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The history of public relations still teaches several lessons in PR classes today.

Many PR agencies in the U.S. feel like they are “pushing on a piece of string.” It is harder to pitch stories these days because U.S. media companies have cut 70,000 jobs since June 2000. 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 opportunity.

The History of Public Relations

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. One of his first clients was the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1906, he invented the “press release” to distribute the company’s “news” about an accident before reporters received other versions of the story. It worked like magic.

In 1915, Lee became publicity counsel to John D. Rockefeller. Lee advised Rockefeller to hand out dimes to poor children as a way of showing his philanthropic impulses. He also invented the Betty Crocker symbol and the “Breakfast of Champions” slogan for Wheaties.

According to the Georgia Historical Commission, these “facts” make Lee “the founder of the profession of Public Relations,” but Lee didn’t envision his eclectic collection of tactics and techniques 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 Freud. (His mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s brother). He applied his uncle’s 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’t 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’t 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’s 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.

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’s 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 effect?”

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.

Harold Lasswell

Lasswell's Model


During World War II, US Federal agencies used Lasswell’s 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’t 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.”

Lessons Taught in PR Classes Today

Lasswell’s model was declassified in 1948, and he published a paper on it. Both Lasswell’s communication model and his question, “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?”, have been included in Philip Kotler’s textbook, Marketing Management, which has been used by hundreds of thousands of college students from 1967 to the present.

But, for the past 50 years, PR professionals – and the marketers who hire them – have rarely tracked or measured the “effect” of public relations campaigns. Why? There are a couple of possible explanations.

First, many PR professionals provide their clients with media clippings (or press cuttings as they are called in the UK). Some even collect these into clip reports as an indication of their success. However, articles that mention the client’s name or product are outputs, 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’ve read, heard or seen in the media…at 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 me back in 1987, when I was the company’s Director of Corporate Communications, “If I could deposit these clips in a bank, they’d be worth something. Until you can measure the value of PR in cold, hard cash, don’t waste my time with these reports.” (To read a longer version of this story, click on “Measuring PR in cold, hard cash.”)

Second, until recently, traditional PR tactics and techniques seemed to work – even if publicity’s impact on lead generation and sales weren’t 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’t free…and it wasn’t advertising. They boosted their PR budgets a little while cutting their ad budgets a lot, hoping that prospects wouldn’t notice the difference and competitors wouldn’t 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’t track their impact on lead generation or sales either, the pot didn’t 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’t 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. Suggesting that the PR paradigm was shifting was a message that public relations professionals had difficulty receiving because there was too much “noise.”

For example, I was the Director of Corporate Communications at Ziff-Davis in 1998 when I 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 my presentation was, “How has PR changed in the Internet Age?”

I explained Lasswell’s model and then showed them with a new one that I had developed at Ziff-Davis, which reversed the direction and asked: “Who seeks what in which channel from whom with what effect?”

I 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’ve 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’s messages and decide which ones they’re 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’re using search engines to find the 2% that they’re already interested in. If they find your site during that search, they’re already pre-disposed to take action. It’s revolutionary.”

What impact did my 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. 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’t want me rocking the boat.

It wasn’t 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, 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 have not improved. The marching orders that marketer’s are receiving from CEOs – as well as from investors and Wall Street analysts – have changed radically.

In February, 2003, the CMO Council 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:

  • While public relations is at the top of the priority list of marketing activities, high-tech marketers are now more focused on capturing and keeping customers than on building their brands and shaping their images.
  • While marketing organizations are clearly focused on improving their ability to do more with less, many PR agencies have not invested sufficiently in best practices and innovative solutions needed to increase their effectiveness.
  • While press and analyst influence remain important, lead generation and sales are the new metrics of marketing performance.

If the threat to PR as we know it is clear, what is the opportunity? The opportunity facing PR professionals involves learning as much as you can about SEO – and learning it as fast as possible. 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. There is a plethora of former journalists who are looking to reinvent themselves. Whoever is the first to learn how to write effective press releases and other public relations 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’t be assigned to them.

First, combining SEO and PR doesn’t play to a webmaster’s strengths. This isn’t a criticism of webmasters. They have the education and experience to perform a variety of tasks. Writing press releases and public relations 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 wrote in Search Engine Watch on October 1, 2002, “In my opinion, the meta keywords tag is dead, dead, dead.”

In addition, most 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.” So, don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content, and avoid hidden text or hidden links. Don’t take my word for it. Read Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Second, combining SEO and PR does play to the strengths of PR professionals. This isn’t a compliment. PR professionals got lucky. They have the education and experience to write press releases and other public relations content. These just happen to be tasks that need to be performed.

Even when it comes to submitting your site to relevant directories, the Open Directory Project and Yahoo! are powered by human beings. PR professionals are better suited at writing a 25-word description of a website and pitching it the directory’s editors than webmasters.

In addition, Google says the best way to ensure you’ll be included in its results is to follow guidelines that any PR professional will understand. These include:

  • Thinking about the words users would type to find your pages, and making sure that your site actually includes those words within it.
  • Creating a useful, information-rich site and writing pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.
  • Making sure all the sites that should know about your pages are aware your site is online.

There’s a third fundamental reason why combining SEO and PR shouldn’t be assigned to webmasters. Among the tens of millions of people in the U.S. who are using search engines to find information is 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’s better than the offline kind, which news sites are best, which are failing – but we don’t as often hear how the Net has changed the way traditional beat reporters and researchers gather information.”

In his Editor’s 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. A media reporter for The Washington Post inquired of Scheer, “How did you get onto it so early?” Scheer replied, “Google.”

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog. Greg is profiled in Michael Miller’s new book Online Marketing Heroes: Interviews with 25 Successful Online Marketing Gurus

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