You can prosper as Public Relations collides with Inbound in an attention-deficit world

Guide

Andy Williams

A father of two grown-up daughters, a cyclist, an activist and a serial volunteer, Andy is most intrigued by what makes you tick. He’s also co-MD of Cohesive.

7 minutes

This article is going to resonate with you if you want to understand how public relations is evolving for the world we live in. It’ll really resonate with you if you’re in charge of delivering PR for your business, and you feel like getting a fresh perspective on the value you can bring to your team and your tribes. It unpacks the loaded term ‘Inbound PR’. And I’m hoping it will give you the motivation and the blueprint for taking back ownership of storymaking, your tribes, and proving the value you add.


When did PR get hijacked?

 

Here’s a thought experiment: Should you have control of inbound marketing (aka content marketing) as part of your PR role?

 

My hunch is that if I asked that question of 100 PR professionals:

  • 80 or more would say that they’ve a peer that directs inbound marketing
  • 60-ish would confirm the general perception that content marketing owns content
  • a majority would likely agree that the balance of effort in public relations is directed towards the shrinking universe of press relations

I’m not going to second guess your thoughts, but I’d be really interested to find out. If my hunch is correct then it’s more than a shame. It’s a tragedy if PR has become synonymous with press relations. I also think it’s a huge missed opportunity for you and your organisation. Here’s why.


I hope that you have experienced inbound marketing at its finest. Storytelling, not selling. Open-handed and open-minded.  Genuinely insightful content shared without conditions. Nudging without prying. But I’m betting that you’ve more often experienced it at its worst. Propaganda dressed up as insight. A flood of information and not a drop of inspiration. Repetition before reputation.

"Shouldn't you be directing inbound marketing, as part of your PR role?"

In contrast, every story discovered and shared by a public relations professional has to pass the acid test of journalistic scepticism. Originality, value, resonance, relevance – all of those benchmarks are tested before a story is accepted into the earned channel. You just can’t spam a journalist. Consequently, every PR understands how to make, tell and share a story. And in an attention-deficit world, only powerful stories cut through.

So let me rephrase my opening question: Shouldn’t you be directing inbound marketing, as part of your PR role? It’s worth a thought.


Is that what folks mean by Inbound PR?

The term ‘Inbound PR’ was coined by Iliyana Stareva at Hubspot, who defined it as:

“…combining the best of two worlds – public relations and inbound marketing – by alleviating PR’s biggest weakness (measurement) and Inbound’s biggest challenge (content).”

Let’s think this through.

The power of public relations is to create a shift in attitudes and opinions on the large scale. We do that by orchestrating word of mouth – reaching those that don’t know us through the good opinions of those that do. It creates first awareness, then interest and finally – ultimately – conviction. And it achieves that by making and sharing stories.

Inbound marketing at its best is also about making and sharing stories. Inbound marketers conjure similar consumer-user journeys from awareness through interest to conviction – though they usually call that last stage ‘conversion’.

"The reason they get to trade c-words with you is because of the m-word: measurement."

The reason they get to trade c-words with you is because the m-word: measurement. But on reflection, who’s bringing most to the party here? Is it inbound, with its measurement, or PR with its storytelling? Measurement requires process. The world isn’t short of process. Stories on the other hand require imagination, empathy, insight and intuition…

So here’s a take on Inbound PR

  • It’s a useful shift in perspective that all PR professionals can master
  • It’s a meeting place, a productive clash of cultures, between professionals that share a common cause
  • It’s still a largely unexplored territory, with plenty of scope for fusion and innovation
  • There are no experts; and we can all be experimenters


Getting practical – some  useful lessons from Inbound

It’s time to lay the jargon aside and get practical. Public relations classically has been concerned with making and managing reputation. Marketing has been focused on building and sustaining demand. But it ought to be clear by now that the boundaries have blurred. It’s time to build some meaningful engagement and practical integration between PR and marketing. In the spirit of experimentation, here are some observations to test.

 

An Inbound campaign is a laser. Too many PR campaigns are scattergun.

When you aim for a clear target, it’s usually obvious that you’ve hit it, or missed by a mile. The secret of measurement in the Inbound world comes down to two words: focus and honesty. Across the understandably broad target surface of reputation management, there are still many opportunities to target specific tribes with laser PR campaigns and clear outcomes. Google’s OKR framework offers a simple, coherent system for campaign goal setting and measurement. It’s free, there’s lots of online tuition, and you can use it to help turn ‘reporting’ into actual measurement.

 

Engagement can be measured too.

The tools used daily by inbound marketers to measure their contribution to demand (and ultimately revenue) are available to you too. Inbound demands full editorial control – which limits its reach. You and your extended team have considerably more reach – but almost no editorial control. But in some of your laser-focused campaigns you will be able to target channels where coverage leads to backlinks to your website. And you can usefully share coverage on social media with your own backlinks included.

When that’s possible, you’ll need to create complementary content, at a specific web location, and ideally use tracking code in those backlinks. But with that in place, Inbound’s arsenal of analytical tools can work for you. It will track the bump in traffic you create, and know that it’s in response to a story you placed. It will see if there’s follow-on engagement with the additional content. And it will understand if that engagement creates an ‘inbound journey’ and ultimately a conversion.

It’s not the whole of the value you add. Not by far. But it’s a worthwhile sample, using the only common currency the boardroom trades in.

 

Understand your influencers.

Influencer relations is unique to PR, and as the landscape becomes more complex its value is increasing. Traditional media is but one group of influencers, and even that’s not a single tribe. Finding the others, and establishing relevance, is a key skill set.

Inbound marketers use customer archetypes – personas – to guide their efforts. You can apply the same approach to the influencer landscape. Personas track roles (not titles), responsibilities, values, ambitions and daily careabouts. Use personas to simplify influencer engagement into a manageable number of meaningful ‘journeys’. So for instance, a reporter targeted with posting 12 articles a day on a news site needs a different journey – not just different content – to a journalist creating in-depth analysis pieces.

 

Embrace the ‘paid channel’

‘Pay to play’ occupies an awkward niche in PR. If you think it represents a) a loss of integrity b) the easy way out or c) someone else’s job, well, ‘someone else’ may soon be occupying yours. Unless you have the brand authority of an Apple (or a Kardashian), pay to play is about the only way your content is going to achieve reach in social media, for example. Inbound has no hangups here.

Be transparent, and know what you want to achieve. Vanity coverage is never a good reason to pay to play. It’s going to cost you money and you have editorial control, so you should be looking to measure the kind of RoI we talked about above. Your value-add is that – given your knowledge of influencer relations – you’re going to understand exactly what kind of content will work for both you and the influencer or publication.


Your opportunity

"Be defined not by what you have, but by what you create."

  • Public relations people and teams should play to their strengths – storytelling – as PR reassess its place in the digital marketing universe
  • PR’s ability to create and generate content makes you a powerful ally to Inbound – so go build some bridges
  • Within the context of your own campaigns, as well as at that dovetail with Inbound’s efforts, you can measure your outputs, achievements and contribution in more meaningful ways.  
  • Don’t let others’ arbitrary definitions limit what you can create.

 

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