Online PR: definition and role

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Stephen Davies posted a thoughtful update on how he sees online PR in terms of its challenges and opportunities. Stephen feels that online PR is poorly defined amongst marketers and argues that techniques involving the creation of backlinks and traffic (via search) ‘involve large numbers and eyeballs, and less about changing attitudes and enhancing reputation.’

I agree with Stephen that online PR and by extension PR itself has a problem in terms of definition. For many people that I used to meet PR meant ‘free advertising’. In fact, my former boss David Pincott used to use those very words. By extension, looking initially at the measurement of eyeballs and backlinks, one could assume that online PR was considered to be ‘free SEM’ and for many marketers I think that may be the case.

This position is supported by public relations thinkers in some quarters, for example Grunig, James E. and Hunt, Todd. Managing Public Relations defined public relations as ‘the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics’.

Which ties into traffic and back links as a measure in the most literal sense. However, many smart marketers who understand what a brand is, and appreciate that there is more to marketing than the transactional cause-and-effect of direct mail or pay-per-click still look at back-links and traffic numbers.

The reason why is that backlinks and traffic numbers are surrogate measurements that you can use to infer some sort of value for attitudinal change and reputation. Don’t think of Google as a search engine but a reputation engine (which is the way many consumers treat it anyway). This reputation is based on the votes cast by webmasters (more accurately anybody who creates content on a site like this). We cast our votes by posting backlinks. This is very similar to the concept of whuffie that Cory Doctorow came up with in his book Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom which talked of a society purely based on the currency of reputation, whuffie is that currency.

Traffic numbers derived from search are also a measure of popularity and ‘resonance’ of a company’s brand with the audience. Now these are crude measures, but:

  • The data is relatively easily derived from analytics tools
  • Very easy to represent in PowerPoint
  • Is provided in  an easily understood lexicon for the marketers peers in other business functions such as sales, operations and finance

PR people have been slow to adopt a customer-centred tool: Net Promoter as a measure despite the fact it provides a measure of attitudinal change and reputation because so much of the customer experience is outside the PR manager’s control and the cost of measurement would consume a substantial part of their meager PR budgets.

Let’s think about another PR definition this time from the UK’s professional body for PR professionals: The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). The CIPR defines PR as:

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.

The problem with this definition is that an organisation’s actions play an important part in defining reputation from product design, sourcing and supplier behaviour, customer service, packaging, marketing, sales and channel partnerships.

Public relations becomes nebulous because it becomes the whole business. PR by definition then becomes too important to be left to PR people.

I disagree with Stephen that online PR is ill-defined by marketers, instead I believe that PR is ill-defined by PR thinkers. Further, that the PR industry hasn’t managed to fully grasp and resolve its identity crisis by coming up with an effective alternative.

That’s also the reason why you never see PR as a descriptor on this blog, instead you see me alluding to marketing and social engineering in the sub headline at the top of this page.  More related posts here.