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If you're not talking to the big boss, you're not doing PR

It's the oldest question in the PR world. It's the second oldest question in the journalism world (the oldest, of course, being “where's the bar?”). Trying to answer it has churned up more argument than almost any other in the Public Relations industry. And the question is… What is PR? What is publicity? Are they the same thing?*
It's a stupid question, but no less frustrating because it also tugs at the very core of a large industry, and whether it can justify its own existence. It's now become an even more fraught area, because old-skool PR people are now under fire from nu-skool Web PR people, who say they can do it better on the Interwebs, without all those pesky journalists. How can you tell who is doing PR, and who is doing something new, but actually entirely different?

We've entered the age of the Voluble Amateur (user-generated reporting, “citizen journalists”), the Web 2.0 Mashup-Space (pulling feeds from a variety of sources to populate a site with content), and Web marketing (which can blur the line between “useful content”, “product catalogue” and meaningless script-generated keyword baiting in new and unintelligible ways). And any number of these types are saying they do something called “Web PR”.

So now we have PR people saying they do communications that have strategic importance (or just get column inches), digerati saying PR can be done directly to audiences without needing PRs, and Web marketing companies offering “Web PR” as a service, normally in the guise of an abomination known as the SEO press release. But there is a very long way between doing PR, and writing and issuing a press release and securing coverage (let's call it “publicity” for simplicity). How do you tell which one is which?

Smell the difference

There are two ways to tell when you're seeing publicity and when you're seeing PR. If you're a marketing communications professional, it's easy. Like Justice Potter Stewart said in the landmark 1960's obscenity trial, “Pornography - I know it when I see it.” You can smell good PR that is based on a business objective and designed to shift a market. Likewise, you can smell pure product or brand publicity, just like you can smell throwaway clip-book stuffers.

If you can't smell the difference, then there is a simple test to separate real PR from the rest. If the PR person is talking directly to the company owner or CEO, or at least the marketing director that reports directly to the CEO, they're doing PR. If it's work done by an agency reporting to marketing or sales staff, it's either product publicity or sales information, or some kind of SEO thing. It's tactical activity.

If the PR agency or PR manager is not engaging directly with the most senior level of management, then what they do can never be a strategically important expression of a company's activities or intentions. It can't be materially contributing to corporate positioning and the core brand, and it's certainly not about moving market perceptions.

Good, clear, accurate information is vital

PR is important - and so is publicity. Product publicity is vital - because products are what your customers ultimately buy, whether they're goods or services. People pay money for products, not brand.

Product publicity has a different role to PR. PR is about the brand: creating awareness, goodwill and preference. Product publicity is about driving sales. There's even an argument for funding it from the sales budget rather than marketing, because it is of immeasurable use in sales communications, like on the Web (on your site and third-party sites), in product brochures, in sales pitches.

In a Web-enabled world, the sales department must be absolutely sure that when customers look for information about the products the company sells, the customers find it. Good, clear, accurate information. When a third-party aggregator site scrapes up a product description, it must be complete and accurate. When a journalist needs info, specs and images, they must available to be broadcast out to readers and viewers. The product publicity team has all of this information.

Now when your Web marketing company says they'll do Web PR for you, you can tell them yes, you want them to, because you see a clear ROI on making sure your customers can find out why they want your product, and you have a great product publicity team for them to work with. Just please ask your Web marketing agency to stop calling what they do Web PR. Because that just irritates us people in PR who use the Web for real PR.

*Bootnote: Seth Godin had quite a good crack at the question here

About Roger Hislop

Roger Hislop is strategist and lead copywriter at Sentient Communications (, and heads up Sentient Digital, the new online and social media division. Born in Joburg, he started off as an electrical engineer before taking a sharp left-turn into technology and business journalism, and then moving further into marketing communications. He is fascinated by how people interact, how they share information, how they link as social creatures, and how the Internet is becoming such an important part of it. Contact Roger on tel +27 (0)21 422 4275 or .
Karmen Flemming
Web PR-
It is important to understand the strategy behind what is referred to as "Web PR". This activity is predominantly aimed at search engines, and the quality of results generated on SERPS. It is common knowledge by now, that individuals turn to search engines to do research on eg. a potential client or employee, a company, investors, and so on. If search engines turn out no results, poor results or negative results (posted by third parties), this can leave the researcher with a rather negative impression. Web PR enables us to inject positive and useful information into the WWW, in order to result in positive mentions on SERPS. In today's day and age it is vital for any company to constantly evaluate their online reputation and engage in active Web PR, in order to build a record of positive mentions. It is important, though, for Web PR to be done by an individual knowledgeable in the field of communication.
Posted on 15 Apr 2009 12:16
Semantics of PR-
Love the article and distinctions made to clear the air! However, I think the terms Web PR and PR are fitting for the type f work that web and traditional agencies do. It works both ways in my view. If you are going to create a PR "story" that needs a web component, and you are not aware of Web PR, you may not get the full value out of that web component. Similarly an overall PR strategy that relies only on Web PR may not work (Stormhoek being an exception here) in bringing the "brand story". What I would like to know is whether you consider publicity as part of PR. When executing publicity tactics, are you doing a PR job? What happens when the PR "brand story" is signed off and ready to rock? Does this story not guide the kind of publicity tactics you employ? If so then publicity is as much a part of PR as Below the line Communication is part of Advertising. One happy family in my opinion.
Posted on 15 Apr 2009 14:35
Roger Hislop
Potayto, Potahto-
Absolutely -- publicity is a subset of PR, and a very important one. Because without it you have people going "OK I love you, I love your leadership, your pregressiveness, your coolness... but what do you DO??? and where do I buy it?" And yes, Web PR is a real thing -- it's "true PR" done in an online world. The problem is where SEO/link-building work is being called "Web PR". You have to have both -- people must find you when they Google you, but they must also find credible third-party mentions. The Secret Magic Ingredient X is to tie these together, so that the SEO work and the PR work support each other. So bottom line -- PR and Web marketing agencies need to talk to each other more...
Posted on 15 Apr 2009 15:21
Lets be friends-
Yip, you can't call link building Web PR. Ideally it is a sub-set of Web PR once you know what you are building links for. With good PR, links build themselves although it does not mean you should not actively pursue them. And anyone who still thinks that its war between web marketing and PR agencies is missing the point entirely. ...and now to equip clients with this flower of thought ;-)
Posted on 15 Apr 2009 15:56
Karmen Flemming
Potayto vs p0t4yt0-
In my opinion, Web PR and traditional PR have slightly different definitions, although the goals are similar: creating, maintaining, and protecting an organisation's reputation, enhance prestige, and present a positive image. The difference comes at play where the online medium is readily accessible and interactive, compared to other media, such as print, that are not. In the "Web 2.0" age and bloggosphere, it becomes necessary to go beyond just applying the rules of PR in the online environment. Link building and SEO become crucial activities in protecting a brand/product reputation, building awareness and increase positive mentions. Each medium has its own place and credibility and we need them both. I see SEO and link building as a subset of Web PR, as it engages the same medium - an "umbrella scenario", with a very specific goal and strategy.
Posted on 15 Apr 2009 16:18

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