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Why SEO is the emerging challenge for PR-journo ties in India

By now, most PR professionals have read the recent ET edit has created a fiery response from the industry with PR professionals sharing their views widely.

Having worked on both sides of the PR and journalism spectrum, there are clearly valid points brought up by both sides. If the PR calls and emails are incessant and poorly targeted, the media itself is under tremendous pressure to provide content and news to fuel an advertising clicks revenue model. 

Is the email the best way to connect?

Kushan Mitra, contributing editor, of The Print and an automotive journalist with over two decades of experience, shares he currently has 100,000 unread emails in his inbox. He feels, "Every email blast is not necessary to send. For example, in May 2023, Niranjan Gupta was appointed as the new CEO of Hero MotoCorp, now that story is worthy of an email and press release. Every C-suite appointment does not require a press release to be emailed. To be honest, journalists will take the news about a listed company more seriously than a start-up. Though there are a lot of start-ups in the E- 2 wheeler market in India, the coverage of organisations does depend on the company's size and the quality of the spokesperson. 

Professionals like Adfactors PR's Rajesh Chaturvedi and Zacharia James, former chief strategy officer, BCW APAC command respect and if they say something about an organisation, journalists will give them a hearing."

Earlier this month, PRmoment founder, Ben Smith spoke to Charlie Russell who is the founder of Synapse. Synapse is aiming to take more of a marketplace approach to the intersection of PR and journalism by trying to remove the inefficiencies and frustrations of email from the daily workflow of PR professionals and journalists. Among the points discussed in the podcast talks about how the SEO sector’s evolution to “digital PR” and its desire for editorial links has resulted in a massive increase in the number of press releases sent to journalists. This has certainly increased the pressure on journalists, in the UK the volume of emails for journalists has risen by 50%.

Digital PR and SEO's impact on journalists 

James Crawford, managing director of PR Agency One and a director of AMEC, the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, explains," It's important to note that not all those reaching out to journalists are PR professionals; many are SEO outreach specialists with limited media relations training. This influx, often automated, can indeed be a source of frustration for journalists. Rather than attributing it solely to the PR industry, the SEO industry plays a significant role. Managing additional emails, from poorly crafted pitches to link requests, undoubtedly consumes valuable time for journalists.

The process of soliciting links within editorial content, known as "link reclamation" in the SEO industry, is carried out on an extensive scale, sometimes automated via email or managed by software. Such practices can be quite bothersome."

Jai Bahal, founder, of Navic Learn agrees that SEO requests are now widespread. These include requests to include specific SEO keywords and backlinks. Bahal says that while the larger newspapers have policies on what is included as SEO, sometimes the inclusion can depend on your individual connection with the journalist. 

Crawford however feels that "India has had a robust SEO industry historically, and it was a global hub for outsourcing link-building work before the significant Google update in 2012. Some SEO professionals transitioned their skills into digital PR, as link-building practices evolved post-update. PR, particularly digital PR, became the primary avenue for earning links.

Explaining further, Crawford shares that, "Before the 2012 update, the online landscape was flooded with low-quality content created solely for the purpose of acquiring links. Since then, the shift towards "digital PR," where media relations is used to secure high-quality links, has gained momentum. Editorial coverage emerged as the primary avenue to enhance search engine visibility."

Crawford adds, "However, it's worth noting that not all SEO agencies handle digital PR effectively. Some outreach efforts are poorly thought out, badly written, and lack professionalism. So, while the demand for editorial coverage has increased, the quality of outreach varies widely across the industry."

Crawford advises, "The optimal approach for PR practitioners in structuring SEO-related link requests is to create inherently link-worthy content. The story should be so compelling that it feels incomplete without a link. This might involve hosting research or quoted content on your website for easy linking, and ensuring these links are readily available in your correspondence with journalists."

Content vs News 

The pervasive influence has changed the face of content and news in India and globally. 

Mitra says, "It is becoming harder and harder to distinguish between news and content - if a brand wants to push out certain narratives - they use SEO to promote it strongly."

Mitra adds, "There is a genuine disconnect between media and PR. This is partly due to the over-'contentisation'  on the media's side and extreme commercialisation on the PR side."

Mitra shared that focusing on relationships is still the best way to approach earned media. 

Seema Ahuja, the global head of corporate brand for Biocon Group & Biocon Biologics and also heads communications for emerging markets feels there should be better community building between journalists and PR professionals. She says, "There is a section of employees who would not like to come back to the office and would like to continue with remote working.

This, I believe is a key challenge, and this holds good for media journalists too. This is why continuing with the traditional 'one-to-one' relationship-building meetings has become next to impossible now.

The relationship is more transactional, journos would send queries, which you need to address or if you want an interview to be set, you reach out. Not much beyond that, unless you already have a personal relationship with some of the journalists. In that case, that's more of personal bonding."

It is worth noting that as a new generation of PR practitioners and journalists comes up, from the embers of mutual angst there is the potential for better ties. On its part, the PR industry needs to focus strongly on training and upskilling. 

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