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PR: A clean slate

Posted by Chad O'Connor  March 14, 2013 11:00 AM

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[The We are the Creative Industries series: The Creative Industries - video game companies, design, marketing and architecture firms, and talented people who write books, design houses, shoot movies, make art and record music, just to name a few examples - are an important part of Massachusetts' economy, with $1 billion statewide impact and over 100,000 workers. Click here to learn more.]

Do you remember when websites were new? Moving quickly from novelty to necessity, sites rapidly became the gateway to companies, organizations and even people. Websites were built by ad agencies as well as a new breed of professional called web designers. Many of today’s “musts” for a site – content, SEO, commerce, interactivity, gamification – took a distant second place to setting a site up and keeping it up and running.

But you know all that. So why the history lesson?

Because at their core, websites are communications tools. Communications tools that often lacked input from the company’s internal PR team or agency. What a missed opportunity.

I wasn’t in PR when websites emerged into the mainstream, but I was in television, experiencing that industry’s struggles with creating sites and online experiences, and designing web content to complement, but not erode, TV viewership. Hindsight shows us now that the PR industry missed big in the age of the website, often focusing exclusively on what information should reside on a newsroom or “about us” page. We were sidelined – or sidelined ourselves – when it came to messaging, posting and distributing news and information, engaging directly with customers and prospects, and using site real estate for valuable information such as case studies, images and video.

Twenty-odd years later, the PR industry has a second chance. Beyond the skills many PR pros have mastered around writing, messaging and relationship-building – critical tools throughout the history of the industry – we now have an opportunity to capitalize on our understanding of SEO and SEM, source-tagged URLs, video production, marketing automation and design. (Check out the Creativity page from The Holmes Report highlighting amazing PR creative work.) We should consider it our mandate to incorporate best practices for these tools and technologies into public relations programs.

Media and analyst relations, award submissions, speaking opportunities, press release writing, influencer-relations – these will always live as core PR responsibilities; other marketing disciplines are not likely to chip away at that core. But elsewhere, the lines between marketing disciplines are blurring.

This industry cannot be about missed opportunities anymore. Instead, we must maximize them – for companies, clients and the profession in general. Clients should demand more and be more knowledgeable about the depth PR can deliver and the creative channels through which it can deliver that depth. Most importantly, agencies must evolve, and add capabilities and expertise – real expertise that embraces technology, design, buyer persona understanding and more. It’s “prove it” time.

Here are the skills through which the PR industry should shine for years to come:

Search is big: Tagged links, keyword placements and monitoring of search results are vital parts of PR outreach. They show us the results of our labor, inform tactical changes and ensure that we spend valuable resources on what works.

Technology-based measurement gets real: Clipbooks, ad equivalency, social media follower/fan growth were key measurement criteria in the past. Now, technology used by PR professionals helps dissect share of voice, recognize competitor strengths and weaknesses, and even capture lead generation. HubSpot offers a great example; our firm helps clients on the HubSpot platform create outbound content and measure inbound results, enabling a new level of clarity around when and how the PR team generates business. Agencies in the vanguard of technology adoption and innovation (yes, PR firms too) are applying new ways to measure, analyze and adjust, reaching granular levels like a single release or tweet to understand buyer behavior and triggers. A thick clipbook is still meaningful, but bring on the technology.

Pictures are pretty: PR agencies and teams are adding design capabilities to create images that draw traffic (see “Search is big” above) and express news and information that formerly existed in words, now in a creative, dynamic and interactive way. Infographics can tell powerful stories.

Integrated is out (and in): At a recent meeting with my PR partners in the IPREX network, we discussed the meaning of integration. We realized the word means more to agencies than clients. Clients simply want problems solved or avoided, and to grow awareness and leads. As an integrated firm, HB knows that results drive our clients’ interest in the full spectrum of our services. In the PR world, integration has become a basic qualification. Yes, we understand how and where PR fits into the overall marketing picture. Yes, we work with Marketo, Eloqua, HubSpot, Curata and others. Yes, we include video, social media and imagery in our recommendations. Integration has become a starting point, not a unique selling proposition.

We've always been content marketers: For PR professionals, media opportunities have changed: there are fewer of them, the outlets where we place content are struggling for relevance (using many of the same tactics described above), and journalists face tremendous pressure to produce information that may or may not be news anymore. Content is where PR has historically thrived: case studies and testimonials, the trusty old bylined article, press releases, speeches and presentations – we are high-volume producers. PR firms produce the longer-form quality content that they always have, and deliver shorter-form informational content for their clients’ sites, blogs and newsletters. Together with awareness of the right words and images for maximum benefit, the best time and places to distribute the content, and how to measure, PR-generated content has become more relevant than ever. Firms must help clients draw a clear line between hard news content and softer, informational content, and use the right tools to share that news and information. These could be major wire services, search-focused wire services like PRWeb, content platforms like PitchEngine, niche industry services like TravMedia, as well as social media, websites and self-publishing platforms.

Communities count: Engagement may well become the new key word. Businesses and organizations must figure out the many places to engage and understand with whom to engage: LinkedIn groups, industry communities, social media channels, the awesome MuckRack and other digital age portals for media and PR – even one-on-one consumer engagement – all require unique strategies. The PR team can connect them all.

Websites are communications vehicles: PR will be among the most influential voices in site development. Agencies are adding design capabilities and interactive skills in addition to content expertise, leading to site design that capitalizes on fresh content, dynamic newsrooms, strong imagery, compelling blogs and points of interaction, all driven by technology-savvy PR teams.

The public relations industry has wiped its slate clean and painted a pretty, vibrant, interactive and compelling picture for the future of communications. Bring it on.

Mark O’Toole, managing director of public relations & content marketing at HB Agency, helps clients tell their stories and engage with their audiences using words, images, video and search.

[We are thankful for Global Business Hub’s support of the Creative Industries. Please note: This article does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development or its Creative Economy Industry Director for the Commonwealth, nor is it an endorsement of any views, products, or opinions contained therein. The author is solely responsible for the content.]

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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