During the recent recession, when marketing budgets were slashed, the big losers were companies specialising in traditional public relations. Study after study showed that companies were spending less on press releases, print advertisements, promotional events and the like – whilst maintaining a healthy investment in online marketing.

The benefits of online marketing are seductive. If you invest in marketing techniques like pay-per-click advertising, search engine optimisation, online display advertising and similar, you can keep close track of costs and your return on investment. Thanks to intelligent use of technology like Google Analytics, you know exactly how many people view your online content, and how many go on to buy from you. If you hire a decent online marketing agency, you will even know when visitors respond to an online advert, and then come back via organic search to buy from you.

Public Relations under threat

But where does this leave traditional PR? Is it dying? Among clients who use our copywriting services, there are many that no longer invest in traditional PR at all. Some of them are major players, with a reach that extends far beyond (for example) regions like Essex or East Anglia and – in some cases – the UK.

So what’s going on?

In a nutshell, wise companies want modern public relations, and only a very few agencies are able to offer a full-service package that includes effective online strategy – indeed, a significant number are themselves almost impossible to find in search engines, which is the greatest warning sign of all.

Even so, full-service PR agencies are becoming increasingly irrelevant as they lose their status as the gatekeepers to effective publicity and promotion – greater democracy online means that many companies can safely bring elements of their PR work in-house, and mix-and-match complementary services from outside providers.

Modern PR

Traditional PR loses out to its modern counterpart in a number of significant ways. These are, to my mind, the most significant factors.

  1. Measuring the effect of traditional PR is difficult and complicated. Issue a traditional press release, and it’s hard to measure the effect it has. Yes, it might result in three newspaper mentions, but exactly what commercial benefits do you derive from them? In contrast, if you issue an online press release, with targeted keywords that link back to your site, you can measure exactly how many readers visit your website, and then find out exactly how many of them buy from you, sign up for your newsletter, or join your organisation.
  2. You often pay twice for traditional PR. Why pay a PR agency for a press release, and then pay again to have it search engine optimised for publication across the web? Or to adapt it as an optimised news story for your own website? It’s cheaper and more effective to write the release using online PR techniques, and then to issue it to the press as well – it shouldn’t need rewriting.
  3. Traditional PR is expensive and has a limited reach. It costs a lot of money to pay a PR agency to send a press release to media contacts, or to organise a promotional event. Thanks to the web, no company needs to restrict itself to strictly local clientele. If your product is good, and you know how to promote it online, then you can cheaply tap into a much wider market – and that goes for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers as much as it does printers, publishers and factory outlets. It goes for individuals too – just look at eBay and Twitter.
  4. In the online world, it’s skill and knowledge – not a little black contacts book – that wins results. This, I think, is the biggest threat to traditional PR. The quality of offline public relations often rests on how well connected any particular PR agency is. Modern, online PR doesn’t rely on having a Moleskine stuffed with the phone numbers of minor celebs – it’s the skill and knowledge needed to carve out an influential Twitter channel, get decent search engine listings, write effective online adverts, optimise web copy, create viral videos and more. And a lot of longstanding PR agencies simply haven’t got it yet.

But don’t write off traditional PR – yet

Traditional PR still has a number of uses, which may or may not fit your business aims. So don’t give up on it yet.

  1. Prestige. A well-connected PR agency can win you prestige by getting you featured in mainstream publications, or by organising events with impressive guest lists. However, even on a local level, this can cost a small fortune – so you need to make sure that there will be at least long-term rewards.
  2. Local markets. Traditional PR is very good for selling to a local market. Getting featured in the local rag, or being thought of as a rising star in a local business community will help you. The danger lies in becoming dependent on regional – or smaller – markets, and not making the most of better and cheaper opportunities online. Ironically, carving out a niche in a larger market can make it much easier to sell nearer to home – it will give you the edge over purely local competitors.

Conclusion: balance your PR and look to the future

So, is traditional PR dying? On the whole, I don’t think it is – but I think a lot of traditional PR agencies will.

There’s already a new generation of specialists that already understand and practise modern, online PR – and they approach it from angles such as internet marketing, online copywriting and SEO web design. It’s going to be a lot easier for many of these firms to offer traditional PR services such as press release writing and distribution than it will be for the dinosaurs to play catch up. In fact, many of them already do.

The only missing factor is convenience. But without a PR agency handling all your communications, you get better transparency and competition. Every company is different, but my advice would be for you to consider the following public relations mix:

  • Hiring a web design agency that really understands SEO (and I can’t emphasise the word ‘really’ enough). Targeted search engine exposure is a must these days, even for the local market – our communities are more fluid than ever, and newcomers need to know about you. Building a website first and then optimising is pointless, time consuming and expensive. Hire a firm that will build you search engine optimised site, and will work on your SEO and pay-per-click advertising strategies delivers measurable returns on investment.
  • Hiring a good copywriter.  Take it as a hint if you like, but unless you have lots of fresh, optimised content online, your PR strategy is missing a chunk of its foundations. Use a copywriter who understands online PR, but who is also experienced in traditional print publications – it’s a money saver in the long term.
  • Build up and maintain your own contacts. Why pay to distribute press releases and other PR materials when you can do it yourself? Most companies are more well-connected than they think – ask all staff to chip in.
  • Organise your own events, or hire a specialist company. Events are part of the PR mix, but events specialists do them better. If you’ve got the expertise in-house, even better.

You will have your own approach, but I think one thing’s clear: the day of the gatekeeper PR agency is over. And the businesses that will be most successful in the next few years will – for the most part – be the ones that already realise this and are doing something about it.