for search engine optimization,” she says.

The blog gets high exposure through Internet searches because it answers questions consumers often have, and Cunningham takes care to use wording that reflects phrases consumers use while performing online searches. This helps raise her company’s ranking in search engines. “People really do read [the blog] and they contact us,” Cunningham says.

When she started the blog years ago, Cunningham bought up back copies of O, The Oprah Magazine to mine for topic ideas. She adapted themes for the hot tub market — for example, a blog on morning routines suggested that homeowners get into their hot tub first thing. Now she has so many topics it’s hard to choose which to use. Blog topics and Facebook postings range widely, from hot tub maintenance to pain therapy to spa and sauna etiquette. There’s even an April Fool’s post every year, such as one about the Seattle Sea Hawks ripping out stadium seats and replacing them with hot tubs for high rollers. On Facebook she uses humor and practical tips, as well as short videos and news clips, and encourages customers to post comments and photos.

Decker discovered that company staff provide a great source of ideas for her company’s blog, because they can draw on their product knowledge and customer interactions. They submit a three-paragraph pitch, and Decker fine-tunes it to post.

Community involvement
Giving to the community has a way of coming back to the company. It keeps the retailer’s name in front of consumers and shows that the firm and its personnel are caring citizens, Lenz says.

During summer, All Seasons hosts monthly wine tastings in the showroom. Past customers, prospects and their friends are invited to enjoy food cooked in the store’s outdoor kitchens and sample wine from a local winery. Guests can look at products and pool videos and chat about their own pools, existing or planned.

While there, they can give a dollar to support a charity, and get a raffle ticket to win products such as last year’s grand prize of a portable spa. The retailer donates all raffle proceeds to a different charity each month, always choosing causes with a local presence, even if they are national in scope. “Everyone has a connection to something,” says Lenz.

Lenz believes the donation program shows that the company cares about the community, humanizes the retailer and helps fosters positive relationships.

Participation in community events boosts a company’s image and name recognition, as well. In addition to sponsoring a local girls’ softball team, Hot Springs Spas of Santa Cruz & San Jose is a high-profile supporter of the annual Ducky Derby scholarship fundraiser. A large Ducky Derby banner hangs across the showroom for weeks, and the company takes its well-recognized inflatable duck to the event and holds a ring toss contest inside a hot tub.

But public relations is a constant endeavor. “A lot of your PR is in how you treat your customers every time they walk in the door,” Sisk says. “We make sure people know we’ll take care of them.”

When out in public, keep spreading the message, she adds. “Reach out and start talking to people. Reaffirm how fabulous our product is, how beneficial hot tubs are for health and well-being, and how easy they are to own and care for.”