Search Engines and the History of Public Relations
By Greg Jarboe, 5/5/2003
the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock,
it's bound to be bad for the pitcher," observed
Many PR agencies
in the USA feel like they are "pushing on a piece of string." It’s
harder to pitch stories these days because U.S. media companies
have cut 70,000 jobs since June 2000. But, 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 threat is clear. As Sancho Panza observed, "Whether
the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it’s
bound to be bad for the pitcher." In other words, old assumptions
will shatter when they hit – or are bit by – new realities.
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.
himself as a "physician to corporate bodies."
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
1915, Lee became John D. Rockefeller's publicity counsel. Lee
advised Rockefeller to hand out dimes to poor children as a way
his philanthropic impulses.
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 (which also included inventing the Betty Crocker symbol
and the "Breakfast of Champions" slogan for Wheaties)
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 Sigmund Freud. (His
mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s
brother). He applied of 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
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
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. He briefly served at the
Washington School of Psychiatry from 1938-1939.
Then, in 1939, Lasswell was named director of war communications
research at the US Library of Congress. He quickly developed
of Communication" that was just as quickly classified "Top
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 effects?" In his model, "Who" is
the "Sender", "What" is the "Message",
the "Channel" is the "Medium", the "Whom" is
the "Receiver", and some of the "Effects" can
be measured by "Feedback."
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.
During World War II, US Federal agencies used Lasswell’s
secret model to test a variety of propaganda techniques and to
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."
This discovery was shared with the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation,
when applied it to create a different set of posters urging civilians
not to travel unnecessarily, because precious gasoline was needed
by the military.
Lasswell’s model was declassified in 1948, and he published
a paper on it in 1949. Both Lasswell’s communication model
and his question, Who says what in which channel to whom with what
effects, have been included in Philip Kotler’s standard
textbook, Marketing Management, which has been used by hundreds
of college students from 1967 to 2003.
But, for the past 50 years, PR professionals – and the marketers
who hire them – have rarely tracked or measured the "Effects" of
public relations campaigns. Why? There are a couple of possible
First, many PR professionals provide their clients with media
clippings and press cuttings (as they are called in the U.K.).
collect these into clip reports as an indication of their success.
However, articles that mention the client’s name or product
are inputs, 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 Greg Jarboe, the company’s 13th Director
of Corporate Communications, back in 1987, "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 this story, click
co-founders have hired, fired and headed public relations firms
in Boston and San Francisco".)
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
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. In fact, even people in finance – as well
as investors and Wall Street analysts – started measuring
the value of "hype" in cold, hard cash (at least in
their public forecasts, if not in their private emails).
So, suggesting that the PR paradigm was shifting was a message
that receivers had difficulty receiving because there was too
in 1998, Jarboe – who was then the Director of Corporate Communications
at Ziff-Davis – 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 his presentation was, "How
has PR changed in the Internet Age."
Jarboe explained Lasswell’s model and then showed them with
a new one that he had developed at Ziff-Davis, which reversed the
direction and asked: "Who seeks what in which channel from
whom with what effects?"
Jarboe 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 his 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," says Jarboe. "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," he adds.
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
Agencies that specialized in PR for web companies saw most of
their clients go out of business. Agencies that specialized in
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 http://www.iwantmedia.com/layoffs.html,
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
And things may not improve even when the economy eventually does.
The marching orders that marketer’s are receiving from CEOs – as
well as from investors and Wall Street analysts – have changed
In February, 2003, the CMO Council www.cmocouncil.org/NEWS/pressrls021003.htm
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?
SEO-search engine optimization and site submissions
The opportunity facing PR professionals involves learning as
much as you can about search engine optimization (SEO) – and
learning it as fast as you can.
Why all the urgency? The reason is simple. You are not
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.
And there is a plethora of former journalists who are looking to reinvent themselves.
So, whoever is the first to learn how to write effective press releases, marketing
white papers, and ezine-newsletter 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, marketing white papers,
and ezine-newsletter 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, the Editor of The Search
Engine Report wrote on October 1, 2002, "In my opinion, the meta keywords
tag is dead, dead, dead."
In addition, virtually all 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." Don’t
take our word for it. Read Google’s
Pay particular attention to Google’s quality guidelines
and specific recommendations:
- Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
- Don’t employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
- Don’t send automated queries to Google.
- Don’t load pages with irrelevant words.
- Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains
with substantially duplicate content.
- Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines,
or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate
programs with little or no original content.
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, marketing white papers, and ezine-newsletter content.
These just happen to be tasks that need to be performed.
Even when it comes to submitting pages, Google warns webmasters not to use "computer
programs," while the Open Directory Project and Yahoo! use human editors.
Danny Sullivan, Editor of Search Engine Watch, says, "The major search engines
are too important. There aren't that many, so submit manually."
PR professionals match this job description, webmasters don’t.
In addition, Google says the best ways to ensure you’ll be included in Google’s
results are to follow guidelines that any PR professional will understand. These
- Think about the words users would type to find your pages,
and make sure that your site actually includes those words
- Create a useful, information-rich site and write pages that
clearly and accurately describe your content.
- Try to use text instead of images to display important names,
content, or links. The Google crawler doesn't recognize text
contained in images.
- Make sure all the sites that should know about your pages
are aware your site is online.
- Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive
your users, or present different content to search engines
than you display to users.
- Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your
site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web
spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web as your
own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
There’s a third fundamental reason why combining SEO and
PR shouldn’t be assigned to webmasters. Among the 99 million
adults in the U.S. who have used have used search engines to
find information are 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. When a media reporter for The
Washington Post inquired of Scheer, "How did you get onto it so early?" Scheer
Greg Jarboe is co-founder of SEO-PR.