Will “search marketing” take over PR?

Posted on: April 13, 2007

In his latest white paper* the British media services operator Daryl Willcox offers a scenario 10 years hence in which search marketing has replaced public relations as the major “below-the-line” communication method. As well, he suggests PR spending will be at an all-time low, while companies are spending 50% of marketing budgets on online activity; there will only be three national dailies and tabloid newspapers will have become weekly glossy magazines. But, horror of horrors, the UK’s two leading public relations courses at Bournemouth University and Leeds Metropolitan University will be “considering closing … because of a shortage of applicants”. Willcox admits quickly that this worst case scenario probably won’t happen because public relations will “ultimately adapt to a world where traditional media becomes subordinate to online media” but the speed of adaptation will “dictate whether or not PR becomes a leading element in marketing strategy or a sideline”. He then makes a case for search marketing replacing PR for online media relations through search engine optimisation of press releases and says that this provides the ideal “Return on Investment” metric via click-throughs to client or organisational websites. The online environment is challenging current public relations practice through its speed of change, the increasing influence of social media, and the bypassing of media filters. There is, however, increasing research into theory and best practice which is finding that media audiences are multi-tasking on their consumption of media – they read both print and online version of their daily newspaper, they graze on online news, blogs and discussions and some, but still relatively few, consume via podcasts and internet news on mobile phones. There is also evidence from a recent Ketchum/USC Annenberg study that local media is still very important is most major US cities, despite the availability of global news services 24/7; that word-of-mouth plays a key role in reputation formation and buying decisions; and people still look to “influencers” in their community and interest groups for guidance. In other words, personal relationships are still very important even if some are constructed on the internet. 

And this is where Willcox’s analysis comes unstuck. He sees public relations in a very narrow view – as a marketing support message delivery device in which technician skills of clear writing and message optimisation are paramount. Despite saying that public relations should be “getting the recognition it deserves as a strategic function within organisations”, he assigns it an entirely tactical role. Although media relations is probably the most common tactic in message delivery, public relations has a much wider remit as the recent emphases on management of relationships and reputation management have shown. Public relations is being operated in excellent organisations as a core discipline that supports the whole of the organisation through all of its relationships, not just those with the media. How search marketing will make an impact on stakeholders and publics isn’t discussed by Willcox and it is a notable gap in his analysis. As for the impact of search marketing on public relations and other communication studies, I can report that it is only one of the influences on future course content. In recent times, we have seen IMC rise and fall rapidly despite being told that public relations would be subsumed within it. But that doesn’t leave educators complacent and most courses are already adapting to the online environment including units being taught with new online tools. If public relations courses fail to garner enough students, it will be the result of too many low-quality courses being offered, rather than the students rushing off to be search marketers. The glut of courses is a bigger danger to the public relations industry than the Willcox scenario of bulk media relations being undertaken by search marketers. 



2 Responses to "Will “search marketing” take over PR?"

Tom, the whole basis of these arguments is flawed. It is all very Weber and command and control.

If we start with the future of newspapers. They do not and never have competed with online ‘news’. Newspapers are one medium and online news is another medium. Radio did not kill newspapers, TV did not kill radio and blogs did not kill Usenet. The conversation in the ‘pub bar’ has not changed since the Romans departed our shores.

That is not to say that each of these channels will not change. I don’t think I would like to drink in the ‘pub bar’ of 1500 years ago!

Next is this question of ‘search marketing’ whatever marketing is in this context. The thinking behind this is that some super filter or third party in a two step communication model will stand between interesting information (lets call it values) and the person seeking such values. The one and only thing we know about the Internet is that it quickly finds a way round road blocks. If you look at MySpace communities they might seem to have loads of ‘friends’ but the fact is that the group involved is IN EVERY CASE small. The so called ‘A’ list is at best grazed in a moment in time. Online there is, less and less, mass media. eBay and Blogger have this in common: people don’t look at everything, they are selective. There is no ‘overview of social media content. If there are road blocks or perversions in the content they find they just go somewhere else. They take another route. The network of networks is about small networks that morph and change all the time. The people and interests, content and influence is at best transitory.

As you rightly put it, personal relationships founded on those convergent values that make relationships work are at the heart of much of what we see online.

SEO, is of course important but no longer the real way forward. Once one has mastered RSS, all the news you need will come to you. What is more it comes from social sources (people – oh! what a surprise) that have values you like and trust. Not a search engine.

(As an aside, my experiment last year showed how RSS can easily replace relationships between journalist and ‘PR’s’ and zip up Journalists productivity by factors)

Scream marketing (and most of it is) can be avoided and that is what people are doing in droves. For this reason, the bling, scream, spin, hype becomes entertainment. A fantasy world created by marketers in the hope that they can affect a ‘brand reputation’. Would that they just looked more closely at the off hand way their ‘brand values’ are ditched by consumers in favour of tap room reality in their local online pub. Its not always pretty language but is real.

Here is where PR becomes strategic. It looks at the bling and the dissonance and has an ethical duty and thereby the authority and power to guide (OK – manage) the organisation. We can see (Dell Hell, The Evil Empire, McSpotlight, BP) that organisations are wrecking their own future through their own subversion of their own values and value systems. The PR strategy will always be to fire the bling marketers. They do damage to long term shareholder value.

Imagine how much more effective the PR would be for the Royal Navy if the bling, scream, spin and hype became Public Relations briefing. Even in war, values are paramount.

I do understand why the craft PR press agentry people are running scared. Their world is changing very fast. After all for most PR there is no need for a press release any more. If the story is worth telling, say it to the people and if the press want to follow it up (get it via RSS?), it is their right and THAT breaks down the cosy press agentry/journalist conspiracy network.

In the meantime, Public Relations has a much bigger job to do. It has the role of defending values because they offer convergence and relationships with constituencies that create wealth.

Strange to say, in defending values they force organisations to re-assess what their values really are and if they are more than bling, scream, spin and hype. It then all sounds like real values such as Friedman’s ‘the business of business is business’ (and woe betide the manager who does not inculcate social responsibility as a basic business ethic because without it business cannot thrive – thus CSR = bling).

The online effect for PR is to elevate it well beyond craft practices and that is where University Degrees should be different to Freshly Squeezed ‘how to run a party’ courses.

Of course, a PR student should be able to communicate clearly in verbally and in writing, but so too should aspiring admirals when first they leave Naval College. But it takes more to be an admiral that being able to send a signal.

Our students will, of course know about the mix and match, evolution and development of platforms and channels for communication but much more. They will also be prepared to critically asses to what purpose as information on demand changes the structure, dynamic and values of organisations, governments and even economies.

Some people, of course, will want to send press releases from one Second Life island to another.

This is a most satisfyingly considered response to my whitepaper thus far and I am very pleased it has got such attention – thank you.
As for appearing to “assign it [PR] an entirely tactical role”, this was not my intention. I think this came across as a result of my whitepaper having a kind of split personality – on the one hand attempting to make an analysis of an industry issue and on the other attempting to give people some basic tactical tools. My point is that if PR is to have a strategic role within organisations in the future then an undertstanding of search marketing will be critical.
How search marketing will make an impact on stakeholders and publics is most definitely a gap in my analysis, however there are clearly risks and this is one of the things that each PR professional should be consulting their clients on.
Perhaps the greatest challenge search marketing represents to PR is within the SME sector. As you quite rightly say “Public relations is being operated in excellent organisations as a core discipline that supports the whole of the organisation through all of its relationships…”, but this really only applies to the biggest of companies. Many SMEs, bread and butter clients for most mid-size PR agencies, have a more tactical view of PR and may eventually decide they will getter better value for money by buying PR services from their search marketing agency.
One final point regarding the issue of tradional media ‘not going away’. My whitepaper was in itself a piece of online PR. It generated around 15 inbound links to my websites and triggered a number of discussions like this one. I’m not sure how much coverage it generated in the print media – I’m not actually that interested as I firmly believe the online coverage (with links) is much more valuable. Yes, online audiences are small – but online PR is not about numbers, it’s about spheres of influence.

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