Is PR the new SEO?

7 January 2015, Blog

Not many years ago, it was commonplace to read articles written by search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists headlined ‘PR is dead’.

There was some logic to their hype.

Public relations had become associated with media relations in the eyes of many – and media relations was an analogue practice designed for the analogue world of print publications.

How was PR capable of updating itself for a world in which the world’s most important media company – Google – employed computer algorithms rather than journalists?

Enter the SEO or search marketing specialists. They saw easy pickings from PR-as-media-relations by guaranteeing improved search results. They were also able to charge fees many times those of PR consultants safe in belief that clients would not be able to challenge their technical talk of ‘meta tags’, ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ techniques.

In the meantime, marketers were wising up to the key lesson from the internet – that it’s better when people ‘pull’ information they’re interested in than when you ‘push’ unsolicited offers at them. So marketing began reinventing itself and talking up concepts like ‘permission marketing’, ‘inbound marketing’ and ‘content marketing’.

Caught in a pincer movement between digital and marketing experts, unreformed public relations seemed unfit for purpose.

So how to explain the stubborn survival and surprising growth in the public relations business?

In part we have Google to thank. It wised up to the more obvious SEO tactics like keyword stuffing and link farms and began to look for more credible sources of information. Ironically, the old-fashioned press release emerged as one of these credible sources.

News coverage, blog posts and social media engagement were also highly rated, as long as they appeared to come from people, not automated code.

Later tweaks to Google’s algorithms confirmed this preference for the authentic and rejection of the automated. It all played into PR’s traditional strengths in establishing relationships, developing communities of interest and engaging in conversations.

Yet rather than SEO now being proclaimed as dead, something else happened. Those digital agencies started snapping up young PR talent and integrating PR techniques into their offering.

So we now have digital agencies using PR techniques. We have marketing teams talking up ‘content marketing’.

It’s a confusing world in which digital specialists, PR practitioners and marketers are all navigating across ‘paid’, ‘earned’, ‘shared’ and ‘owned’ media (the so-called PESO model) and creating hybrids such as ‘native advertising’.

The contest is no longer over ownership of channels, but rather over ownership of strategy. Who is best placed to see the bigger picture and coordinate the channels and manage these conversations on behalf of the client?

Public relations teams will not always emerge as the winners, especially when their emphasis on traditional channels such as the news media has allowed PR to be positioned as a tactical tool.

Yet public relations has many advantages – not least through its understanding that organisations are not only focused on customers. They have employees, regulators, politicians, activists, trades unions, local communities and possibly shareholders to consider too.

There’s also the pressing issue of reputational risk.

PR is dead? Don’t believe the hype.


Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is a university lecturer and editor of


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