Managing Reputation – SEO vs PR – Who is better placed

by Peter Young on February 18, 2009 · 7 comments

There is an interesting debate in the offing, started on Twitter – and one Stuart Bruce, the founder and managing director at Wolfstar has covered on his blog in a post ‘Public relations is about reputation, not SEO‘. In his post, Stuart suggests that ‘Public relations is first and foremost about reputation and behaviour’, and that PR is better placed as ‘guardians of the brand’ (not Stuarts quote) to manage the reputational needs of a client, rather than SEO.

I have to agree with aspects of what Stuart says – but I wholly disagree on a number of other points. This is a debate I have had on a number of occasions, particularly when working as part of a large regional agency of which the PR part of the organisation played a prominent part. Stuart is indeed right to a certain extent when he suggest that PR understand the facets of reputation management better than most (not all) search practitioners do – and SEO is by no means the answer to all online reputational management needs (and neither will it ever be).

However, it is a tool of the trade (as Stuart) puts it, and in the modern day communications environment environment, a very important tool of the trade. I think it is important to stress there as well modern day. The communications environment over the last couple of years has changed significantly. In the ten or so years I have been in online, I have seen online take a larger and larger chunk of the pie, not just because products are packaged better, however I would suggest this is reflective of user behaviour, as broadband in particular has revolutionised how people buy, talk and interact.

Reputation is no longer purely confined to offline. Certainly some of the biggest PR issues have started online – and it is the ‘viral’ speed of online that means Search (not just SEO), Social Media and PR should be working together now more than ever. Reputation is not a PR function, it’s not an SEO function it’s a corporate function, and as such the organisations that should be best placed to exploit this are the organisations that can bring all facets to the table – both online and offline.

I would like to come back to the point – search above. SEO is just one facet of that jigsaw. SEO is no longer just about ‘write a compelling news release’ and ‘make it SEO friendly’ and to a certain extent it never was just that. It’s a facet, but as a search practitioner I wouldn’t be doing a job, if I didn’t look at the bigger picture. With so many more tools to bring to the table such as PR and Video, it’s more a case of combining skillsets and specialisations like never before, and there is obviously the implications of brand association of search (and obviously the implications of negative results with Search (and social media channels – such as YouTube). Modern day users to an extent trust search results and as a result search has to play an important part of the reputational management mix ( I draw your attention at this point to the Enquiro Research piece on brand association)

So ultimately who is better placed? I would suggest neither. In Stuart’s piece, he states

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.

I hate to say it but I personally feel that comment is wholly unfair, and the reverse can often be the case in terms of traditional PR agencies. PR’s (for whatever reason) often do not understand the implications of digital, and as such are just as likely to cause ‘significant damage to the brand’ (just look at the Edelman/Wal-Mart issue from a couple of years back).

Not until both parties come to the table – and work together do I think clients will see the full value of a holistic reputation management service. In the modern day environment, neither can and neither should do without the other….

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Richard Shove February 19, 2009 at 5:24 am

“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.”

While I would agree with that, I would also say in some cases the opposite is true. A lot of PR agencies I’ve dealt with haven’t adapted to online and aren’t always well placed to advise on online situations. I definitely think that PR is something that both parties should always be involved in.

The biggest problem in my experience is when larger companies have their own in house PR teams and it’s often difficult to first of all get in touch with them and secondly, actually listen to what you’ve got to say.

Stuart Bruce February 19, 2009 at 5:35 am

Interesting post. I’d be interested to know what you actually think public relations is, as most of things that you think you disagree with are actually public relations!

You’re right about “Reputation is no longer purely confined to offline” which is why it’s essential that public relations people must get it right. It’s not an option to delegate responsibility as you can’t separate offline and online. The difficulty for SEO people is they don’t do offline.

Not sure what you mean by “Reputation is not a PR function, it’s not an SEO function it’s a corporate function”. PR IS the corporate function that looks after reputation, on behalf of the CEO/board.

You say “tools to bring to the table such as PR and Video.” I see how video is a tool, but which of the many PR tools are you on about (e.g. video is one of them)?

You are right to say many PRs don’t understand digital sufficiently, but you pick the wrong example with Walmart/Edelman as that was a long time ago and those involved definitely do understand this space.

Stuart Bruce’s last blog post..Public relations is about reputation, not SEO

Jon Clements February 19, 2009 at 7:48 am

This is an interesting post as it tallies well with a recent conversation had with a contact at an SEO company, who recognised completely the value of teaming up with a PR agency to provide the skills SEO can’t, and vice versa.

I’m not sure that focusing the discussion on reputation management is right. Combining PR and SEO should work well for delivering greater visibility for a company/brand. The bar chart featured in your post is looking at brand awarness, not reputation.

SEO – in my humble opinion – can help bring people to a brand, but building or destroying reputation is more closely related to how effectively an organisation communicates with, educates and persuades its audiences. And for that you need PR.

Jon Clements’s last blog post..News in an instant (coffee)

Peter Young February 19, 2009 at 8:14 am

Thanks Stuart, Jon

@Jon Agreed the bar chart is in relation to brand awareness, however what I was trying to ellaborate on was the old ‘mud sticks’ association. Unfortunately these days people tend to trust search results, and this can heavily affect how people interact with a brand – the old Googlebombing ‘miserable failure’ campaign is probably most symbolic here…

@Stuart I think you perhaps have read my post out of context. I am and never would suggest you throw the complete function of reputational management at a SEO agency. We don’t look at the holistic picture (as you have said) for one, however what I have said is that I have seen very few PR agencies that fully understand the digital landscape.

Thus to me it is not a case of ‘Sack your SEO agency’ and more a case of get your experts working together – ie your PR agency(s) managing tone of voice and reponse, with the guidance and advice of people that can advise on specifics such as online (ie SEO’s, Social Media specialists and the like).

David Taylor February 19, 2009 at 9:16 am

SEO people and PR people working together? Believe it or not it is possible, and just because you start in one area that doesn’t mean that your skills aren’t transferable! I believe the following are what each industry believes the other thinks of them:

PR people think that SEO people believe:

That PR is dying – the Internet is going to take over the world and the Public Relations business will be dead in 4 years.

PR people as below them, and that they generally aren’t needed.

PR people couldn’t understand what we are trying to do anyway.

People use the internet more than anything else – TV and Print will die in the next few years and that the traditional PR world is going to have to learn our trade so why bother learning theirs

SEO people think that PR People believe:

We are all con artists.

We haven’t ‘learnt the trade’ and are muscling in where we aren’t wanted or needed.

The internet is a bit of a Fad.

We are a bunch of Geeks that spend all day sending spam emails, writing white text on white backgrounds.

SEO isn’t really proper marketing, we don’t understand the concept of branding, brand management etc.

Ok, the above are rather extreme and also clichéd views but if you wanted to hold up examples of generalizations I think they work pretty well.

What we need to do is overcome our fears and start working together, the more we understand each others abilities and limits, the more we can work together to compliment each others skills. After all if we can all work together, the client at the end of the day makes more money – therefore so do we!

My Colleague Mindy has written rather eloquently about this on the I-com Blog

To finish off, two jokes that show how close our industries really are:

How do you ruin a perfectly good PR campaign? Give it to an SEO company!

How do you ruin a perfectly good SEO campaign? Give it to a PR Company!

David Taylor’s last blog post..Searching for information – a Change 4 Life?

Michael Cooper July 8, 2009 at 5:15 pm


Finally got around to adding my thoughts on this post on my new blog:

Do you think this debate has moved on since your original post?

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