The ultimate guide to digital PR

Digital PR is one of the most powerful ways to enhance your brand and build your reputation both online and off.

It is about the long-term result of not only what you say but more importantly what you do. It’s about what others think and say about you. It’s the acquisition of social capital through proactive means to power your brand, your product or yourself.

Over the years it has evolved from sending press releases online to becoming a fully-fledged discipline. Every brand today uses digital PR and with the advent of social media, many people apply the same techniques to build their personal brand and influence.

There is still a lack of understanding when it comes to digital PR. The assumption by some is it’s about getting press coverage in online publications whereas others think it’s getting links from authoritative sites.

So what is digital PR? And why is it so important?

Digital PR weaves together the art and science of communication, behavioural psychology and technology to build reputation, authority and trust. Often misunderstood but never disregarded, this article outlines what it is and more importantly what it isn’t.

Keep reading if you want to understand what digital PR is, its role in business and society, the skills you need to work in it, the types of tactics used and much more.

The definition of digital PR

Digital PR is the discipline of engaging and influencing a variety of audiences and stakeholders using a range of communication tools, technologies and techniques to shape the perception and reputation of an organisation or individual.

It’s about the result of what you do and say and the people you influence on the way. Just as important, it’s about what you don’t say too.

Digital PR is a discipline in its own right but practitioners usually match their expertise with other forms of PR like strategic communications, public affairs, crisis communications, executive communications, investor relations and so on.

“Most digital PR strategists are multidisciplinary. They apply their expertise in data, technology, culture, social influence, and communication with sector-specific knowledge.”

Why is digital PR important?

Digital PR is important because the world is more complicated than it was even ten years ago. The internet changed everything in terms of how we consume information, communicate and live our lives.

Organisations and individuals have to evolve with the world and digital PR can help them navigate it. Among all the technological innovation and social change, it is still fundamentally important to building a long-term reputation.

Legendary billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, was right when he said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” 

While technology continues to change at a rapid pace, human nature does not. We still value people and organisations that have the characteristics we hold in high regard. Honesty, credibility, authority, empathy and so on.

These are traits that build a long term reputation and humans will continue to value them regardless of how technology develops and it’s why digital PR will continue to grow in importance.

The role of digital PR

The role of digital PR is to be the reputation custodian of an organisation, brand or individual. That’s the abstract description of its role but in reality, it’s much more a practical discipline.

While its overarching role is to focus on and adhere to a long-term digital PR strategy the day to day is much different.

It’s about:

  • Collecting and analysing data from a variety of sources to inform and measure campaigns
  • Monitoring media, social media and other outlets for potential crises
  • Producing content across a range of formats (text, audio and video) across multiple channels
  • Building relationships with key opinion formers, influencers and other stakeholders
  • Staying on top of news and cultural developments
  • Organising the live stream of an in-real-life event
  • Studying and understanding new technologies and how they might support digital PR

The role of a digital PR strategist

Digital PR strategy varies which means the role of the digital PR strategist is a mixed one depending on the sector or industry they work in. They are the custodian of the digital PR strategy and ensure all activities align to the objectives without succumbing to the short-term thinking that impacts the long-term.

Not that the digital PR strategist doesn’t operate in the short term. They have to but always with the long term and big picture in mind.

A digital PR strategist has an understanding of the digital PR toolset and knows where to apply them in which situation.

The digital PR skill set

Digital PR blends the soft skills with the hard and the technological skills with the philosophical. The skill set is varied.

Communication

First and foremost it’s about communication. Whether that’s communicating for humans or communicating for algorithms, digital PR requires you to understand communication in all its forms including listening.

Technology

Technology has become more important to the process in recent years meaning it’s a core component of the digital PR skill set. Every year there is a new app, service or social network digital PR strategists must understand.

Narrative shaping

The world runs on narratives because humans make meaning from stories and tend to remember stories rather than facts alone. A digital PR can create and shape narratives that resonate with the intended receiver

Rhetoric

To be truly good at digital PR you must understand the art of persuasive communication. This is where Aristotle’s rhetoric comes into play. Understanding and applying Logos (logic), Pathos (emotion) and Ethos (credibility) to the form of communication where they most fit is a must. The art of rhetoric has been around for thousands of years because, unlike technology, human nature does not change.

Strategic thinking

Most industries today claim you have to be a ‘strategic thinker’ to succeed but what does it mean? Strategic thinking can be broken down into subsets like long-term thinking, critical thinking, analytical thinking, systems thinking, divergent thinking, first principles thinking and so on. Applying the right type of thinking at the right time is the key.

Social influence and behavioural psychology

Social influence and behavioural psychology are subsets of psychology which provide the unlock code that helps you understand how an individual or a group of individuals are influenced either by others or by the way they think. Confirmation bias, social proof, availability heuristic and liking principle are all forms of social influence and behavioural psychology we have to understand.

An understanding of the issues of the day

In recent years several societal issues relating to the environment and equality have come to the forefront of national consciousness. These issues tend to be font and centre of many organisational strategies which means it is incumbent on the digital PR strategist to understand them and factor them into their campaigns when necessary.

We go deeper into the key digital PR skills in this article.

Digital PR is not just SEO

Digital PR is often conflated with SEO which has been an ongoing issue for years and is partly the SEO industry’s fault.

A quick google search of ‘what is digital PR’ gives you a raft of long and well-written articles published by, you guessed it, SEO agencies. All of these articles are, in the main, talking about link building.

Even SEO expert Brian Deane is running a “Mastering Digital PR” course in partnership with SEO company, Semrush.

No offence to Brian, he’s one of the best in the business. The SEO business that is, not the PR business.

So, how did SEO hijack the digital PR moniker?

Around 2012ish, the SEO industry began calling link building (generating links back to a website) digital PR.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love SEO. It has some of the smartest people working in it and it is an industry that brings enormous returns but link building does not encapsulate digital PR.

SEO is not digital PR either. The whole point of SEO is to drive traffic from people using a search engine to a designated site. Does that sound like the definition of digital PR to you?

I can understand why the SEO industry adopted the term. Before the mid-2000s, most PR activity was just media relations. Scoring coverage in newspapers (yes, news on paper) and cutting the clippings out and sticking them in a coverage folder. This, at the time, was what clients valued most because the online world was still fringe.

The SEO industry applied this to the online world intending to achieve backlinks rather than generate favourable coverage and called it digital PR.

So while SEO and digital PR go hand-in-hand they are not the same. They are complementary to one another and one tends to take a back seat depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

Looking to drive as much quality traffic to a website via search intent? An SEO-led strategy is more appropriate.

Looking to build a long-term brand, reputation and influence? A digital PR strategy is more appropriate. Which may, of course, have an SEO component to it.

Digital PR tactics

If digital PR is not just a bunch of SEO tactics then what is it? Good question, I’m glad you asked. You see, digital PR tactics come in a variety of shapes and forms including;

  • Media relations
  • Influencer relations
  • Influencer marketing
  • Brand/issues monitoring/management
  • Data analysis
  • Social media management
  • Community management
  • Content creation
  • Copywriting
  • Interviewing
  • Public speaking
  • Presenting
  • Web design
  • Video production
  • Podcast production
  • Photography
  • Running events (online and off)
  • Newsjacking
  • Social media advertising
  • Forming partnerships
  • SEO

They usually aren’t stand-alone tactics but should be part of an overarching digital PR strategy.

Most of these tactics are specialisms in their own right which illustrates the increasing complexity of digital PR and is why digital PR strategists need to be collaborative and work among a team of specialists.

While you don’t need to be an expert in every digital PR tactic you do need an understanding of each and how they fit into a digital PR strategy.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

Digital PR measurement

There are two components to digital PR measurement.

The first is the tangible component. This is the lovely data your campaign activity generates which allows you to measure the effectiveness on a granular level to discover what is (or isn’t) working.

Sometimes the biggest issue faced among all this data is prioritising what to measure. Of course, it should be based on your SMART (emphasis on the M) objectives but with so much data it’s knowing where the value lies.

You can track

  • Engagement
  • Followers
  • Backlinks
  • Views
  • Uniques
  • Time on site
  • Traffic metric
  • Sign-ups
  • Inbound enquiries
  • Views
  • Listens
  • Etc

Those are the tangible metrics but what about the intangible?

“Digital PR measurement is not just about hard numbers but also, and more importantly, is about measuring the intangibles like awareness, perception, reputation, influence and so on. Unfortunately, there is no data dashboard for these metrics.”

When it comes to the intangible and important ‘data points’ most of the time it’s almost impossible to measure them. We can make assumptions, of course, but we cannot claim with 100% certainty where the attribution comes from.

How do you measure relationships? Or the positive things people say about you when you’re not there? How do you measure the increasing reputation you’re building among your peer group?

In short, you can’t. Not with 100% certainty anyway and this is why it’s important to take into account these factors because there is a lot of the important stuff that attribution software cannot measure.

The future of digital PR

We can’t predict the future but we can use the past as an indicator of what’s to come. Our world has become more open and transparent in recent years because of new technologies and communication channels and there is no reason to believe this won’t continue.

As metaphorical walls continue to topple and as the world becomes increasingly complex, it’s paramount for both organisations and individuals to build their reputations among their stakeholders. This means taking a long-term proactive approach to their digital PR activity.

The art of PR has not and will not change. People will continue to want to do business with organisations with credibility and authenticity, and who they trust. In a world of data and technology, digital PR is the mechanism that brings the human element to the complexity.

The science of PR will continue to evolve as new technologies such as Web3 emerge. Over the last decade and a half communications technology has been used for good and bad and that will only continue. Digital PR has to be at the forefront of this change by being a first-mover and adapting to it accordingly.

The discipline of digital PR will only become more specialised. Today no one can claim to be an expert in each digital PR tactic. It is simply too complex to claim otherwise and will only exacerbate in the future. Digital PR strategists need to continually learn new skills to cope with the change. It will be a busy time, as it always is.

Written by Thumos Team

We are Thumos. We’re the leading digital influence company. We shape reputation and grow influence through content and storytelling. You can contact us here.

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