A key distinction between PR and advertising has always been that public relations is earned media rather than paid. But now, just as search engines have revolutionized the way consumers access information, search marketing is evolving public relations.
At Ketchum, some of our newest PR offerings involve buying ad space online -- literally paying for the ability to reach the public with our clients' stories.
If you think that's odd for a PR agency, consider this: Google -- with upward of 5 billion views a month in the U.S. alone -- is essentially the largest publication on the planet. Tie your brand to the right search terms and you can instantly advertise your online offerings to anyone searching for topics that contain those words. But don't count on any real consumer engagement. That's where PR comes in.
Engaging with consumers -- creating real dialogue -- is what public relations always has been about. And the reality of search serves to make that role even more powerful. The handful of digital-media strategists who drive search marketing at Ketchum also are experienced PR professionals who work seamlessly with account teams across the agency. So whether a company needs to counter negative news, correct misinformation or simply enhance its reputation, we can quickly apply a public-relations approach to search marketing that can get the company into millions of conversations in real time. What's more, a conversational approach can allow a company to get its messages across in a way that does not seem defensive, promotional or overly "corporate."
Take the case of Kikkoman, the well-known Japanese soy sauce maker, which is a Ketchum client. Last year the company found itself at the mercy of a false message board posting that had made its way up Kikkoman's organic search rankings. The posting claimed that Kikkoman soy sauce was not vegan when, in fact, it is 100% vegan.
The false posting spreading on the web threatened the integrity of our client's product and its overall reputation. It was a PR issue that demanded a swift response that also anticipated public reaction. Kikkoman immediately took out a paid text ad to communicate to the world that it is "100% vegan." The ad explained it in simple terms: "Soybeans, wheat, salt, water. Nothing else added." And upon clicking, interested searchers were taken to a Kikkoman landing page that detailed exactly how its soy sauce is made.
By taking such a targeted, conversational approach to search marketing, Kikkoman was able to insert itself (in a controlled manner) into what could otherwise have been a troublesome, indefensible conversation. And that Kikkoman's point-of-view has now earned its way organically to the top of search queries provides proof positive that the PR lens is critical to engendering real stakeholder engagement through search.
So, does the fact that Kikkoman paid for those ads make its response advertising rather than PR?
No. It merely demonstrates one way the phenomenon of search changes the PR game. When I first proposed buying online ad space as a Ketchum service, everyone in the agency immediately understood the need and the potential. While getting the attention of a reporter or editor was once the sole way PR "earned" media, today search engines such as Google have made individuals their own editors. And PR has the opportunity to "earn" their attention by keeping a pulse on public concerns, anticipating the topics people will be interested in, and perhaps most important, delivering messages in ways that people will be willing to take them at face value.
In other words, just as search marketing has the power to transform PR, PR has the power to transform search marketing, elevating it to more than paid, commercial messages. In today's media world, that's a business PR agencies can't afford not to be in.
Gur Tsabar is Ketchum's global VP for interactive strategies and search Marketing.