Do you work in digital PR? If you work in public relations at all, the answer is yes. The difference between digital PR and “traditional” PR is fuzzy, yet worth examining, because it has transformed our profession in so many ways. And with change come challenges.
In some ways PR hasn’t changed that much. We still prize earned media stories that appear in brand-name media outlets. We’ve always worked to create content for brands, and we still do.
But like the frog in the gradually heating water, the media and technology environment has accelerated, forcing us to adapt. Some of that evolution is obvious. The targets of our efforts are likely to be digital media outlets with high domain authority – from The New York Times to Mashable. And because search visibility is critical for just about any brand, from business software to a new wine site, we work hard to get quality links in the stories generated through our efforts.
Then there’s the content explosion. The unofficial kickoff of the digital PR industry goes back to late 2011 and early 2012, when Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm updates turned the SEO category upside down. The updates rewarded quality content and penalized spammy SEO tricks that had propelled dubious websites to page one of the search rankings. Subsequent updates treated brand mentions, even without links, as if they were links, rewarding good PR work with higher search rankings.
Yet the “new” digital PR has gradually had an impact on the skills, tools, and challenges of our profession. Here’s how we can make the most of it.
Mastering new tools. Press releases still have their place, but in today’s digital environment we may choose to break news through Facebook Live, or with a tweet that links to a fuller announcement. Rather than the full-blown press conference of yore (where breaking news could derail plans and quash media attendance), it usually makes more sense to share news through an exclusive arrangement with a single digital journalist. Journalist contacts still matter, and influencer currency is more important than ever. But where we once used a blunt instrument, we now can use more refined ways of getting the job done.
Understanding SEO. Any PR person who doesn’t understand analytics, or at least the basics of SEO, will find themselves working at a serious disadvantage in today’s digital environment. A course in Google Analytics or a partnership with a search expert is a worthy investment. At the same time, SEO has become more PR-oriented, and that trend needs to continue, driven by PR professionals. Building links great, but if no one notices your content, the effort is wasted.
Building new skills. Digital PR practitioners have had to step up and learn new skills. Look at content; it used to mean a high-quality bylined article or op-ed, or maybe an upbeat blog post. Today we’re challenged to use digital storytelling techniques where visual impact is even more important than persuasive writing. This can mean digital video, creative Instagram posts, and inbound marketing techniques.
Embracing a new content model. Time was, PR focused primarily on earned media, which still has a hallowed place as a outcome of a quality PR campaign. Then social media blurred the lines between paid and earned media, and “owned” or branded content expanded as companies plunged into executive blogging and invested in content to promote executive thought leadership. Today many agencies offer creative services for distributing content, and most have adopted the PESO model, for Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned content that work together to drive brand visibility and consumer engagement.
Collaborating with digital influencers. Next to content, nothing has changed PR more than the rise of the digital influencer. What we’re seeing is a move from name-brand celebrities to lesser-known figures who can offer authentic engagement without breaking the bank. One important wrinkle is the rise of the micro-influencer. Micro-influencer campaigns involve individuals who have fewer than 100,000 followers, but who can offer a less commercial and more meaningful relationship with fans and followers. Although micro-influencer programs have their detractors, they‘re popular because they’re designed for visual platforms like Instagram and are scaleable at nearly any budget.
Adopting a customer focus. Tools and skills are one things, but the most important shift for PR professionals may be one of mindset. In the past, our efforts were media-focused. Everything we did had to get through the screen of a journalist and his editor. More recently, we need to think like the end-user, whether a consumer or a business. We’re responsible for creating shareable content that engages users and requires new storytelling skills.
Committing to outcomes as well as outputs. Today, everything is measurable and measured. PR floated for too long in a kind of nether world – we urged clients to take it on faith that earned media would move the needle, or we promised brand reach as measure in impressions…but very little beyond. Today, the good news is that there are easier methods and a new mindset for evaluating PR outcomes. Our focus as professionals can be on quantifiable changes in SEO, web traffic, brand engagement, and ultimately on the one metric that’s familiar to any marketer – improving business outcomes.