pr what it means

At the end of last year, Google released their latest search quality guidelines.

The 157 page document was created to help human quality raters assess the quality of various sites on the web. Essentially the document details what Google is looking for in a web page, and what sites need to offer users in order for it to rank.

While it’s worth taking a look at the guidelines yourself, a comprehensive post published on Search Engine Journal last month detailed five key takeaways and strategies that can be taken from them – which does a lot of the hard work for you.

The gist is that beyond having a technically sound site, we can’t optimise our websites for search engines any more, we need to be optimising them for users.

As marketers, this means we need to be communicating what users can expect from us, and we need to deliver on those promises in the most effective way possible.

We need to listen to customer feedback – what our customers actually tell us, and what their actions on our sites tell us – to understand what barriers might prevent them achieving their goals.

And instead of focusing on individual ranking tactics, we need to focus on building our reputations. We need to showcase our expertise and build our authority, earn the loyalty of our consumers, and build relationships with key influencers to in turn earn recommendations, referrals and links.

The best way to achieve this? A proper understanding and implementation of PR.

brand is another word for reputation or image

Misconceptions around PR:

A few weeks ago, I delivered a presentation at Outreach Digital on an introduction to PR strategy for startups and Entrepreneurs. To kick off, I asked the audience what they thought Public Relations was. The responses I got were:


“Sending press releases and talking with journalists”

“Getting your story out there”

These are all legitimate responses, and all of them are an important part of PR. But every one of them is focusing on an individual tactic rather than the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, a lot of businesses make this mistake. In my experience, many businesses see PR success as favourable media coverage. In a digital context, this has been translated to building and earning links.

I’m not saying these aren’t important metrics and outcomes of a PR campaign or strategy – they undeniably are, but if this is the only KPI that you’re judging your PR team’s efforts on, you’re missing a very big trick.

So, if PR isn’t just about press coverage (FYI – that’s called publicity), and if digital PR isn’t just about link building – then what exactly is it?

The Father of Public Relations:

In 1995 an obituary was written for a Mr Edward Bernays describing him as “the father of public relations”. And in 1990, Bernays was credited as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine.

Despite this recognition, it’s quite likely you haven’t heard of Bernays – but most people living in America through World War One and the decades following would have been influenced by his work.

Using his uncle, Sigmund Freud’s, psychoanalysis theory (specifically, how to influence group behaviour and attitude) Bernays developed one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of the first world war. After seeing the influence of propaganda relations in wartime, and the benefits of investing in building influence, over buying attention through advertising, he paved a career and pioneered an entire industry in what he started calling “Public Relations”.

His 1945 book (titled “Public Relations”, and available to read online here, or to order from Amazon if you’re super keen here) is the most pertinent book on PR I’ve ever read, despite being first published over 70 years ago.

In it, Bernays defines PR as:

“Information given to the public to persuade and modify actions and attitudes.”

As well as:

“The efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics, and of publics with an institution.”

The first part of the definition talks about one-way communication. This is the part of PR that most people focus on.

But the second part of the definition is key, and it’s what a lot of people forget about. The second part of the definition explains that PR is about relationships.

Public Relations is about setting expectations, and then meeting them. It’s about not only talking to people, but of listening to them and their needs and making adjustments accordingly to earn their loyalty and good faith.

In other words,

PR is the ongoing process of communicating and maintaining relationships with the different groups of people you rely on for the success of your business.

When you understand this, you will see that PR is involved in anything that influences your relationships and reputation through communication.

And by investing in, and improving, communication with your users, you’ll better understand their wants and needs, and in turn can offer them a much better experience – with your web presence benefiting as a result.

PR is anything that influences your reputation through communication

PR vs Marketing. What’s the difference?

When I explain PR like this, it often leads to questions about the difference between marketing and PR, and comments on how the two are merging.

The answer is that they were never separate entities in the first place.

PR is and always has been part of the marketing mix.

It’s the part that focuses less on individual products and services, and more on a business or brand’s overall reputation amongst, and relationships with, the groups of people that your business or brand relies on.

To do this, you actually need to figure out who these groups are.

A lot of people only think of target customers and the media, but other important groups that might be relevant include current consumers, investors, community groups, industry influencers and peers.

Just as we have different practices and specialties within digital marketing (UX, SEO, PPC, content marketing) there are multiple specialties within the broader practice of PR (eg. consumer relations, employee/internal relations, investor relations, media relations etc).

The PRs job is to understand each of these different groups of people and how building relationships and communicating effectively with them will enhance the efforts of the marketing team.

Why PR matters in a digital world

In the digital marketplace, the voices of our individual consumers, be them customers, employees or any other invested body, have more influence than ever before. Geographic boundaries are all but irrelevant. There is higher competition, and the abundance of information, comparison sites, and consumer reviews is making it harder to rely on marketing and advertising messages alone to cut through the noise and earn market share.

In this landscape, customer and consumer loyalty is at a premium. And expertise, authority, and trust are paramount.


Communicating and building all of these traits is the territory of public relations.

So if you limit your digital PR efforts to link building, suffice to say, you’re doing yourself and the rest of the marketing team, a disservice.

A case for PR beyond link building:

The truth is, your digital PR efforts probably already go beyond link building and media/influencer outreach, you just aren’t thinking of these efforts as PR.

Here are some examples:

User experience and testing: If you’re investing in user testing, and are actively seeking or setting up infrastructure on your site to get feedback from your users, you’re investing in public relations.

Onsite content
: If you’re writing on-site content with conversion intent, rather than just ranking intent, you’re focusing on effective communication that sets and matches expectations which in turn helps users achieve their goals. Newsflash; you’re investing in public relations.

Customer reviews and trust signals: If you’re advising clients on the best ways to respond to reviews on third party sites, as well as creating a strategy to showcase reviews on site and elicit a higher rate of positive ones following future purchases, you’re invested in the company’s reputation and trust – and, yep, you guessed it, that’s investing in public relations.

Social media: If you’re creating social media strategies with an aim of building a community around loyal customers, reaching new ones, and improving your authority within your industry, you’re investing in public relations.

Crisis management: Whilst only really relevant for major corporations, if you’ve ever had to develop, advise on, or implement a dark site that provides instant and up to date information in the face of a major crisis (Think Malaysia Airlines after MH370, or BP after the gulf of Mexico oil spill) – then you’re definitely invested in public relations.

malaysia airlines dark site

Content marketing: If you’re investing in creating remarkable pieces of content, that are in line with the values of your brand and help communicate or enforce any of your key messages, then you’re invested in PR.

So, why does it matter that we call it PR?

It doesn’t.

Call these efforts what you like.

The important thing is that you understand what PR actually is, and recognise why it matters. Because the individual marketing tactics are not important. They have changed over the decades as the platforms we use to communicate with our audiences have evolved around us.

But the fundamentals of PR haven’t changed, and they never will.

It’s when you, and your team, realise the importance and value of building your reputation, and improving/investing in relationships, that you unlock the potential of PR for your company or your clients’ businesses.

Every interaction consumers have make up your brand

Instead of working towards separate goals – be that traffic from the SEO team, lead gen from the sales team, links from the digital PR team – a PR framework at the core of your digital strategy will enable you to come together to attain these KPIs through bigger, common goals.

You’ll improve communication, create a better experience for users, deliver on promises, and ultimately, earn the loyalty of customers as well as others in your community.

Because if you succeed in building and retaining your reputation, then the hard part of your marketing, and your sales, is already done for you.