PR and SEO: ‘more by accident than design’

In 2013, when Jim Hawker merged his PR agency with a digital marketing agency to bring data and analytical skills together with search and display marketing capability, the PR industry was intrigued… 

Fast forward four years and we have just acquired a SEO agency and no one has batted an eyelid. For one reason, everyone (pretty much) recognises that PR needs to continuously evolve and to incorporate new skills but also because SEO is probably the closest thing to the wider digital marketing techniques that PR professionals have some understanding about.

PR and SEO have been talked about in the same breath for many years now and even more so recently because of the changing Google algorithms and the rise of content marketing campaigns from both PR and SEO agencies.

Take a look at most PR agency websites and their list of services and you will undoubtedly see that SEO is offered and indeed, check out most SEO agencies and ‘online PR’ is usually to be found. In my opinion, bar a couple of agencies, the reality is that neither PR or SEO agencies have managed to move into each other’s realm with ease.

There are many reasons for this. Historically, the KPIs and the ways of working have been very different. SEO is viewed much more as a performance marketing channel while PR has always been concerned more with softer metrics. The lines of reporting and budgeting have been and continue mostly to be very different with SEO reporting into online performance or marketing teams rather than PR managers. That is changing as PR people are increasingly now often tasked with delivering both reputational benefit and quality website traffic and performance.

Personally, I have always thought it would be easier for a SEO agency to move into PR territory than vice versa. Having technical, data and insight knowledge is fundamentally key to success and that inclination and knowledge tends not to sit within PR agencies. PR agencies ironically have been okay at delivering SEO benefit in a post Google penguin and panda update world, but that has been more by accident than by design.

More and more of the (offsite SEO) briefs we are seeing are being organised by the in-house SEO team rather than the PR team. SEO teams are taking greater control of media relations activity and their companies are allowing it because they see a commercial upside through their programmes. SEO budgets are rising and not stagnant like PR budgets which seem to flatline each year as the role of PR becomes associated/sidelined with reputation through media relations and soft metrics. Worryingly, I see also more in house PR teams ‘surrendering’ SEO responsibility to their wider marketing colleagues, who are now actively pitching editorial media, with no lines of reporting into PR.

In order to respond to those briefs though, it is key to have the SEO skills within the agency to compliment the PR ones. We had three options really. Either train 30-odd people in a new way of thinking; hire a couple of SEO professionals or acquire an agency. We didn’t believe the first would be quick enough or the second effective.

SEO has often been mentioned as the ‘missed opportunity’ of the PR industry and I agree. As far as I know, our acquisition of a 12 person SEO agency is the biggest to date by a PR agency in the UK. Now, that is crazy! Why on earth is that the case when the skills are becoming more aligned?  Does the PR industry not see the opportunity or do they believe (like their websites say) that they already deliver SEO services?

Why is it that only one of the biggest PR agency awards has a SEO category? Because it isn’t understood well enough by the PR world. Rather than tackle what appears a scary and technical area, PR has widened and embraced easier to understand channels like social. But social media is fast changing from the accounts the PR teams picked up a few years ago and the value of ‘communities’ in the organic sense disappears. PR faces some tough questions in the future if it is to adapt effectively in the right way.

Time will of course tell if we have called this right. Personally, I am excited about having another dozen people with new skills to work alongside. I read a PRCA report the other day that said that one of the biggest challenges to the PR industry was the lack of PR people themselves. That for me is the one of the biggest opportunities that we have. The chance to bring in different skills rather than simply replacing one PR for another – without that we will never change as an industry fast enough.

Jim Hawker is Co-Founder of @threepipe a digital marketing & PR agency. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay

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