Typically, PR is seen as a method of generating brand awareness among a target audience, ensuring that a business has exposure on a local, national and international level. It conjures up images of young executives haranguing local newspapers over the phone, brainstorming an audacious stunt, and schmoozing TV personalities.
This stuff certainly still goes on in the world of public relations, but the advent of digital communications has stirred the industry forever.
Digital PR has emerged in a complicated space, and from the outset was grappling with other digital marketing practices; social media, content marketing, email marketing, and SEO. Some traditionalists stood in place and prospered, whilst others fell by the wayside. Some adapted to digital and grew, whilst others lost out to specialist agencies. It has been a shake-up, and plenty of challenges remain.
Defining PR in the modern world is difficult, and has been controversial subject. Social media, content marketing, and email marketing are all forms of corporate communication. In this sense, don’t they fall under the umbrella of PR? However, if search engine visibility is the main driver behind such practices, doesn’t everything belong in the realm of SEO? The lines have been blurred for some time.
One of the most contested arguments has been in outreach and link building. Big websites with a strong domain are the target for SEOs, whilst their large audiences are a target for PRs. The two approaches immediately overlap. Arguably, digital PR emerged as an amalgamation, seeking coverage and links simultaneously.
Are links still important?
Despite the gradual downplaying of link importance, the search engines still consider them when deciding relevance and trust of a website. Originally, links were known to tip the balance; the most controllable aspect of SEO that would guarantee high positions in the SERPs. It was mostly about volume, as the number of links pointing to a site (often anchored in keywords) loosely equated to its relevance for particular associated search terms. This misuse was constantly being battled through the years, and the landscape changed markedly with the Penguin update in 2012.
Industrial-scale link building had become big business, and there were some high-profile casualties of Penguin and its later updates, including Halifax bank, The Salvation Army, and many more. Smaller businesses were hit hard too, and the questionable activities of some digital agencies came clearly into focus as online-based livelihoods disappeared overnight.
However, despite Google’s ongoing battle against spam and the misuse of links as an SEO tool, they still remain an important element of digital marketing. According to the Moz guide, there are three main ways to build links;
- Natural: Attracting links by publishing great referenceable content.
- Outreach: Guest blogging, features, directory listings, etc.
- Self-created: Comment signatures, user profiles, forums, etc.
As we can see, with the self-created tactic considered highly risky after Penguin (widespread low-quality links), and the natural tactic the least assured option (in terms of guaranteeing links), outreach was always going to be the battleground.
Is there a future without links?
Some have foreseen a future without links (ironically, I just linked to it). Indeed, semantic search is improving, and there has been a lot more talk about Google’s consideration for intention and context in recent years.
Relying heavily on links to determine the quality of anything online is a risky business for the search engines, and they’re understandably keen to remove the potential for opportunists to game the system. However, the fact remains that links do add value to a piece of content, because they reference studies and comprehensive resources that assist the reader and provide weight to a viewpoint. As such, that content should (and is) be rewarded.
It’s true that links are becoming less championed, but it’s hard to see how their relevance will disappear in its entirety. In this regard, PR may be ahead of the curve and can claw back some ground from SEO-driven outreach. If there is a future with less focus on links, traditional aspects of outreach and brand awareness will prove to be useful.
Did link building and SEO ruin PR?
All industries must adapt to changing landscapes, and it’s not always obvious in advance where the threat will rise. Whilst PR professionals had the aim of gaining coverage, SEOs were after the links. When “content is king” swooped in as the industry mantra after the Panda updates, SEO and PR were edged even closer together. Suddenly, high-quality editorials were the only option as thin low-quality content was being actively punished by Google, and other forms of link building were less assured.
This meant that content marketers came to the fore, using elements of best SEO practice to publish optimised written and visual content around the web, building links and generating awareness at the same time. A new role was coined to maximise the exposure of this content; outreach specialist. Most problematically, these shifts confused well-established definitions not only in industry itself, but in the client community.
In 2013, a report by PRCA suggested that 72% of PR companies were offering SEO services. More recently, there were some fascinating results in the CIPR annual state of the profession report. 76% of PR professionals said they’re working more closely with dedicated social and digital teams, and for the first time in seven years, media relations is “no longer the primary way in which most or at least some of PR professionals spend their time”, citing a rise in those spending time on content creation. It seems to prove that two worlds have indeed collided. This seismic shift will take some time to calm, but what will the landscape look like afterwards?
Is PR dead? Is SEO dead? Is content marketing dead? This backlash has characterised the past ten years in digital marketing. We’re always questioning whether established practices are outdated, and sometimes it does feel like we’re chasing ghostly shadows around the corridors. However, the main lesson to learn from these challenges is that as we progress, a hybrid approach is ever more essential. Over reliance on one particular strategy can prove to be unsustainable.
Arguably, it is merely the PR acronym itself that has become outdated, whilst the activities never changed amidst the storm of digital jargon. The skills associated with traditional public relations will always be pertinent in the world of marketing. By offering human interaction, incentives, and genuinely compelling stories, brands can amplify their message, build a loyal following, and maintain a healthy and strong web presence.
Link building should be seen as a convenient byproduct of great content creation (written or visual) and effective outreach; both of which are key skills for a successful PR executive. I recently wrote a piece about how brand partnerships can help build links, which mentions the bold stunts of TransferWise, and their ability to acquire coverage in major publications online and offline. This is a prime example of how great ideas can have technical SEO and awareness benefits simultaneously.
Lines are blurring all over the place, but it’s just part of the game.