Category Archives: Public Relations

How I got a PR agency to the top of Google’s search results

In January 2014 I started work at the financial and corporate PR agency, Hudson Sandler, as head of digital. One of the projects I worked on there was revamping the agency’s website, which was sorely out of date and failing to generate any inbound sales enquiries because it was not appearing in search engine results for any relevant terms.

I started work on this project in autumn of 2014 and by the time I left the agency in summer 2015, the website was on the front page of Google for many relevant search terms, and right at the top of the results for key terms such as ‘financial PR agency’ and ‘corporate PR agency’. During that period the monthly traffic increased exponentially and the site began generating lucrative sales leads for the agency.

My budget for this project was £0, and there are dozens of much larger UK agencies competing for those search terms.

So how did I do it?

The first step was to move the site from static HTML pages to a content management system that would make it easy for us to add and edit content, so we migrated the old site to WordPress with a modified off-the-peg template to match the agency’s branding. I also installed an SEO plugin which automatically generated sitemaps and allowed me to manually edit page titles and meta-descriptions.

Next I overhauled the site’s static content. PR agencies tend to favour fluffy, strategic sounding language which is absolutely no use for SEO purposes – search engine algorithms aren’t good at deciphering marketing doublespeak. So I rewrote as much of the content as possible with clear, descriptive copy about the agency and the services it offered. I also made sure that the site had plenty of internal links with descriptive anchor text.

In addition to the static content I introduced a blog to the site so we could regularly post updates about the agency and thought leadership pieces, this was central to the whole approach. Over several months we wrote a lot of blog posts that were tightly focused on our key subject areas of financial and corporate PR. This doesn’t mean churning out copy stuffed with keywords, but simply that the articles were all specifically about different aspects of the topic at hand.

This meant that when Google’s algorithm looked at our site, it would find lots of content and language that is highly relevant to that topic. It was also important that the blog posts were genuinely useful and interesting for the target audience for a couple of reasons:

  1. This would increase the chances of them being shared on social media and linked to from other sites, which is good for SEO
  2. If the articles are of poor quality visitors will not spend very long on the page, and this can have a damaging effect on the site’s performance in search engines

I also made a point of writing lengthy blog posts of around 1,000 words or more where possible, because most SEO experts believe that longer articles are better than 400/500 word blogspam. Writing a lot of good quality, on-topic, long-form blog posts is hard work, but there are no shortcuts here, your site’s search engine rankings depend on great content, so you need to put the effort in. The results we achieved prove the value of that.

Having fixed the site’s structure and greatly improved the quality of content, there was one final piece of the puzzle to solve; backlinks. Your site’s SEO is highly dependent on both the number and quality of links pointing to it from third party sites. In short, you need as many links as possible from high authority sites (i.e. websites belonging to established media, big corporations, government, academia and other respected sources) and this is very hard to achieve.

This is where we relied on good old fashioned PR skills to charm and persuade people to link to our site. We asked clients to link to us from their online press centres, we created stories which gave the trade media good reasons to write about us, and we came up with a few other creative ways of getting links from authoritative third party sites. As with the content, there are no shortcuts here any more; if you want good quality links to your site, doing the legwork is the only way to make it happen.

And that’s pretty much the long and short of it. Using Google Search Console we were able to track how our site was appearing in search results and we noticed an almost immediate improvement, but it took a couple of months before we started to see our site at the top of the results for relevant search terms. Over time, as we added more content and secured more links, the results got better and we began to inch out major competitors for our most important search terms.

If you take away anything from this story it should be this – everything I did was relatively simple. Sure, it’s hard work to create a pipeline of good content and to get lots of quality backlinks but there’s no dark art to any of it, you just have to put the hours in.

The real difference between working in PR and journalism

I’ve been in PR for nearly ten years and was lucky enough to join the industry just as it started to become entangled with digital and social media, which enabled me to carve out a little niche for myself as a digital specialist since I happen to have a bit of experience in the online world.

Before PR I was a tech journalist for 13 years and, to be honest, it still sometimes feels strange not turning up to an editorial office every day.

When people ask me why I made the leap, I usually tell them that it seemed like the most logical progression, but the truth is that PR is a very different world to the kind of tech-magazine journalism I spent much of my life doing. I don’t feel like I made any sort of logical, smooth progression, I feel like I jumped right into the deep end of a completely new career.

The most noticeable change in your day to day life is that people stop treating you like you’re important, but I think all but the most deluded of journos would expect that, so it’s not worth dwelling on. There are other changes that I was less prepared for.

When I was a hack I lived in a little bubble that was protected from any kind of commercial reality, all I had to worry about was producing great articles and meeting deadlines (or at least, not missing them by too much). Most of the tech magazines I worked on had an atmosphere that was somewhere between a playground and a laboratory – lots of smart people in a room together, having fun and challenging each other. The suits always took care of the business side of things for us.

In a PR agency, you’re acutely aware from day one that you need to earn your keep: all that really matters is getting good results for the client and winning new business for the agency. This may seem perfectly obvious, but it can be a serious culture shock for somebody who’s only ever been judged on something as subjective as how well they can write.

When I was a journalist I was largely free to manage my own time as I pleased, so long as I showed up to the office occasionally and the work got done on time. PR agencies require their staff to fill in timesheets to account for every minute of their day because their staff’s time is, essentially, their chief commodity and they need to keep track of it closely. In all honesty, this is the one part of the PR industry I have always struggled to adjust to. I completely understand the need for it, I just hate having to do it.

Journos going into PR at a junior level are probably better equipped for the move, because they are most likely to be focusing on getting coverage and if they’ve got good contacts in their industry they’ll probably do quite well. At the more senior levels, it’s a different game entirely.

Firstly, you have to deal with clients, who can sometimes be difficult and demanding – they’ve invested significant budget in your agency, and they’re depending on you to do a good job, so they’re understandably going to want to make sure you’re doing your best to deliver on your promises, so that they can deliver on the promises they’ve made to their boss.

Secondly, you need to learn a lot more about budgeting and project management. Putting a magazine together has its own challenges, but running PR activities for major corporations requires a completely new skill set.

Finally, you have to learn to pitch and win new business – it’s a steep learning curve, and often requires the same kind of all-hands-to-the-pump attitude that magazines go through on deadline week. It’s good fun though, and the buzz you get from working on a winning pitch is one of my favourite things about the job.

One of the most interesting differences between journalism and PR is the attitude to creativity. All PR agencies strive for creativity, they hold brainstorms and run training sessions and hire consultants to help their teams be more creative, while on all of the magazines I’ve worked for, creativity just happens by itself.

I think the reasons for this are pretty much everything I’ve outlined above – it’s easier to be creative when there’s a distinct lack of pressure in your working environment. Obviously, PR agencies need that pressure, they need to get results for clients, win new business, track their staff’s time and all the rest of it, but ultimately that makes it so much harder for people to be as creative as they could be in a more relaxed atmosphere.

(Image credit: Ritesh Nayak)

How I tried and failed to set up my own PR agency

After three (mostly) happy years as the head of digital at Text 100 UK I was lured away to a competing agency to do a similar job, for similar clients, for a lot more money at the beginning of 2013. For one reason or another things didn’t really work out and after four months I was politely given the boot. They were decent enough about the situation, but it was hard not to be frustrated – I thought I was good at my job, things had gone pretty well at all the other agencies I’d worked for, but this time it just didn’t click.

My confidence took a bit of a kick in the balls and for a while I wasn’t sure about what to do next, but pretty quickly I decided to have a crack at setting up my own digital PR shop:

image

My plan was this: I’d charge low rates and deliver great results, rather than pouring a lot of resources into conventional media relations campaigns, I’d use social media and digital technologies to help my clients make a splash without relying on mainstream media. I’d do bold, edgy work that only required creativity and brave clients to succeed.

So I did a bit of networking and landed a few clients, and that’s where it all started to go wrong. Typically clients would buy into my proposition, but once the work got started they would really just want me to deliver traditional PR activity – which wasn’t really what I wanted my business to be about. Although I will admit to a giddy rush of excitement when I landed one of my clients in the Telegraph.

I had hoped to do alternative, edgy work to get clients noticed, but that’s asking them to take risks they might not be ready for. One of my first clients was a datacentre and cloud services business – we agreed that churning out the same old dry thought leadership pieces wouldn’t be particularly useful, because companies with bigger budgets would win every time. So I agreed with the marketing manager that we’d try a different angle, and I wrote a bunch of articles about how a decent cloud-based backup strategy could have saved the Death Star, or what Breaking Bad can teach you about rolling out new IT infrastructure projects

I felt confident that the IT press would lap this stuff up because it was different and it was funny, and the client told me that it was the first time she’d laughed while reading about enterprise backup – so clearly it was going to be a winner. Only, once the client took this stuff to her boss for approval, it immediately got shot down, because this isn’t the kind of tone that serious IT companies should use.

So it wasn’t as easy to convince clients to take creative risks as I’d hoped. The other big problem was that my plan needed clients to understand that while they paid low rates, they would get a limited amount of my time. That would be fine if I was doing the kind of agile, guerrilla style work that I wanted to deliver – but since I was being forced into doing more conventional comms activity, it was taking up more time than it should.

I was losing motivation, the clients I had were eating up all of my time but barely paying enough to keep the wolf from the door. I couldn’t find time to win any new business, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have the time to service any new clients.

At the same time I got a little distracted by learning how to code so I could build apps myself – I found this much more interesting than my day job, so I’d make excuses to spend more time coding than working on my business. I started building [http://www.influential-blogs.co.uk](http://www.influential-blogs.co.uk/) and convinced myself I could turn it into a profitable service if I spent enough time developing it.

By the end of 2013 I’d all but lost interest in running my own agency, and my bank balance started to look a bit grim, so I decided to throw in the towel and go back to full time employment. Fortunately for me, my old Text 100 colleague, Kirsty Leighton, invited me to join her at Hudson Sandler almost as soon as I put myself back on the market, and four months in that move looks to be working out beautifully, so everything’s turned out fairly well.

While I’m a little embarrassed that I couldn’t make a success of my business, there are a few positives:

  • I got to spend the best part of a year working at home and that meant I was able to see much more of my two young boys during the early part of their lives, which I wouldn’t otherwise have done.
  • I pretty much broke even financially, so I didn’t lose anything.
  • I learned to code, which I’ve wanted to do for years but never found the time.
  • For the first time in my life I felt like a proper grown up every time I wrote an email to my accountant.
  • I’m really enjoying Hudson Sandler, and I wouldn’t have ended up working there if none of this had happened.

So I’m in the process of wrapping up Disruptive Communications, but I’ll keep it as a dormant company, just in case inspiration strikes in the future, and for now I’ll use this domain as my personal blog because I quite like the name.

 

Why journalists hate getting press releases as email attachments

I couldn’t help but titter when I saw the following tweet from tech journalist, Mike Butcher, earlier today:

PressReleaseEmailAttachments

The reason I found it funny is that I remember journalists complaining about exactly the same thing when I was a hack as far back as the late nineties. It seems that fifteen years later, some PR people still haven’t learned that journalists hate it when you send your press release as a PDF or Word attachment.

Try to understand things from the journalist’s perspective: every day you’re likely to receive dozens, maybe hundreds of emails begging for your attention. At best you can skim through them all, picking out the ones which might be interesting to you. But if the important detail is hidden in an attachment, you have to interrupt your flow and wait for the document to open, which could take anything from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Doing this once or twice might seem like a minor inconvenience, but those minor inconveniences pile up pretty quickly when you’re dealing with dozens of them every day.

And imagine if they’re reading emails on a mobile device, do you really think they’re going to open attachments then? Life is simply too short.

When you email your press release to a journalist, you’re asking them to take time out from what they’re doing to pay attention to your pitch. That’s always going to be a hard sell so, if you want to improve your chances of getting through to them, the very least you can do is make life easier for the journalist by including the release as plain text within the email.