Public relations is about reputation, not SEO

Jed Hallam has been involved in a fascinating Twitter debate, this time on the relative merits of public relations and SEO (or search engine optimisation). I started to write a comment in response, but then decided it was probably worth a post of its own.

There have been lots of interesting comments made, including a discussion about what SEO actually is, but nobody has really tackled what public relations actually is. This is actually quite an old debate and is the one about how public relations relates to marketing and marketing communications.

Too many people are far too sloppy about how they use terminology. Public relations is first and foremost about reputation and behaviour, just look at the CIPR definition:

‘Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.’

You see it starts ‘Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do…’ It isn’t just about awareness. Not much in there about media relations, social media, events, advertising, SEO etc – because they are all simply tools of the trade.

Interestingly the Wikipedia entry on public relations isn’t very good, neither (according to Mindy Gofton) is the one on SEO – both suffer from the same flaw of being what people outside the professions/industries think it is, rather than what the actual experts know. But that’s a whole different can of worms!

There are lots of public relations techniques and tactics that can be used as part of marketing communications, but that doesn’t mean public relations as a whole is part of marcoms. Media relations, copy writing and blogs are just some of the tools that a public relations professional will use, sometimes it will be for a marketing communications purpose, others for recruitment, community relations, stakeholder relations or investor relations.

That’s why I think the debate about public relations v. SEO is a false one. The SEO agencies wouldn’t have a clue how to start counselling a client on reputation management (and it’s impossible to separate online/offline you’ve got to understand the real world). Any corporate communications strategy today will include online reputation and you’ll probably call on SEO experts to help with part of that.

It’s also not too much of a worry that SEO agencies are attempting to offer rudimentary services and techniques that are traditionally part of the public relations toolkit. It’s not that hard to write a compelling news release and not that much harder to make it SEO friendly. But these days that’s almost a commodity service and big corporate clients demand far more in the way of strategic counsel, expertise and insight. However, one danger of SEO agencies getting involved is that they just focus online and therefore miss the bigger reputation management issue, potentially causing significant damage to a brand.

The concern that I do have is that SEO agencies often command huge budgets, in comparison to public relations fees. This puts them in a powerful position to win low-cost, commodity PR work. The problem for public relations consultancies is you need this less profitable commodity campaign implementation work in order to sustain an infrastructure that enables you to deliver the high value strategic work.

As a public relations consultancy Wolfstar doesn’t just do marketing communications related PR work. We also do a lot of issues and crisis management, both online and offline. We do stakeholder and community relations. We also do internal communications. First and foremost what we do is provide clients with strategic public relations counsel, which we are then frequently involved in helping clients to deliver and implement.

More opinions from Stephen Waddington and Rob Brown.


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.