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.

16 Replies to “Public relations is about reputation, not SEO

  1. Great post, Stuart, and great to see you up to full blogging speed! Need to get some of what you're drinking.

    You're the *only* person, I think, in the whole debate who has championed PR as PR, as a profession and craft to be valued for what it is. That you're doing this with great online competencies as well is a credit to you.

    God, that sounds obsequious! Your wolfstar logo sucks goats!

  2. I think reputation management is an excellent proxy for much of what Public Relations is about. When we think about reputation management we have to include the impact of search. I'm reminded of a piece called the ‘The See-Through CEO’ by Clive Thompson in Wired in March 2007. ”Google is not a search engine. Google is a reputation-management system, and that’s one of the most powerful reasons so many CEOs have become more transparent: Online, your rep is quantifiable, findable, and totally unavoidable. In other words, radical transparency is a double-edged sword, but once you know the new rules, you can use it to control your image in ways you never could before.” The full article is at

  3. Interesting post Stuart. I don't think one should disqualify digital firms from PR, but rather look to how PR can and should be doing more to influence the online world.

    SEO and digital have important things like measurement on their side, and PageRank is ultimately a very compelling (and tanglible) measure of reputation… I think PR's should be looking to steal more of the SEO pie.

    Unlike digital firms, PRs are the people sitting on the goldmine – content. Those who are best at creating it and offering decent counsel ought to be the winners in this big old webby mash up…

  4. Well said. I can't imagine why any would think to debate public relations vs. SEO. SEO isn't an end goal, it's a tactic. To me SEO is a tool one uses to further Web communications goals, be those public relations, branding, sales, marketing, dissemination of knowledge or other.

    SEO is more about packaging/formatting/writing your content in a way that makes it easier for interested parties to find it via searches. Then, once they arrive at your site they will learn more about your product, services, reputation, etc.

    Goal-oriented content can be tweaked to improve SEO, but you can't do the reverse. One can't write something with a primary goal of SEO then tack on a PR message and expect success.

  5. PR is about reputation, yes. But its also increasingly about supporting the sales cycle. Both has terrific value to an organisation, please don't think I'm ever decrying that and I don't believe that SEO agencies would could ever compete with PR in these areas.

    My issue is purely commercial. Pure organic search is sizable market (in potential fees) that we as PR professionals have the skills to address, but for which we have failed to package solutions that clients can buy. As such we're missing a commercial opportunity to develop our businesses horizontally.

  6. Kerry Gaffney – Head of Digital for Porter Novelli, UK. To keep me off the streets I mainly blog, run, cycle, do the odd adventure race, play a bit of rugby and golf. I've also just started a BSc in Social Sciences at Birkbeck
    Kerry Gaffney says:

    Excellent post and a sentiment that I heartily agree with. PR agencies are missing a trick if they don't include SEO as a core competency but it's the icing on the top of the cake, not the cake itself. I've been in meetings with several SEO agencies and the advice they have given in terms of crisis management went against almost every PR instinct. Admittedly some of our instincts need to be tweaked slightly, especially when it comes to crisis and issues management but really the argument between SEO and PR is a dead rubber.

  7. petegoold – Pete Goold is MD of Punch Communications, a PR, Search and Social Media Company which works with clients around the world, from San Francisco to Sweden and Sydney, managing reputations both on and offline.
    Pete Goold says:

    Surely the point is that PR companies need to rapidly evolve their thinking and skills to be able to call upon a broader armoury of tools than was required just a few years ago, given the ever increasing importance of online visibility to clients?

    Although obviously it differs on a case by case basis, if we asked most clients a candid question as to whether they'd prefer a) a page of positive coverage in the FT or b) to be ranked first for a chosen keyword for a day (to equate to one day of profile in the national media), an increasing number would choose the latter. That's not to devalue traditional PR services – or indeed the need for an overarching strategic aproach which might encompass digital as one element – but to see them in context of the shifting landscape.

  8. @Ian – thanks mate, but The World's Leading got there before you on slagging off the logo

    @Rob Brown – thanks for the reminder about the Wired article. Richard Edelman keeps saying "Google never forgets"

    @Roger – page rank is too crude a measure to really be about reputation, digital firms are only disqualified from doing PR because they only do digital. Digital is always part of reputation, but only ever part.

    @Stephen Waddington – agreed, especially about the market size and potential fees issue. PR supporting the sales cycle is great (excellent source of revenue!), as long as we remember it is only part of what it/we can do

    @Pete Goold – I think that's partially my point that digital needs to be a core competency for public relations people

  9. Great post Stuart. And looking at the comments, you've helped move the debate into much more fertile territory 😉

    However, if PR is about reputation (ie what people do), then what exactly do most PR firms do? Do they spend their time managing a client's reputation? Do they spend most of their time providing strategic counsel? Do they even spend most of their time on executing PR tactics? No. They seem to spend most of it on account management, admin and reporting.

    Let's be honest. The word "strategy" is abused everywhere in PR (and management consultancy and other service professions). Clients often see the word "strategy" and think "expensive + little real value".

    Which makes life more difficult for those who really can offer and deliver strategic value.

    The well founded ideals of the PR industry providing reputation management and strategic counsel are underminded by a sector that on the whole provides tactical services (why do you think margins in PR generally are so low?). The SEO industry may well be offering tactics, but it would seem clients (certainly in certain FMCG sectors) find those tactics provide better value than trad PR tactics. (Having said that, the big SEO budgets come almost exclusively from big FMCG clients – and SEO/SEM agencies that get these budgets are using an old style media buying model – volume = discount = margin or management fee).

    Until the PR industry actually starts to (demonstrably) walk the walk, as well as talk the talk on reputation management and strategy, tactics will continue to dominate – and from a client perspective, the best tactical operators will get more client budget. And at the moment, that suggests the SEO/SEM fraternity will fare rather better.

    Which is I guess my way of saying that I don't think the PR vs SEO debate is a false one in the slightest. I agree that clients would never dream of asking an SEO firm to deal with reputation – but I don't think they see their PR firms as reputation managers or strategic advisors either.

    And can you really manage reputation?

  10. Really good points Andrew. I think there is a difference between what clients want to pay you for and where you can add real value. Some of my 'best' work has been where I've only counselled clients and haven't been involved very much in implementation. Unfortunately, there isn't enough of that work for me to create a sustainable business model. That's why lots of what we do, and most PR firms do, is at a tactical delivery level.

    Can you manage reputation? I think so, in that you can have processes and disciplines that influence it. What you can't do is control it.

  11. Stuart,

    This certainly hits a nerve.

    I am not sure you can rely on the CIPR as your definition of what PR is – I do think clients can determine that to some degree.

    For many businesses PR is media relations and the resulting awareness it generates. Strategic counsel is seen as just part of the service, what is expected is the tangible proof that there is a ROI from their spend. Reputation management is academic.

    What I am getting to is that PR vs SEO is an issue for agencies that are working with SMEs. If SEO agencies can start to offer a more watered down PR service then it could affect the PR agency sector, even if the PR professional can offer a better service. The same could be said about PR agencies dipping into SEO.

    I think we will see a convergence of PR and SEO services and agencies, expect perhaps at the higher


  12. Hi Stuart,

    It was interesting to read your and others' reviews of the night. Unfortunately, I didn't follow the debate, although I read one article earlier yesterday which, I understand, has sparkled the talk. My response is here, if you don't mind me sharing it:

    My view generally is that it may be difficult for PR to walk the walk against SEO because SEO is the part of Digital Marketing 'package', while PR, despite moving into the online world, still seems to remain connected more to Journalism and traditional Media. This doesn't mean, however, that PR cannot learn to write press releases with keywords in mind 😉 What may happen, I think, is the further segmentation of PR (very much like it has happened with traditional and online Marketing).

    Anyway, thanks a lot for bringing this up to everyone's attention.

  13. A late reaction, but: excellent post. Unfortunately, I notice very often, even within 'the business' that the term pr is used inappropriately to attract clients, luring them with the promise of a 360 degrees approach. Sending out a press release to support a product launch, however, is not pr. It is, at most, a (small) part of it. Offering SEO is not the same as online reputation management. This 'professional abuse' of the terminology, however, also leads to generations of students/young professionals being misled about the true ramifications of the different disciplines. And to us having to set the record straight :-). Fortunately, we have experts like you to refer to.

  14. Good debate going on here but I think it's getting a bit "us" and "them". The point is that what we all do is joined up… and so it should be.
    We all work in marketing whether it's PR, design, web development, SEO, advertising, DM and now… dread words – Social Media.
    But the art of communication is like a game of chess – you have to play the pieces you have on the board. I'm not sure who is the King – but the pieces represent all of the above and it is how you deploy them – PR, design, web development, SEO, advertising, DM – to win the game that matters.
    This was confirmed today for me when a potential client asked me to develop a strategy based on advertorial placement copy and a web-based campaign that would feed into a possible stand-alone social network.
    What about SEO I asked. F*** that he said, we've already got that covered.

  15. SEO is all about working or reworking the structure, content and architecture of web documents in order to make them more easily found in search engine results. Being a SEO is a kin to being a meticulous artist or an artistic scientist. The practice requires a mixture of savvy marketing sense and extraordinarily developed webmaster skills.

    Because SEOs see so many websites in our careers and obsess over keyword driven placements, we tend to catch bad reviews, misquotes and other online nastiness that potentially harmed our clients' reputations. Since we have the ability to work the search rankings, a sub-set of the SEO community started offering a service it labeled Reputation Management. That was probably a less than descriptive name for a service that tends to focus on web content and not on real-world perceptions.

    A better name for the service might be digital reputation management.

  16. I will be learning these languages later in my courses, but not anytime soon. I was looking for someone to shed a little light on the money to be expected with these credietials etc.

Comments are closed.