London–Online public relations isn’t simply a matter of devoting a section on your Website to press releases and the phone number of your PR contact–though that is a key, and often overlooked, tool. In a session at the European Catalogue and Mail Order Days conference here, Katy Howell, managing director of PR firm Immediate Future, defined online PR as “reputation management online.” That, she continued, entails promotion; dialogue and conversation; crisis control and defense; and research and insight.
The tools range from virtual press offices on Websites to blog monitoring services to social media such as the ubiquitous YouTube. “PR has never been about shouting about things,” Howell said. “It’s been about discussing, advocating.” The tools of Web 2.0 can facilitate this, she said, by giving companies more control in their ability to talk directly to consumers. For instance, (Product) Red, a not-for-profit brand founded by Bono to raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa, has a Website (JoinRed.com) and has been promoted heavily in ads from commercial partners such as the Gap. But within a week of adding a MySpace page, visits to JoinRed.com rose nearly 80%.
But along with more control, social media and the like also leave companies with less control, Howell said. Companies cannot always steer and manage the conversation. Anyone with an ax to grind and access to the Internet can start a blog or enter a chat room to badmouth a company and spread rumors and outright lies. Hence the title Howell gave her session: “Online PR Is a Brand Issue…Whether You Participate or Not.”
Regardless of how actively you decide to participate, Howell advised monitoring the online chatter, if there is any, about your company for up to 12 weeks before going further: “Before you start talking you’ve got to listen.” You can start by searching for your brand on blog compendiums such as Technorati as well as on the major search engines. There are also paid services that can drill quite deep into the blogosphere. Once you find out who’s talking about you online, you need to analyze their influence and reach. “Put it in perspective,” Howell said. “If [a defamatory comment] is on a site that’s read by one man and his dog, don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
Participating in online PR doesn’t require launching a blog or a MySpace page. If you don’t want to start a conversation so much as use the Web to aid your traditional PR efforts, Howell suggested optimizing your press releases and posting them on your Website as well as on a few of the free or inexpensive PR aggregation sites. To optimize a release, include a keyword or a search term in the headline, in the subhead, and in the first paragraph. Proceed to use keywords in context throughout the release, though don’t use them gratuitously. Embed links in the text, with the links going to optimized landing pages.
Howell’s company optimized a press release for RedHotCurry.com, a U.K. Web portal for Asians. The release was about the editor being named Asian Woman of the Year by a trade association. Within days, Howell said, traffic to RedHotCurry.com doubled, the editor gave three radio interviews and received national press coverage, and the site’s e-commerce sales increased four-fold.