Search Engines and the
History of Public Relations
By Greg Jarboe - 5/5/2003
"Whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it's bound to be bad for the pitcher," observed Sancho Panza
PR agencies in the USA feel like they are "pushing on a piece of string."
It痴 harder to
pitch stories these days because U.S. media companies have cut 70,000 jobs
since June 2000. But, something more fundamental is also at work. The
irresistible force of search engine optimization (SEO) has hit the immovable
object of public relations (PR). The result is both a threat and an
The threat is clear. As Sancho Panza observed, "Whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it痴 bound to be bad for the pitcher." In other words, old assumptions will shatter when they hit ・or are bit by ・new realities.
PR has been around for almost 100 years. While many believe that Edward Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s, others point to Ivy Lee, who opened a "counseling office" in 1904.
described himself as a "physician to corporate bodies."
One of his first clients was the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1906, he invented the "press release" ・to distribute the company痴 "news" about an accident before reporters received other versions of the story. It worked like magic. In 1915, Lee became John D. Rockefeller's publicity counsel. Lee advised Rockefeller to hand out dimes to poor children as a way of showing his philanthropic impulses.
According to the Georgia Historical Commission, these "facts" make Lee "the founder of the profession of Public Relations." But Lee didn稚 envision his eclectic collection of tactics and techniques (which also included inventing the Betty Crocker symbol and the "Breakfast of Champions" slogan for Wheaties) as anything more than short-term solutions to client problems. He supposedly told Bernays, who was a contemporary and also operated out of New York, that when they died, public relations as a profession would die with them.
Bernays, on the other hand, had a grander vision. He tried to put public relations on a scientific footing, often applying lessons he had learned from his uncle, Sigmund Freud.
Bernays was actually the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. (His mother was Freud痴 sister and his father was Freud痴 wife痴 brother). He applied of his uncle痴 concept of "mass psychology" to sell bacon, cigarettes and soap. He also staged "overt acts" (what would now be called "media events") to awaken apparently subconscious feelings.
For example, George Washington Hill, an eccentric businessman and president of the American Tobacco Company, hired Bernays in 1928 to solve a problem: Women weren稚 smoking cigarettes in public. Hill recognized that changing public opinion could expand his market for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Bernays consulted a psychoanalyst, Dr. A.A. Brill, who suggested that smoking in public, which men did openly, be linked to the freedom to vote, a right that women had just won. With the help of his wife, Doris Fleishman, Bernays convinced a group of former suffragettes to march down Fifth Avenue, carrying Lucky Strikes in the air ・as if they were "torches of freedom" ・as a gesture of demonstrate their equality with men. It was one of his biggest successes.
Bernays also solidified his reputation as "the father of spin" by writing books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923 and Propaganda in 1928.
In fact, Bernays often described what he did as propaganda, and didn稚 apologize for using the term until after it was adopted in the 1933 by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany.
In 1939, Germany痴 frighteningly effective use of propaganda prompted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create a group of "top men" to start working on an American version of propaganda ・just in case it was needed.
One of these "top men" was Harold Lasswell.
Lasswell had received his bachelor of philosophy degree in 1922 and his Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of Chicago. He also studied at the universities of London, Paris, Geneva, and Berlin during those years. In 1927, he wrote "Propaganda Technique in the World War." He taught political science at the University of Chicago until 1938, when he went to Yale University to become a visiting lecturer at the Law School. He briefly served at the Washington School of Psychiatry from 1938-1939.
Then, in 1939, Lasswell was named director of war communications research at the US Library of Congress. He quickly developed a "Model of Communication" that was just as quickly classified "Top Secret."
Like a scene out of the movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Lasswell explained to the other "top men" working on the project that propaganda ・or what the American痴 called the communication process ・entailed five key elements.
Lasswell assembled these elements into a model and then turned the model into a simple question: "Who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effects?" In his model, "Who" is the "Sender", "What" is the "Message", the "Channel" is the "Medium", the "Whom" is the "Receiver", and some of the "Effects" can be measured by "Feedback."
If you found the right answers to each of the five elements of the question, then you could create effective propaganda ・unless, of course, too much "noise" ・unplanned static or distortion during the communication process ・resulted in the receiver receiving a different message than the sender sent.
During World War II, US Federal agencies used Lasswell痴 secret model to test a variety of propaganda techniques and to create some very powerful propaganda posters, films, and radio broadcasts.
For example, it was discovered that "help win the war" wasn稚 the most effective slogan to use for selling war bonds. It appealed to men, but not women. This led to the development of a more effective slogan: "Help win the war and bring the boys home."
This discovery was shared with the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation, when applied it to create a different set of posters urging civilians not to travel unnecessarily, because precious gasoline was needed by the military.
Lasswell痴 model was declassified in 1948, and he published a paper on it in 1949. Both Lasswell痴 communication model and his question, Who says what in which channel to whom with what effects, have been included in Philip Kotler痴 standard textbook, Marketing Management, which has been used by hundreds of thousands of college students from 1967 to 2003.
But, for the past 50 years, PR professionals ・and the marketers who hire them ・have rarely tracked or measured the "Effects" of public relations campaigns. Why? There are a couple of possible explanations.
First, many PR professionals provide their clients with media clippings and press cuttings (as they are called in the U.K.). Some even collect these into clip reports as an indication of their success. However, articles that mention the client痴 name or product are inputs, not outcomes.
These PR professionals ・and many of the marketers who hire them ・assume that actual prospects (as opposed to random people) have read their clips ・and that some unknown, undefined and unspecified percentage will respond to the messages they致e read, heard or seen in the media・t some indefinite, imprecise and ill-defined point in the future.
But, sooner or later, somebody in the client organization demands more tangible metrics. As Jim Manzi, the President and CEO of Lotus Development Corp., told Greg Jarboe, the company痴 13th Director of Corporate Communications, back in 1987, "If I could deposit these clips in a bank, they壇 be worth something. Until you can measure the value of PR in cold, hard cash, don稚 waste my time with these reports." (To read this story, click on "SEO-PR co-founders have hired, fired and headed public relations firms in Boston and San Francisco".)
Second, until recently, traditional PR tactics and techniques seemed to work ・even if publicity痴 impact on lead generation and sales weren稚 being tracked or measured.
During the recession of 1991, spending on public relations increased, while spending on advertising decreased. Many marketers thought of PR as "free advertising" ・even though it wasn稚 free・nd it wasn稚 advertising. They boosted their PR budgets a little while cutting their ad budgets a lot, hoping that prospects wouldn稚 notice the difference and competitors wouldn稚 take advantage of the situation.
Since most of their prospects were postponing buying decisions ・and most of their competitors were doing the same thing ・few shifts in market share were seen. Since most ad agencies didn稚 track their impact on lead generation or sales either, the pot didn稚 call the kettle black. And, since most PR staff and budgets were avoiding cuts, nobody told the Emperor that he was naked.
During the "dot com" boom of the mid- to late-1990s, PR professionals didn稚 have time to question their assumptions. They were too busy juggling opportunities for better pay, offers for better jobs, and their first serious shot at stock options. In fact, even people in finance ・as well as investors and Wall Street analysts ・started measuring the value of "hype" in cold, hard cash (at least in their public forecasts, if not in their private emails).
So, suggesting that the PR paradigm was shifting was a message that receivers had difficulty receiving because there was too much "noise."
example, in 1998, Jarboe ・who was then
the Director of Corporate Communications at Ziff-Davis ・gave a presentation to
the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) chapter in Portland, OR. The
audience included both PRSA members and students from Portland State University
(PSU), who were majoring in PR. The title of his presentation was, "How
has PR changed in the Internet Age."
Jarboe explained Lasswell痴 model and then showed them with a new one that he had developed at Ziff-Davis, which reversed the direction and asked: "Who seeks what in which channel from whom with what effects?"
Jarboe explained, "The old view of marketing assumes communication is a one-way street. Advertising and PR professionals sent their brand messages to the media. The state side of the media runs the ad messages, because they致e been paid for, while the church side of the media decided which if any PR messages to run, because they are free. Potential buyers receive both church and state痴 messages and decide which ones they池e interested in responding to. With search engines, this whole process is reversed. Many potential buyers are no longer waiting passively to receive messages ・98% of which are of little interest to them anyway. Instead, they池e using search engines to find the 2% that they池e already interested in. If they find your site during that search, they池e already pre-disposed to take action. It痴 revolutionary."
What impact did his presentation have on the audience?
" I got a round of polite applause, and a couple of questions about alternative career choices from some of the PSU students," says Jarboe. "However, several PRSA veterans came up to me afterwards and asked that I never, ever give that speech again. Their clients were happy and they didn稚 want me rocking the boat," he adds.
It wasn稚 until after the "dot com" bubble burst in the spring of 2000 that anyone began to re-evaluate the effectiveness of traditional PR.
It was easy to understand why virtually all of the "noise" had disappeared.
Agencies that specialized in PR for web companies saw most of their clients go out of business. Agencies that specialized in PR for tech companies saw many of their clients tighten their belts and, sadly, slash PR budgets.
At first, these cutbacks were attributed to the slowing economy, disappointing results in the tech sector, and restructurings in the aftermath of mergers. Then, things got worse.
In February, 2003, I Want Media http://www.iwantmedia.com/layoffs.html, which has been tabulating U.S. media layoffs since June 2000, reported that some 70,000 jobs at media companies have been lost in the past few years. This makes it even harder for PR professionals to pitch stories because there are far fewer journalists to pitch them to.
And things may not improve even when the economy eventually does. The marching orders that marketer痴 are receiving from CEOs ・as well as from investors and Wall Street analysts ・have changed radically.
In February, 2003, the CMO Council www.cmocouncil.org/NEWS/pressrls021003.htm announced the key findings of a survey of over 350 senior marketing executives. According to the survey, marketing executives now find themselves in the position of having to justify resources based on very tangible metrics.
This creates a series of dilemmas for public relations firms from San Francisco to Boston:
If the threat to PR as we know it is clear, what is the opportunity?
SEO-search engine optimization and site submissions
The opportunity facing PR professionals
involves learning as much as you can about search engine optimization (SEO) ・and learning it as fast
as you can.
Why all the urgency? The reason is simple. You are not alone.
There are plenty of savvy PR agencies and SEO firms that are looking for clients. There is a profusion of unemployed PR professionals who are looking for work. And there is a plethora of former journalists who are looking to reinvent themselves.
So, whoever is the first to learn how to write effective press releases, marketing white papers, and ezine-newsletter content that generate leads as well as publicity wins the race.
To complicate things a bit, there is another group that will think: This is my job. This group of very talented techies is called webmasters.
While webmasters are essential partners in the process, there are three fundamental reasons why combining SEO and PR shouldn稚 be assigned to them.
First, combining SEO and PR doesn稚 play to a Webmaster痴 strengths. This isn稚 a criticism of Webmasters. They have the education and experience to perform a variety of tasks. Writing press releases, marketing white papers, and ezine-newsletter content are generally not among them.
The reason why webmasters will consider SEO to be part of their job is simple. A couple of years ago, when it required technical skills in order to be effective, it was. But, the most popular method used to improve rankings in November 2000 ・changing metatags ・no longer works. As Danny Sullivan, the Editor of The Search Engine Report wrote on October 1, 2002, "In my opinion, the meta keywords tag is dead, dead, dead."
In addition, virtually all of the other techie tactics that were used a few years ago to get high rankings are now considered "illicit practices that may lead to a site being removed entirely from the Google index." Don稚 take our word for it. Read Google痴 Webmaster Guidelines.
Pay particular attention to Google痴 quality guidelines and specific recommendations:
Second, combining SEO and PR does play
to the strengths of PR professionals. This isn稚 a compliment. PR professionals got lucky.
They have the education and experience to write press releases, marketing white
papers, and ezine-newsletter content. These just happen to be tasks that need
to be performed.
Even when it comes to submitting pages, Google warns webmasters not to use "computer programs," while the Open Directory Project and Yahoo! use human editors. Danny Sullivan, Editor of Search Engine Watch, says, "The major search engines are too important. There aren't that many, so submit manually."
PR professionals match this job description, webmasters don稚.
In addition, Google says the best ways to ensure you値l be included in Google痴 results are to follow guidelines that any PR professional will understand. These include:
There痴 a third fundamental reason why combining SEO
and PR shouldn稚 be assigned
to webmasters. Among the 99 million adults in the U.S. who have used have used
search engines to find information are an unusual segment: Journalists.
In the March 2002 issue of Yahoo! Internet Life, editor-in-chief Barry Golson wrote, "We read about online journalism ・whether it痴 better than the offline kind, which news sites are best, which are failing ・but we don稚 as often hear how the Net has changed the way traditional beat reporters and researchers gather information."
In his Editor痴 Note, entitled "A Reporting Revolution", Golson told the story of Robert Scheer, who writes a syndicated column for the Los Angeles Times and was among the very first reporters to expose the connections between the Enron bankruptcy and the Bush administration. When a media reporter for The Washington Post inquired of Scheer, "How did you get onto it so early?" Scheer replied, "Google."