Flattery or threat?

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Cannes: Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay
Cannes: Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

Advertising and digital perspectives on public relations

It’s the sound of summer. Before the first serve at Wimbledon, you can hear the disappointment of the public relations contingent at Cannes, so often the bridesmaids even in the PR category.

It’s been the sight of my summer so far. Of the 3000 attending the fourth annual Search Leeds conference, a sizeable minority attempted to crowd into the Digital PR stream with many standing at the back of the venue or squatting on the floor while others were turned away.

There’s a connecting thread to these two observations.

Where the flashy advertising industry once looked down on the rather more earnest, low budget world of public relations (Frank Lowe reportedly told his business partner Tim Bell ‘I don’t like this public relations business. It’s horrible. It’s a sort of inferior work and I don’t want any of that around the place’), now everyone recognises the value of earned media.

Public relations techniques are centre stage in Cannes, even if public relations firms aren’t.

Something similar has happened within the much younger digital marketing industry. Where once SEO types loved to boast that ‘PR is dead’ on the grounds that a high search ranking mattered more than media coverage and positive word of mouth – they’re now hungry for links from trusted media sources as a sure way to rank highly on Google.

The crowds at Search Leeds were mostly those tasked with ‘outreach’, ‘link building’ and ‘content marketing’ and they wanted a crash course in twenty-first century media relations.

It’s flattering that public relations is so much in demand. It’s threatening that anyone can give it a go, and claim expertise.

While some PR agencies have been boosting their ability to compete with ad agencies by adding creative directors and by extending their reach into paid media, so ad agencies have been boasting of their achievements in gaining earned media.

While some PR teams ‘get digital’, it’s been an easier fit for a technical SEO team to build its outreach capability by hiring in PR talent than for PR teams to boost their technical credentials.

I wasn’t at Cannes, but I’ve been thinking about the historic relationship between advertising and public relations as it’s the theme of a paper I’m giving at the International History of Public Relations Conference later this week. The ‘inferior work’ jibe hurts, but now looks very dated. It seems the world is rushing to learn lessons in media relations – now more fashionably termed ‘earned media’.

Here are some lessons from Search Leeds.

Keynote speaker Kirsty Hulse confirmed the view that achieving improved organic search results (ie earned media) is ‘getting harder’. Her presentation focused on the need for creativity as the way to stand out. She’d researched high performing content from 2018 and distilled three lessons. These affirmed the importance of:

  1. Authenticitythe need for emotional resonance
  2. Timingis this already on the agenda?
  3. Originalityit is new, or is it presented in a fresh way?

She knew she was speaking to an audience trained to solve technical problems, so her aim was to free them to think creatively and to let emotion into their work.

Public relations practitioners with media relations expertise – and that’s still most of us – will already have learnt these lessons. If we didn’t learn them from first principles, we certainly learnt them from the terse rebuke of a journalist down the phone (a national news correspondent once demanded of me: ‘Is it new, or is it surprising?’)

Shannon McGuirk talked to the same theme: the need to make ‘outreach’ more effective by combining data with gut instinct. So wordclouds of successful media coverage pointed to the prominence of ‘revealed’, ‘experts’, ‘new’. It’s the sort of buzzword bingo we used to laugh about in the pre-digital age.

Beth Nunnington addressed a common preconception: ‘PR can be seen as a vanity channel, as very fluffy,’ but she argued that there’s more to PR than links. ‘We are NOT link builders. We are brand guardians and storytellers’. And, to confirm the earlier observation: ‘links are becoming harder and harder to get.’ The way forward? To develop a newsroom mentality, and to make time for face to face meetings with journalists.

Oliver Brett presented a playbook of dark arts – old school PR stunts remastered for the digital age. He spoke positively about linkbait, stunts, newsjacking and fake news. ‘We’re not lying, we’re manipulating the truth,’ he shamelessly said with a smile on his face.

His point was to reaffirm the low risk and high reward value of media coverage. It doesn’t cost much to gain (though results are never guaranteed), but the results can be spectacular.

His tips:

  • Remember to be funny
  • Never promise anything (for example, mark fake products as ‘out of stock’)
  • Avoid April 1st (too obvious and too crowded)

You might feel uneasy about adopting this playbook, but it’s worth considering what less squeamish teams and competitors may be offering.

And the contrast between the view of traditional PR practitioners and SEO experts can be seen in the reaction in the office to a piece of newspaper coverage for a client.

The PR people went: ‘OMG, look at this coverage!’ The SEO people were much more sceptical, asking: ‘What’s the Domain Authority of this piece of paper?’

Of course, neither ‘ink’ nor ‘link’ should be the end result of PR or marketing efforts – but for juniors tasked with getting results and agencies defending their fees, it can seem like their careers depend on it.

Hence the large crowds listening out for any tips to solve the outreach problem.

Organic may sound fashionable, but as Jon Myers pointed out, organic search results are being pushed down by PPC (ie paid results) on mobile devices. We’re increasingly having to ‘pay to play’ even as we pray for earned media.