What brand marketers can learn from PR

Public relations (PR) just plain doesn't work the way it used to.

PR is one of the original forms of content marketing. It does plenty of things: publicity, reputation management, and media relations, to name just a few. But the heart and soul of PR has always been planting stories in print and broadcast media. With the exception of "the exclusive," the primary tool in the arsenal for planting stories has traditionally been the press release -- a brief, persuasive, one- or two-page document intended to convince journalist recipients that the topic is worth their time, attention, and coverage.

Press releases don't work that way any more. They are no longer a private, one-to-one communications channel (once mailed, later faxed to newsrooms). Now, the second a press release is distributed over a wire service, it's immediately picked up by all the major news services and web portals. In other words, when a press release is released, the PR practitioner has broken their own story. It's hard to persuade people in the news business to pick up "news" once a story is already "out there."

So while PR practitioners were once exclusively in the business of influencing the media (and they still are), they (like all other content marketers) are themselves the media. They interface with and target a media landscape that has grown far beyond traditional press and broadcasts outlets.

That's a real game changer.

Enter the optimized press release
The press release isn't dead in the context of content marketing. Instead, it's optimized for different target audiences as well as for search engines. Given that once a release crosses the wire it's "out there" for anyone (not just journalists) to find, keyword research is an essential component of optimizing the press release for search.

Once the two or three relevant search terms the target audience is most likely to search for are determined, these are incorporated into the headline and opening paragraph. It has become increasingly important that press releases contain links: to video, photos, executive bios, a company or product website -- anything that will expand the story.

SEO-PR experimented in 2010 with optimized and un-optimized versions of the same press release from Rutgers University. It announced that students enrolling in the university's mini-MBA program in digital marketing would receive an iPad containing essential course materials for the program.

The un-optimized press release was headlined "Rutgers to Put iPad to the Test in New Digital Marketing Program," with virtually no pick-up. Six days later, the optimized release went out with the headline: "Apple iPad Tablet to be Tested in New Rutgers Mini-MBA Digital Marketing Executive Education Courses." This longer headline included additional search terms: Apple iPad, Apple iPad tablet, mini-MBA, Rutgers mini-MBA, executive education, and executive education courses.

The optimized press release received 22,027 headline impressions, 819 release views, and 35 link clicks. Page views on the landing page for the program not only rose 116 percent, but also generated the first registrations for the program.

A highly successful press release. But not one aimed at...the press.

Find the influencers (not necessarily the journalists)
End-users, potential buyers, students, or clients can now be the target of the press release. PR used to jealously maintain, guard, and update media lists, but its challenge now is to target influencers. Influencers can be bloggers or others with a significant social media following who are talking online about the issues, products, or services that fit with whatever PR is working to publicize. Unlike the mainstream media, these essential targets are not necessarily versed or experienced in dealing with PR professionals.

This lays out a new set of challenges:

  • Identifying the influencers
  • Building relationships with them
  • Finding the online communities where relevant discussions occur
  • Creating awareness and enough enthusiasm to encourage these people and groups to discuss the product/service/story/brand

FLOR, a company specializing in carpeting and interior design products, engaged Meritus Media's Sally Falkow to bring the story of the launch of an Alexander Girard-designed carpet line to relevant online communities. Falkow broke down the target audiences into top bloggers in design and home decorating; hip young urban professionals, and mothers with an interest in DIY design. Before delivering the content, listening was critical.

"Much of the blogging success comes from being involved and seeing opportunities," Falkow said. "Social media is not as cut and dried as traditional PR is. We had to constantly read and monitor blogs to see where there was an opportunity to comment or refer readers to content that was generated."

In addition to generating influence, Falkow persuaded several influential bloggers to run a contest to win a free rug. A particularly influential blog drew more than 500 entries. Apartment Therapy, a blog with 1.5 million monthly visitors, mentioned the product four times. All in all, more than 200 bloggers responded with interest in the story. Bear in mind, this wasn't about creating a release and sending it out, but rather following and participating in conversations over time so content would be relevant to the target audience, as well as presented appropriately and in context.

A major takeaway from the above case studies should be the importance of PR practitioners and brand marketers asking themselves: "Who is the audience?" Sure, it can be journalists, but just as equally it could be the general public and influencers in a given field, whether bloggers, online discussion groups, or people with a significant number of Twitter followers who stick to a given topic. These latter groups are not accustomed to dealing with PR people, but they are open and receptive to discussing their passions with interested, receptive, and informed contributors to the conversation.

In addition to joining conversations, it's critical that content be accessible and sharable. A robust online media center is indispensible for media -- or anyone else -- needing to know more about an organization. At the very least it should be a well-organized repository for news, press mentions, media contacts, press releases, investor information (in the case of public companies), executive photos and bios, product shots, and an online video archive with embed codes so media can easily be shared and disseminated. Press kits should be available, and they should be multimedia.

Forward-thinking companies are taking the online newsroom a step further; they're creating social newsrooms. BASF not only frequently updates the content on its social media newsroom -- in multiple languages -- but also invites the media and others interested in the company to follow it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Slideshare, and Flickr. Content is content. BASF understands it can both disseminate and aggregate company-related content at the same time, while making it easy for others to do the same. Effectively, the social media newsroom is a hub for all the company's social media (read: content) activities.

Rebecca Lieb is an author, speaker, and consultant specializing in digital marketing, advertising, publishing, and media.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

 

Comments

Larry Moniz
Larry Moniz August 4, 2011 at 9:57 AM

After more than 45 years in the communications business I have to disagree with much of your article. In addition to product publicity, there are corporate image programs, financial PR, and Crisis Management. I also take exception to your comments: "Press releases don't work that way any more. They are no longer a private, one-to-one communications channel (once mailed, later faxed to newsrooms). Now, the second a press release is distributed over a wire service, it's immediately picked up by all the major news services and web portals." That's only if the publicist is taking the easy way out by using an outside press release distribution company. If the agency or in-house publicist develops and uses a customized, targeting email list for press releases, coupled with appropriate telephone followup, that doesn't happen.
Frankly, if a publicist doesn't know that a press release service is a wide-area broadcast of the story, they should find another career as they lack the basics to work in PR.
Also, publicizing clients via social media doesn't work. If you have hard, verifiable data to the contrary I'd love to see it. I've been trying to obtain such data for many months from so-called social media experts. They all deny having such data showing their worth.
There's also a recent study from Oriella PR Network which polled nearly 500 journalists, and learned, among other things, that: "...social media isn't the first thing they're going to—only 4 percent said they use Twitter, Facebook, or blogs as their first source in researching a story. The No. 1 resource that journalists in this study are using for sourcing was PR agencies, with a whopping 62 percent."
In another survey by the same network of PR firms, results showed: "But despite the rapidly changing landscape and talk of the death of the press release, "traditional” tactics such as an emailed press release are still effective. 75% of respondents said that an emailed press release is useful to receive from PR professionals, assuming the content is "high quality and well targeted.”
That confirms my previously stated position about the qualify of PR work and the importance of focused and targeted releases.
Release services and social networking are the publicity equivalent of firing a shotgun into the air and hoping a meal flies by at the opportune moment. Conversely Quality PR uses a scoped rifle equivalent to ensure bagging a meal.

Nick Stamoulis
Nick Stamoulis August 2, 2011 at 11:14 AM

"Find the influencers (not necessarily the journalists)"

I think this is something that traditional PR professionals have the hardest time understanding. The Internet allows everyone to be a publisher and journalist at the same time. Your press release has to appeal to the people who can best position it. Online, that could be just about anyone.