By Arun Sudhaman

LONDON: When BP responded to its calamitous crisis earlier this year by buying up Google ads around such phrases as ‘oil spill’, it again illustrated the apparently inexorable convergence between the worlds of PR and search marketing.

It also served as a reminder that, for many, the PR industry has done a poor job of integrating search strategies into its online comms campaigns. Unsurprisingly, digital PR specialists are now casting envious glances at the growth and size of its peers in the search industry, and wondering whether it is too late for their own agencies to catch up.

“Crisis management is the one area where search marketing and PR are integrated and the role of the normally discrete function is well understood,” says Speed Communications MD Stephen Waddington. “PR typically takes the lead advisory function but will pull in search professionals to clean up the aftermath of a crisis.”

“But the majority of the PR industry has seemingly yet to wake up to even the basics of search marketing.”

The case for convergence

Waddington is hardly a lone voice.

“The PR industry doesn’t understand that the best manifestation of any client’s reputation is its Google results page,” explains Edelman digital strategy head Marshall Manson, who is based at the agency’s London office.

On this, there is broad agreement. “The natural fit between PR and search has been outlined ad nauseum over the last few years,” says Andrew Smith of digital PR outfit Escherman.

“We believe the future is less about key messages and more about key words,” adds Porter-Novelli’s US director of digital production Jeremy Rosenberg. “As such all our client-deliverables at Porter Novelli; media training, news releases and talking points, are keyword optimised and ultimately search optimised.”

Not all PR agencies appear to be as switched on, though, says Smith.

“While the PR sector has generally paid lip service to investing in understanding how search really works, many search agencies have already begun successfully marrying content with search.”

Search agencies take centre-stage

The prospect of search agencies starting to complement their traditional technical abilities with PR and content skills is one that worries many in the PR industry. As Smith adds, the “real value” in search engine optimisation (SEO) is based around page factors, primarily backlinks.

“And what is the most effective route to gaining quality backlinks?” asks Smith. “Quality content. Enter PR. In other words, SEO is now less about technical, on page skills, and more about off page content development – and editorially driven content at that.”

For Smith, therefore, PR should be the “obvious, go-to marketing partner” for developing this type of content.

Unsurprisingly, search types disagree. Will Critchlow is a director at Distilled, a search consultancy that has offices in London and Seattle.

“Content is a factor that can help but it isn’t directly a factor that drives rankings,” he says. “The opportunity that PR firms have missed is selling their services to their clients as something that will help them in the search engines. Not necessarily doing the SEO themselves.”

Critchlow sees a more fundamental problem. “PR firms think search is all about tactics. They can and should be in this space but they can’t do it with their current people.”

“There’s a whole load of SEO stuff which is deeply technical, that requires an analaytical background,” he continues. “You don’t find those people at PR firms, and you don’t find them at the top of PR firms.”

While Critchlow admits that some PR people do seem to “idolise the search industry”, he does not see his own agency competing for comms budgets just yet. “Search is usually bought lower down in an organisation than PR,” he says. “In terms of skills and techniques it’s something that search is very aware of. We are certainly hiring people with PR backgrounds.”

Unlikely bedfellows

That last comment will confirm the fears of many in the PR industry. One person who is not worried, though, is Edelman’s Manson. “If people want to invest in that area, that’s certainly up to them. I’d rather sell a client something that is genuinely valuable, charge them a third of the money and get better results.”

Is Manson being deliberately provocative? He argues that PR agencies should not do technical SEO work. “Too many SEO firms are running around selling technical solutions which are basically nothing but an ongoing sustained attempt to trick Google. Good PR results in coverage and conversations that results in links.”

Critchlow does not hesitate to respond in kind. “Equally if I define PR as trying to con journalists to write about you, then that’s the same. The fact that they misdefine our industry to try and make themselves look better smacks of desperation to me. When they say there’s no value in technical SEO, they just make themselves sound stupid.”

Given the differing mentalities illustrated by this spat, it seems unrealistic to expect smooth integration between the PR and search worlds. Another factor complicating the issue, says Waddington, are the silos that exist on the client side.

Ultimately, though, the overwhelming dominance of search engines like Google, and their expansion into such areas as mobile, real-time and location-based services mean that – even if they are unlikely bedfellows – PR and search are going to be spending plenty of time together.