Public relations are very important for small business. It is one of the most powerful avenues available for small businesses to promote themselves.
I've been in PR for nearly a decade and I was a reporter before that. There's quite a bit more that goes into the PR recipe than crafting a press release. While stevemc offers some solid points, I'd like to elaborate on a few crucial areas:
Take the time to get to know the media outlet and the particular person you are pitching. Read/watch/listen before you send anything or pick up the phone.
Think of yourself as someone who can help the media craft a compelling story that happens to involve you. Go beyond the mindset of "getting free press". Put thought and effort into coming up with a hook that will interest the audience of the media your pitching. Help the reporters, producers, etc by providing graphics, video, customers willing to be interviewed and other sources. Be collaborative and you'll be remembered the next time you contact that person.
stevemc alludes to having a good hook in his post, and this is so true. I just want to hammer home the point that it's really hard to capture the attention of the media. You'll have a better chance of doing that when you have a compelling story idea that fits what they cover and what their audience wants (so make sure your targeting media that aligns with your audience). Then be gracious and helpful to them through the whole process.
---Turning stories into gold
I have some issue with calling PR "free" publicity. There's a lot of time and skill that goes into PR. Although, as a small business owner, you may be able to do some of those duties yourself and not have to pay money to someone else, it is still taking time away from other aspects of your position.
Also, securing a media placement is not an equivalent to advertising and should not be compared as such.
Great points, Stevemc. Another avenue to promote free publicity would also be that of conferences and/or seminars. Attending such gatherings will give you the opportunity to learn something new about different individuals having different opinions and perspectives but with same goal in mind. You get to communicate and build relationship in a more personal level and interact with such individuals who are set with their plans of what they are there for and what they want. But above all, in your mission to promote your business, these gathering would already do it's work for you as it's a niche-ready, which you may or may not venture to target as market in the future.
---Emma Ames, Pepper Virtual Assistant, http://www.peppervirtualassistant.com/