An idiot's guide to PR – lessons for SEO and digital marketing

It can be difficult to define public relations, particularly as there are different perspectives regarding what it is. However, it is much easier to give guidance on what it is not. Indeed, subscribing to the view that ‘PR is what PR does‘, the following offers an idiot’s guide to what PR is not, and what is does not do, especially for those who work in SEO and digital marketing.

Rule 1: PR is not free. Knowledge, understanding and skill in PR has a value and it costs money to employ competent practitioners who are also likely require budget to execute creative ideas. Consequently, PR should also not be considered as free advertising.

Rule 2: PR is not simply media or influencer relations. Where the credibility of third-party endorsement is something that PR practitioners understand and may be able to secure, this is just one of the aspects of public relations.

Rule 3: PR is not about spamming media or influencers. There’s a clue in the second word, relations. If you want to build relationships with media contacts or influencers, this involves more than securing a database list and emailing a request for them to publish your messages. Not only does a spam approach only work with those who generate ‘cut and paste’ copy of little merit, it irritates the hell out of those who place real value on the material that they publish. And that includes the editorial team here at PR Conversations.

Rule 4: PR is not churning out content. Most of the above spam approaches feature junk. This material may include carefully crafted key messages and an entirely positive impression that is intended to achieve the senders’ objectives. But to receivers, this is frequently junk or pointless promotion rather than having any nugget of interest to them or their audiences/communities.

Rule 5: PR is not about entitlement. Another clue can be found in the concept of earning coverage, endorsement, a valued relationship or respected reputation. Anyone demanding or expecting to get what they want without the humility implied in ‘earning’ credibility does not have a PR mindset. PR practitioners think in terms mutually-beneficial relationships rather than the more commercial approaches familiar in marketing where advertising space, for example, is traded.

Rule 6: PR is not easy. It takes hard work and there are few short-cuts to success. This means that PR practitioners do not tend to think about gaming systems as they recognise there will be negative consequences from doing so. When we earn endorsements or generate media coverage we know that to be influential and credible requires integrity and authenticity. These aren’t just buzzwords but have been true for the hundred years plus that intelligent PR has existed. Yes, you can pay for clicks, friends and followers in social media or generate these with meaningless competitions. Yes, you can use bribes and other dubious tactics to get positive reviews – but these will ultimately lack value.

Rule 7: PR is not focused on clicks and views. Achieving organic search engine optimisation is about more than tricks to generate clicks and views. That’s why more SEO folk than PR practitioners are worried about Google’s comments about press releases. First, PR practitioners view a press/media release as means of providing information, not a vehicle for SEO content. Only those in the junk business stuff releases with references to brand names and other terms simply to generate clicks and views. Ditto with in-document self-referential links and other practices that ignore that quality of information is the core remit of a release.

Rule 8: PR is not about pseudo-stories. It often seems that marketing types think they’ve invented ideas that are so obvious to PR practitioners that we take them for granted. This applies to story-telling and narrative as examples. Communication is inherently a human business and people like telling stories. Journalists know this. PR practitioners know this. But marketing people seem to have only recently realised this. To be fair, the best advertising ideas have normally had a clear narrative that has resonated with people. A good story is something that is memorable and remarkable (worthy of remark) – hence people want to pass it on. Sometimes PR practitioners might have fun with a story, but unless there is something that connects with a relevant public and has strategic communicative value, it should get no further than an ideas generation session.

Rule 9: PR is not a last-minute tactical option. Any PR practitioner will tell you one of their biggest irritations is someone asking them to ‘PR’ something with zero notice. If we are included at the start of a process – or at least are briefed and invited to have some input at an early stage – you’ll get our best work. We can do ‘what if’ thinking and avoid potential issues or crisis situations from arising. We can come up with ideas that quite probably will work better than, or at any rate, enhance, marketing executions, frequently for far less cost and planning time. None of us have a bottle in our desk drawers marked PR that we can sprinkle onto a fully formed issue or campaign and generate the same sparkle that we can if we are part of the initial discussions. And, PR works best when it is focused on strategic outcomes – that’s why so many smart executives have the senior PR person report direct to them.

Rule 10: PR is not soft, fluffy and girly. The stereotype of PR is that it is peopled by young women who organise parties and use charm and flirting to achieve results. But the reality is that more women in PR (and yes, this is an occupation dominated by female practitioners) are formidable, insightful doers. The answer to my own recent question: are women in PR too nice? – is really a resounding no. Rather than using gendered behaviour, real PR women have to reflect a professional approach to be taken seriously and counter the PR bunny pre-conceptions.

So that’s a quick guide. I’m sure there are many other useful piece of advice along the what PR is not approach that PR Conversations expert community of practice would be willing to share with our SEO and digital marketing colleagues.

Update note:

Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz reviewed this post and discussed its comments in their podcast, For Information Only (FIR #718) – which can be accessed via this link: Thanks to them both for picking up on the topic – and also to Neville for his post: – which has generated additional debate.

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24 Replies to “An idiot's guide to PR – lessons for SEO and digital marketing

  1. As I’ve commented on Neville’s blog where Tom Foremski left an additional comment, we have written plenty of times on PR Conversations about what PR is (and if you read the statements after each of the above rules, I have expanded on what it is).

    For those who do want to read more about What PR Is – see our 2008 65-page pdf which draws on posts and comments that were published since the blog was launched in 2006:

    I also think you’ll find plenty of positive, supportive discussion about PR on PR Conversations, but this is not some kind of vanilla, happy-clappy website where we encourage lots of back-slapping and brown-nosing. We leave that to the sites that are happy with puff, fluff and pointless content marketing of the sort this post is seeking to critique…

  2. I’d also bet that most PR people would need an “Idiot’s Guide to SEO and Digital Marketing.”
    It seems a harsh headline and the entire post is very defensive.

  3. PR in the ‘old school’ sense had more to do with face to face relationships and the odd telephone conversation. This lent itself to actually getting to really know who you were selling too or communicating with.

    Today’s online marketing efforts seem to be geared around ‘pretending to get to know’ your audience. Although some ‘educational’ practitioners of online marketing teach that we should research our customers/subscribers for our lists, it is almost impossible to do so primarily due to the complete lack of any form of real relationship other than the supply/demand bond, which doesn’t really require that much more than a product and a place to sell it from. Building a relationship today is more about valuable content rather than ‘what we know about our customer’.

    I think it is obvious that we can never get to know those we are selling too online in a way that the old school PR pundit did/does. I doubt that those online are really that interested in what we know about them. What we know only serves the marketer in determining his/her strategy rather than the needs of the consumer. Times have changed.

    Although I agree that in many respects old school PR and modern techniques employed do indeed crossover, I also believe that they are in fact two completely different entities that are used and moulded for different purposes/environments. Many lesson can certainly be learned from the old school methods for today’s internet marketing junkie but sadly many of those engaged in internet marketing have limited social, sales or marketing know-how whatsoever.

    They simply have a ‘click and it shall bring’ mentality.

    My tuppence worth.

  4. Heather, you’ve taken the Sherlock Holmes route:

    ‘Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.’

    ‘It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

    This method has merit. And it provides more fun and generates more agreement than trying to write a another woolly (contempt-deserving) definition.

    1. Thank you Paul. It can sometimes be helpful to get agreement on eliminating factors and perhaps then be in a clearer position to see what is left.

      On the topic of the impossible, I find Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass comes to mind as I’m fond of the White Queen’s perspective:

      Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

      “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

  5. Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz reviewed this post and discussed its comments in their podcast, For Information Only (FIR #718) – which can be accessed via this link:

    Thanks to them both for picking up on the topic – and also to Neville for his post: – which has generated additional debate.

  6. Hi Heather,

    Stumbled upon your article thanks to Neville Hobson’s post. This article works well as a self-congratulatory pat on the back for PR practitioners, but I feel it has missed the point when it comes to defining PR. By deduction you state what it is not, with most points delivering a great deal of common sense (especially rule 10) but I feel rule 7 is a step too far.

    Our clients approach us, knowing us as a PR agency, but are technically requesting wider marketing related services. I’ve lost count of the amount of times clicks and views do matter. Clients all the time request view figures from articles online and these stats are critically important for managing blogs. We have newspaper circulation figures (which are always optimistically calculated), so why not views? If we think in terms of “a press/media release as means of providing information, not a vehicle for SEO content”, then we are ignoring the wider digital effect of a release.

    We shouldn’t ignore the basics of PR but we should accept that linear definitions of the practice are dead. We either accept PR is an umbrella term for SEO and digital marketing… or accept that PR’s days are numbered.

    1. Michael – thank you for your comments. But I couldn’t disagree more with your conclusion – the reverse if true ie if we accept PR as an umbrella term for SEO and digital marketing then it’s days are numbered. And, I appreciate that you may not be familiar with my wider perspective on PR, but I certainly do not advocate a linear definition of the practice – again, the exact opposite. I’ve written several times that PR thrives in a complex, messy world that acknowledges achieving our goals is most definitely not a simple matter of ’cause and effect’.

      PR is much more than SEO and digital marketing – and again, I’m not saying that clicks and views don’t matter BUT – exactly as with circulation figures – they should not be the focus. What is more important is the reason why people view and click, what they recall and do as a result of such activity and so on. The marketing view is frequently about the numbers with an attitude that wastage if fine – so low percentage response rates and conversion is fine. But from a PR perspective, we know that it is about getting the right people engaged and not creating a bad reputation with everyone else. If clients are simply counting the clicks and views – that’s the same as counting cuttings mentality and they are missing the point about value. Yes, people need to view, click and buy publications, so the numbers are ONE measure, but it is the outcome that really matters.

      My point on not seeing a press release as a vehicle for SEO content is not to ignore the wider digital effect of communications. But simply publishing a press release (often on dubious sites) and stuffing it full of brand names and in-release links in an attempt to play the search engine systems is not PR.

      Or if you look at this website/blog, we will never publish a press release, but maybe if we received information that was interesting and relevant, we would follow up and offer the opportunity to write a post, be profiled or whatever. The ‘releases’ we receive are 100% (no exceptions ever) puff but presented to us as an off-the-shelf blog post.

      My point is that this is an abuse of the press release. That should be about providing information to media sources (traditional or online) that is either good enough to be reported with few if any changes, or interesting enough to stimulate an article. If its point is to be published only to generate SEO we’re back to measuring the wrong thing.

      I actually believe what I’m calling for is more challenging for PR practitioners (so certainly not giving us top marks). Good PR is hard work to do correctly, good SEO takes more than tricks and cheats to work well and good digital marketing is better than misappropriating PR techniques and turning them into spam, junk and crappy content.

      1. I’m with Heather on this one, Michael. Granted, customers and administrators are typically very concerned with clicks and views. But this is an outdated understanding of the true potential of digital marketing. It’s our job to show them otherwise. For example, as a journalist I know the only real value of most press releases is about one paragraph’s worth of information. The majority of quotes and the last three paragraphs are typically nothing more than SEO fodder, which I immediately ignore and cut. Sure, I may have read the release, but did I connect? No.

        SEO definitely has its place on a wider scale, but in my view that has nothing to do with the more human face of PR.

      2. Heather – thank you for taking the time to reply. I think it’s gone beyond accepting PR as an umbrella term. We can omit the ‘digital’ from PR, it’s a given, which is why I’m so passionate about the topics you raise. PR lives on through digital and without it, PR is dead. I’m not familiar with your wider perspective of PR but I can tell it is very different from mine!

        Unfortunately it looks like you have had bad experiences of SEO and digital marketing. The tactics you seem to reference are quite dated and marketing has now gone way beyond basic stats such as views and clicks. It’s about online behaviours, something first tracked through online advertising – PR has been slow to catch up. I can think of at least 30 different stats, that isn’t including semantic searching (check our W3C Semantic Web).

        My point is, it’s not one or another – PR should be a completely integrated approach. This means great original writing whilst also optimising for SEO. In the business I work for, we rarely push our press releases anymore because their effectiveness has been lost in the digital age. In the current economic climate PR has to drop the ‘raising awareness’ fluff and actually prove itself – something SEO and digital marketing does.

        I believe what I’m calling for is more challenging for PR practitioners because it is asking them to embrace a completely different skill set, then brand it as their own.

        1. Michael, I think it’s important to distinguish whether you see public relations as being under the umbrella of marketing–or as a stand-alone discipline and occupation (as we do on PR Conversations).

          For example, I’m a huge proponent of “integrated communication.” Integrated marketing communication….not so much.

          1. I see marketing to be under the umbrella of PR. In the past, marketing was that umbrella. The difference is how you define PR (going back to the start of the blog post). I believe PR is now a lot more than just reputation management and I would support the CIPR in updating their definition of PR.

        2. Michael – I don’t think we are probably that far apart in our perspectives and I’m certainly familiar with the semantic web having included reference to it in the book I co-authored, Public Relations Strategic Toolkit, which was published last year. I’ve also known David Phillips for many years and note that you are a graduate of PR at the University of Gloucester, so appreciate you will probably have studied with him – hence your claim to be a Digital Wizard 😉

          Where we agree is that PR, SEO and digital marketing – at its best – have gone beyond basic stats. That is what #7 was about in that organic SEO isn’t about stuffing ‘press releases’ with old tricks. But as I commented also to Hayden, there are many people who think it is – and most of the posts I’ve seen that are griping about Google’s move come from the SEO world. Neville has some further links to PR posts arguing much the same. I particularly like the comment by Adam Parker: SEO isn’t PR, but true PR can be good SEO. Similarly, Bruno’s comment indicates how a solid understanding of both SEO and PR is what is required.

          My frustration is that it seems many of those from SEO and digital marketing backgrounds (as well as others who claim to be experts in online PR) are using press releases – and content in general – in an inappropriate way. I’m not surprised by your statement that you don’t push press releases because of their declining effectiveness – arguably because of the poor practices that continue.

          I’m also in favour of integration – where it is appropriate. But I don’t think that means either subsuming PR to marketing or vice versa as both continue to be broader than comms. Indeed, neither can claim to own the umbrella of comms, nor reputation management – but that’s another debate entirely.

          Glad to hear we agree on challenging PR practitioners. For me, that challenge goes beyond the digital sphere, although of course that is vitally important and will continue to be so. I also agree about the skills requirements going forwards being different – again, I included consideration of learning strategies in the Toolkit within my chapter on digital PR. And this is a topic on which I’m leading a session for PR educators at Leeds University in a couple of weeks.

          But I still believe that PR has a life beyond digital. Ultimately, it is all about helping organisations understand people and how to engage with them to achieve strategic goals. Personally, I’m not that interested in defining PR – but enjoy its kaleidoscope nature. For me PR is a living, breathing, dynamic, complex, real world activity that has the potential to change depending on how you view it. (

          Thank you for sharing your views

  7. Heather
    I really think you have an incorrect perspective of the entire SEO and digital marketing industry, with some of your comments harking back to online acquisition techniques used several years back.
    Most mature SEO’s in the industry now work alongside other agencies such as PR, copy writing, translation, etc.
    It sounds like you’re not working with the best and most legitimate online people.

    1. Hayden – you are right, there are some very good SEO and digital marketing practitioners. It is not a matter of whether or not I am familiar with these or if I’m fortunate enough to be working with them, but much the same as with the PR industry, I know there are too many people who are not reflecting a mature understanding. I’d love to believe that those who ‘get it’ are in the majority (whether that’s in PR, SEO or digital marketing), but there are still too many cowboys in this wild west town.

      Perhaps if a few more people acknowledge the points I’ve made about what PR is not (and what SEO and digital marketing also should not be), the poor practices will cease. Sadly I fear that is still a long time coming.

  8. Heather,

    Great, common sense post in an online world that often appears to be mad and not connected to the real world.

    Of course many of these issues aren’t new, in fact some of them were the very issues that made me hesitate getting started in PR back in 1992. Which is a while ago now 🙂

    Great PR starts by understanding your business, understanding your audience and putting in place clear objectives, strategies and tactics which are tracked against a balanced scorecard.

    It’s not very difficult, yet it amazes me how often people skip, ignore or forget the basics.

    Anyway, thanks for this island of sanity 🙂


    1. Tom – thank you. Certainly lots of misunderstandings and poor practices in PR are long-standing. However, I think some ‘nots’ have become increasingly accepted as normal PR practice (when they shouldn’t be). I feel this is because what we are perceived to do has been seen as a cheap short-cut by those who come more from marketing or SEO perspectives. A lot of what drives me mad is the approach that is more evident in cold-sales, direct marketing or buzz/viral/WOM. It is a failure to see that other people aren’t simply on this planet to do what our organisations/clients want them to do and as you say, understanding them, as well as our business are basic principles.

      I often cite Hutton’s statement: “Marketing tends to demand a more aggressive, competitive, hyperbolic, selling mind-set, whereas public relations often demands a more conciliatory peacemaking approach. So, although their research, process, and objectives often are similar, the knowledge base, audiences, and mind-sets of marketing and public relations frequently are quite different.”

      1. While I don’t disagree, there are elements of that. I’d also say a lot of it is down to poor practitioners and poor practice. Many moons ago there was a lot of discussion on standards and professional accreditation. After all, the barriers to practice are pretty low, a device and a Wi-Fi connection, at least back in the old days you needed a phone 🙂

        The reality is there are loads of elements driving these issues. Thanks again!

  9. Heather this is such an awesome list of NOTs, which I’m sure I will be referencing many, many times.

    You’ve nailed most of my main frustrations. The only one I would add is the “new-age social media” claim that “public relations is (blog) community building.”

    It’s NOT. Particularly when the community that hangs out in your (usually a small agency) blog aren’t stakeholders or core audiences related to your business. More like friends at the pub, shooting the breeze. And lots and lots of “filter bubbles” and “confirmation bias.”

    Self-affirmation (i.e., ego stroking) maybe. Business applications….not so much.

    1. Judy – you’re right, there’s a lot of nonsense around ‘community’ engagement which does justify an additional what PR is not…

      I think it extends beyond the gang of mates flocking around a blog post – but just to stay there for a minute, something I don’t understand is what benefit these deliver to a consultant or small agency. Few of them take a real thought leadership position or indeed show potential clients any insight or expertise that seems relevant for what they might be hired for. It might be my British perspective, but I’m never impressed by lots of ‘aren’t you wonderful’ comments compared to seeing some that have questions or criticisms that take a discussion forwards.

      Also, as I noted on my ‘Sugar & Spice’ Greenbanana post, we don’t seem to see women in PR taking a strong stance or evidencing their expertise enough – particularly off the back of their social media presence.

      But if we take the ‘PR is not superficial community building’ point #11 forwards into Twitter – the same applies to all sorts of connections made, claims for dialogue (often mindless retweets), and so on. There’s a distinct lack of weight behind such ‘communities’ IMHO.

  10. Kirk – thank you so much for your kind comments. This is a post that has been a long time coming as I’ve ranted privately (including in email correspondence with my co-editor at PR Conversations, Judy Gombita) about most of these points. Hence, I decided it was time to put something in writing and hope that my thoughts were of value to someone. It is too much to hope it will stop the stupid, untargeted releases that get sent to us though!

    BTW, my co-author of the Public Relations Strategic Toolkit book, Alison Theaker, cited you on page 35 in one chapter (The PR Industry and Careers In It). The source was your blog where wisdom included advising that ‘getting a job is a job in itself’ and emphasising the importance of referrals over advertised job openings.

  11. What a great reminder of what it is we DO…and DON’T do (or shouldn’t focus so intently on doing). I will share this with my “Principles of Public Relations” students at Curry College…and go home…you’ve done my work for me! 🙂

    Truly a good overview and explanation of our profession.

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