Is SEO hurting your PR career?

I have heard some interesting thoughts this week from various people in the industry, I have also met with a number of SEO specialists who have asked us at Prohibition if we can help with the outreach phase of their SEO campaigns. I value SEO and its importance at keeping our clients at the top of search engines and I believe technical SEO will always remain as a requirement for clients. However, I am hearing from people in the SEO industry that the outreach phase is becoming increasingly challenging for SEOs and that is why they are recruiting more and more PR people. It seems that as bloggers, influencers, maverns, mums and celebrities become smarter at working with outreach teams they are becoming more and more selective.

I have argued in my digital PR lectures at Leeds Beckett University that SEO is harming the PR industry up here in the north. I have noticed several SEO firms, hiring PR executives and some attempting to poach our staff, and paying them big salaries to join their  teams and help them develop their in-house PR abilities. There is nothing wrong with competition but I am not convinced this is good for the long-term viability of the PR industry up here in Yorkshire. ID-100259457

These larger SEO companies can often have more than 100 people working in fancy open plan offices, (I have ten staff) and I am told they are very focussed on generating as many press releases as possible and getting the numbers and links in. I would never claim to be an SEO expert but I know my way around best practice SEO. However, I am finding the actual strategic thought behind these campaigns to be lacking – often the campaign/story created is still purely for link purposes without any genuine brand association and for me this is a huge disconnect. All of these companies claim to look at brand properly and then marry their campaigns up but although I am sure their are good companies doing this I am still not really seeing it.

Brands spend millions on telling us their detailed stories, values and visions. So getting their marketing right is critical but now many have a brand agency, a design agency, PR agency, a social media agency and an SEO agency and increasingly more and more people around the table are from our sector and I am left scratching my head thinking why?

I have also noticed the SEO companies have far higher budgets (some up to £45K per month) and in turn can offer PR graduates much higher salaries to work in their content factories. Well done to them for securing such great budgets, and congratulations to those working in this sector, because the money is great. But my question is this – is SEO a genuine career opportunity for a PR or Journalism graduate? Will these companies really develop your knowledge and strategic understanding of our sector, and help you grow, or will you be forced to chase the short-term Google rainbow and just become one of many? I believe PR people get better with experience – I certainly hope they do anyway. If you are only involved in a very linear area of public relations how are you going to get this experience?

Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against PR practitioners joining SEO companies for the money, I have friends that have and we all have bills to pay, but I think this shift is effecting the quality of the work being delivered to clients and we are heading towards a skills gap precipice whereby even the top tier PR agencies could eventually start struggling to attract the talent on salaries that are respectable, once this happens the whole game will have changed. Or will the SEO companies continue to rebrand themselves from content and link building factories to PR agencies?

Is this just happening in the north of the UK, or is it, as I suspect, occurring everywhere across the world?

Photo credit to Stuart Miles.

Posted By Chris Norton

Chris is listed in the world's top 30 PR bloggers and a regular conference speaker on crisis management and social media marketing. He is also co-author of Share This Too and lectures on digital communications at Leeds Metropolitan University.


Andrew Bruce Smith

Hi Chris – interesting post. Here are some very quick thoughts!

SEO firms building their own PR capability is nothing new. Propellernet in Brighton did this nearly 7 years ago and are a good example of how SEO and PR can work well together.

However, there are some things worth dissecting further.

The SEO sector (and to be fair, like many others) often sees PR as largely about writing press releases and crude “outreach”. The argument goes something like this. In the old days, getting links at scale was generally about emailing webmasters/bloggers/etc and asking for a link. In a way, a functional equivalent of PR “spray and pray”. Then as Google realised that much of this so called “link building” was a crude way of gaming the system, we saw the rise of Penguin and Panda to combat this. As these SEO techniques began to have less effect, SEOs turned to how they can gain links from high trust, high authority sites. Turns out that this is a lot more difficult. Especially in an editorial context. Typically, a real human being has to be convinced as why they should give you that link. In other words, you have to earn the right to have the link. You don’t just get it by asking for it.

Hence SEO firms turning to hire PRs who they believe have journalist contacts and relationships that they can exploit to “get the link”. Again, this may well work. But as you say, it paints a very narrow view of PR (reducing it to the tactical level).

I am also bemused if these SEO firms you mention are still using press releases as an apparent link building tactic. Hasn’t Google already spoken definitively on the subject?

On the other hand, this isn’t exactly news to the PR industry either. I’ve been blogging about these issues since 2007. Your post reminded me that I wrote this nearly 7 years ago – has much changed?:

Or is it the case that PRs are (still) envious that SEO firms can appear to command the budgets they do – in your example, being paid in a month what a PR firm might be paid in a year. And yet are increasingly doing similar things to a PR firm and yet commanding much higher fees for doing so?

In summary, I don’t begrudge SEO firms being able to charge what they do – but clearly they have deliver commensurate value – reality will eventually catch up with you if you don’t. Also, if they are rebranding as PR firms, surely their pricing models will be compared to PR industry norms – surely people will question the disparity?

Or is PR undervaluing itself? Perhaps there is something to learn from these SEO firms about how they are positioning their offering and achieving the rates they command?

As to the question of luring PR talent away, it is hard to compete with the raw incentive of cold, hard cash. That much won’t change.

Caveat. I’ll bet within 5 mins someone will comment here that many of these old school SEO tactics still work for their clients. Maybe they do. But anecdotes don’t make for a general theory. And even if they work now, I suspect they won’t for much longer.

Chris Norton

Wow I love your comments Andrew and I agree with you. I also wrote about this issue back in 2008 myself: but things are moving apace now with SEO agencies changing their positions from search specialists to actual PR outfits. This diversification gives them leverage and SEO has always charged more because if they can beat the Google system this delivers sales and that is hard cash.

I think maybe it’s time that we all started to say we can do SEO just as good as them but better still we will think about your brand and your reputation. Although I don’t foresee my agency being able to get the kind of fees I have described here. Clients just won’t pay these fees for PR around here that is simple.

I think the best thing we can do to stop hard cash stealing our staff is to make sure we give people a career and not a job and one that is fun and challenging.

Andrew Bruce Smith

I agree that there are many aspects of SEO that PR firms could quite happily do just as well as an SEO agency. Armed with a copy of Screaming Frog, Moz, and Majestic (and some proper training), PRs can be a lot better prepared (although clearly you actually have to DO SEO to generate the experience of what works/doesn’t work). Part of the issue is PRs still seeing online coverage as the end goal, rather the role that the coverage could play (e.g. not just because people may see and read the piece, but because some of those readers might actually click on the link – and the SEO value of the link might provide greater visibility for a piece of owned content that will play a crucial role in the audience decision journey. Or the value of online press coverage in “ranking by proxy”.

Richard Bailey (@behindthespin)

Good discussion – and it’s a pattern I’ve also noticed in that PR graduates are increasingly being hired by digital/SEO agencies.

Can I just add one thought: there are three phases I’ve noticed in the PR-SEO debate.
1. PR is dead (says SEO)
2. SEO is dead (says Google)
3. PR (earned & shared media) is the way forward

When the digital / SEO world is scrambling so hard to attract PR talent, this is not the time for talented PR people to lose confidence in what they offer clients and organisations.

It may be current to call it ‘content marketing’ – but you and I know it for what it is: a part of PR!

Chris Norton

Thanks Richard. I love the SEO is dead comment. Everyone seems to think everything is dead these days.

I agree content marketing is part of PR. What frustrates me though is that is that copy writing has become so commoditised that the internet is full of terrible repetitive and dull content that is being done to justify a fee rather than achieve a result.

Andrew Bruce Smith

Good writing is the result of good thinking. Great content is produced through a combination of brains, grey hair and creativity. Both are typically in short supply. By the laws of economics, scarcity should imply higher value. And yet, the general trend is towards commodification.

Paul Sutton

Interesting. Couple of points from my perspective.

First, I’m amazed (as Stuart says) that any SEO company is using news releases as an SEO tactic in 2015. We know that no longer works, don’t we?

Second, the SEO companies that I know are very much moving away from traditional ‘technical SEO’ in the same way that PR agencies are moving away from traditional ‘media relations’. Both are meeting in the middle in the area of content marketing. But this shouldn’t be news; it’s been happening for years.

Third, SEO people and comms/PR people come at the same thing from very different angles. I’ve written about this several times before. If you gave an SEO agency and a PR agency the same brief, they might come up with the same creative execution. But the SEO agency would set goals around search rankings and so would approach bloggers with links and domain authority in mind (for example). The PR agency would set goals around reach and awareness and so would approach bloggers with networks and perceived influence. They’d approach the outreach in very different ways and they’d measure the campaign completely differently.

In actual fact, both approaches are valid, and SEO companies are starting to realise that. So they’re making moves to bring comms people in-house to offer a more rounded service that utilises comms outreach and social networks as well as domain factors. Just last week I met with the MD of a 40-man SEO company who wanted advice on how to do just this. He sees his company as a content company. He’s ditching ‘SEO’ like comms agencies are ditching ‘PR’.

The problem for PR comes when you stop to think how many comms agencies are employing technical people (the reverse of what SEO agencies are doing). The answer is very, very few. And that is a huge threat.

It’s easier for an SEO agency to extend its services into social and comms than it is for a PR agency to extend into SEO and technical. So they’re not trying. And that lack of a response could cost the industry big time in 5 years time.

Chris Norton

Thanks for your comment Paul some great points in there. Very true about us coming to a brief from different angles and I completely agree with the fact that PR agencies are not willing tohire technical SEO specialsits and this could be a threat. A fascinating debate and the next five years are going to be very interesting.

Ewan Stevenson

Andrew Bruce Smith is dead on, as always. There are plenty of SEO pureplays with great PR thinking, goading coverage, seeding coverage to genuinely relevant and interested parties, but mainly, running PR campaigns as a way to ensure longevity and sustainability for their brands. Even the brand mentions now have a discernible impact on natural visibility so it’s time for PR and SEO to be pals rather than at war.

Stuart Bruce

Late to this discussion to much of what I’d say has already been said. Other than I’d probably sound a more optimistic note for the future of PR – but a certain type of PR as I’ll explain.
I’m more optimistic as I’ve been saying since at least 2007 that PR practice and the PR profession isn’t under threat, but the future of PR agencies might well be. And that’s part of what you’re arguing – that digital SEO agencies are taking business and talent that should belong to PR agencies. And that is happening, but far slower than I predicted. And therefore I’d say the decline will never reach the terminal point when the PR agencies are finally exterminated.
But it’s also about the point that you allude to about what PR actually is. My impression is that SEO agencies are getting away with charging premium rates for quite ‘commodity’ services – adequate content creation. This potentially presents an opportunity for PR agencies in that they can present themselves differently and up their rates. Except often it’s part of a ‘bundled’ service so that overcharging for content by SEO agencies is disguised.
The path of least resistance for PR agencies is still probably to think more like management consultancies and stop selling what they do, but sell what their thinking and what that thinking can achieve. Crudely, the day rate for strategy is a lot more than copywriting or outreach.
Finally, your concern about the future career path of PRs who get ‘trapped’ in SEO/digital agencies is well founded.

Alex Yong

Brilliant observation Paul Sutton re: both industries are meeting in the middle. That’s how it should be. Have any of you seen this?? It’s short, I promise but highly relevant – Anyway, I’m a little surprised at some of the comments saying PR can do SEO just as well as SEOs. SEO is hard even for SEOs! They say so themselves. I love this discussion. Keep it going, please.

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