Review: Digital PR

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.

The end for generalists? Public relations in a pay-to-play world

Digital PR
By Danny Whatmough
2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

This is the first book in a series, so a let’s start with the purpose and the approach. The series is branded ‘PRCA Practice Guides’ and the design is simple and admirable. These are small hardback books and if this one is typical, they rely on text and avoid visuals. In purpose, if not in design, this series is most comparable with the CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice guides.

That provides a telling start point for this review. Online Public Relations by David Phillips and Philip Young was published in the Kogan Page series in 2009. There never was an updated edition because, as one of the authors explained to me, it no longer made any sense to make a distinction between public relations and its online (or digital) version.

Danny Whatmough, author of this new book, does not disagree. He opens with the statement: ‘There is no such thing as ‘digital’.’

His introduction goes on to map out why this book is needed. PR practitioners for the most part need to up their game in terms of using data, understanding search engine optimisation (SEO) and keeping abreast of trends such as the rise of the influencer.

‘Data is the single biggest shift that the PR industry has experienced.’

This is a useful guide to where we are now. The author talks often about marketing, making the assumption that public relations sits within (or alongside) marketing. This may be true in some circumstances, but it raises the question of the continuing value of a distinctive public relations approach to marketing challenges.

As if to answer this, the author asserts the value of PR in the marketing mix. ‘In a digital world, there is a growing suggestion that PR’s moment has come.’ Yet elsewhere he makes no distinction between PR and marketing (‘social media had become a part of the fabric of our lives. This brings a number of challenges for the marketer.’)

He’s strong on the shift from media relations to broader public relations. ‘The downfall of PR has often been that, because traditional PR equals media relations, the answer [to questions about the customer journey] will always just be media relations and the objective will always just be coverage. Digital has thrown these assumptions wide open.’

‘Digital offers a way to reinvent media relations in order to overcome some of the challenges that have blighted the discipline.’

Why a book? Whatmough is a good guide to what’s happening today, but he acknowledges that this may be different from what will happen tomorrow – so books date quickly. And there are plenty of online sources that are also useful for understanding what’s happening, and which are kept up to date. A book suggests perspective and authority. It needs to merit its place on the bookshelf and, ideally, become a source of reference for future publications.

So a frustration with this book is that it doesn’t acknowledge what’s gone before. The author several times mentions interruption (or interruptive) marketing, but doesn’t credit the source (Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing from 1999). I wouldn’t argue for the inclusion of purely academic sources, but there’s no mention of The Cluetrain Manifesto, no credit to Shirky, Phillips and Young, Brown, Earl and Waddington, Dietrich and other milestone contributions.

Perhaps what’s missing is a sense of narrative: of what used to happen, of what is happening, and what might happen next.

So I’m left to piece it together. Here goes. Public relations used to involve generalists chasing media coverage. Now we have the means to reach targeted members of the public, but we need new skills and new tools to adapt from one to the other. Above all, we need to make more use of data and real-time dashboards and make our work measurable. We now need specialists: creatives and analysts.

If the distinction between marketing and public relations is blurring in the digital media landscape, then that between advertising and public relations has effectively vanished. Whatmough knows there will be some resistance, but suggests there’s no longer any argument over the role of paid media in digital PR.

He finds the most persuasive argument is to demonstrate the benefits. ‘The great thing about paid media on digital channels – unlike offline – is that generally the barriers to entry are incredibly low. It is easy to test a campaign with a small budget to prove effectiveness… Start small. Prove it works. And then, use the arguments to scale.’

Nor does he agree with my suggestion that PR and advertising have become indistinguishable. ‘Paid media adoption does not mean that PR merely becomes advertising.’ His argument is that paid promotion is merely to ensure earned media is fully exploited and reaches target groups. ‘One way to think about this is through taking an earned media approach to paid… If you judge every piece of content on its earned-worthiness, then that is [a] pretty good way to judge whether it is likely to succeed.’ He calls this the ‘journalist test’ (would they slam down the phone on you?).

Though the emphasis appears to be on far-reaching consumer campaigns, he points out that the narrow targeting allowed by digital makes it even better suited for business-to-business public relations. ‘Digital channels come into their own here, giving you a cost-effective way to reach people who you know are going to be interested in your products or services.’

Whatmough criticises the PESO approach for encouraging siloed thinking, whereas my reading of Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks (the 2014 book and her website of the same name) is that this model is designed to encourage a more integrated approach across media channels. But I’m crediting Gini Dietrich with the PESO model, Whatmough does not.

Then there are the many minor errors, repetitions and inelegant phrases that a good editor should have spotted. They’re acceptable in much online writing, but are more jarring in print.

Whatmough covers a lot of ground in this small book. There’s a good section on community management; he’s sound on influence and the minefield of Wikipedia edits; and on setting measurable objectives and KPIs.

Presumably for reasons of client confidentiality, there are few in-depth case study examples in this guide. But there’s a practical take on how the PR function might be rethought right at the end of the book. A startup, with a blank piece of paper, hired a new team of four: a copywriter (storyteller), a maker (think designer, but this also covered photography), an analyst and a project manager.

As Whatmough points out, PR generalists are expected to be all of these things whereas with advertising and digital marketing agencies, teams are formed from people with very different skills.

I’m looking forward to reading further PRCA Practice Guides as they’re published. One upside of their dinky design is that they won’t take up much space on the bookshelf.