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Public Relations has changed dramatically over the past decade. It has grown and matured as an industry, yes. But the most striking moves have come in how we work. The changes have been less disruptive than those in advertising, but the rise of digital and social media has given way to a new world of digital PR. And the rules and tools have changed accordingly.

So, what’s different, and how can we take advantage of the changes? The goals of a typical digital PR program are similar to those of traditional PR with distinct tools and targets. We still prize earned media stories and we work to create branded content. But the most frequent targets are digital media outlets with high domain authority―top outlets like Refinery 29 or Business Insider. We push for links to a company or product website as a matter of routine.

Content has changed, too. In fact, the unofficial birth of digital PR was probably in late 2011 or early 2012, when Google changed its algorithms. The original Panda and Penguin updates favored quality content and penalized black-hat SEO techniques that had propelled dubious websites to page one of the search listings. Later updates defined non-linking citations as implied links, meaning that brand mentions in digital media worked nearly as hard as links, rewarding good PR work with higher search rankings. And for many brands, search rankings were the name of the game.

Gradually, PR morphed from delivering “earned media” to something PR Council president Chris Graves calls “earned influence.” To my way of thinking, this means a broader range of both tools and outcomes, from straight-up publicity coverage to paid third-party endorsement, and everything in between.

Seven Impacts of Digital PR

What impact has the new digital PR had on those of us in the business, and how do we leverage opportunities?

Mastering New Tools

Instead of press releases and a giant Rolodex, it makes more sense to break a story through Facebook Live, or possibly a tweet with a link to a microsite with details of the story. Instead of a full-blown press conference (where breaking news could derail plans and quash media attendance), it’s smarter to share news through an exclusive arrangement with a single digital journalist. The old ways and tools still apply, and access to media and influencers is still vital. But where we once used a blunt instrument, we now have more refined ways of getting the job done.

Building New Skills

Digital PR practitioners today need a newer and more varied skill set to take advantage of opportunities and maximize outcomes. Content used to mean good journalistic writing, a well-researched white paper or op-ed … or maybe a sassy blog post. Today it’s about digital storytelling techniques where visual impact may be more important than persuasive writing. And any PR person who doesn’t understand analytics, or at least the basics of SEO, will find themselves working at a serious disadvantage.

Embracing a New Content Model

Digital PR has ushered in a whole new way of thinking about content. For years we focused primarily on earned media, which still has a hallowed place as an outcome of good PR. Then social media blurred the lines between paid and earned media, and “owned” or branded content expanded as companies and their agencies ramped up blogging and thought leadership content that lives on a branded website. Most PR agencies have adopted the PESO model, for Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned content that work together to drive search visibility, brand awareness, and the all-important customer engagement.

Making New Partnerships Work

Anyone who grew up working at a major PR firm has partnered with ad agencies. There was also the occasional sales promotion tie-in, or maybe coordination with a direct-marketing campaign or consultant. Crisis experts routinely work with law firms. But today’s PR people may partner with teams expert in digital marketing, SEO, email marketing, content marketing, and more. That opens up a new world of “co-opetition” where we might be indirect competitors for the same budget yet must work as a team for the sake of maximizing outcomes.

Collaborating with Digital Influencers

Aside from content overall, nothing has changed PR more than the rise of the digital influencer. What we’re seeing here is a move from celebrities to less-known figures who can offer authentic engagement without breaking the bank. Lately, many brands and agencies have turned to micro-influencer programs that collaborate with personalities who have fewer than 100,000 followers (primarily on Instagram) but who ideally offer a less commercial and more meaningful relationship with fans and followers. Although micro-influencer programs have their detractors, they are popular because they’re designed for visual platforms and are more easily scalable at nearly any budget.

Adopting a Customer Focus

Tools and skills are part of the picture, but real success in the digital era requires nothing short of a mindset shift for most “traditional” PR professionals. In the past, the creative efforts of PR practitioners were directed toward journalists. As bloggers grew, the influencer economy took off, but we were still working to generate branded messages and stories through the filter of the writer. More recently, PRs are charged with developing “viral” content that engages consumers directly. This requires new storytelling skills and represents an enormous mindset shift and has required new talent.

Committing to Outcomes as well as Outputs

Today, everything is measurable and measured. PR floated for too long in a kind of nether world―we urged clients to take it on faith that earned media would move the needle or we promised brand reach as measure in impressions … but very little beyond. Today, the good news is that there are easier methods and a new mindset for evaluating PR outcomes. Our focus as professionals can be on quantifiable changes in SEO, web traffic, brand engagement, and ultimately on the one metric that’s familiar to any marketer―improving business outcomes.