Guest post: 54% of public relations agencies provide SEO services. What?

David Sawyer responds to the Scottish launch of the PRCA’s Digital Report 2015. Digital isn’t a regional issue for public relations. It’s much bigger.

I attended the Scottish launch of the PRCA’s new digital report on Tuesday. I’d read Stephen’s post and probably wouldn’t have bothered going if the event hadn’t taken place 10 metres from my office.

But I’m glad I did.

Excellent debate

The panel discussion was excellent, with great contributions from Ailsa Graham (high up in the sophisticated Scottish Government comms machine), Matt Roper (heads up STV’s digital offering) and Thom Watt, a great recent hire from my alma mater Weber Shandwick.

The next morning I was minding my own business finishing a blog post I’d ghost-written for a client, when I got one of those Today Programme open questions via a Tweet, predictably from Stephen himself.

Data PRCA digital report Wadds

Not wanting to reply in fewer than 140 characters I resorted to email. He asked me to put it in a blog post.

Here’s what I said (first three points unexpurgated) the rest modified for public consumption:

  • Sample size low at 280.
  • Mainly relevant to practitioners based in London. Less accurate for the vast majority of the public relations industry (based outside the M25).
  • The data told me little new but did confirm what I thought (which is sometimes the point of data). Bar a few surprising findings.

What do I mean?

I’m a Scottish public relations practitioner who started out when we still posted out press releases. Over the last few years I’ve overcome the digital fear and worked hard to retrain.

So hard I’ve become that person who you don’t want to bump into at networking events. The zealot with a barely-disguised relish for talking about all things digital.

I write a weekly newsletter sharing my knowledge, blog, and take every opportunity to learn more and meet like-minded practitioners through participating in industry initiatives such as #PRStack.

Setting up my own company 18 months ago has given me a real insight into the minds of businesspeople. It’s taught me that I have two purposes in life: to either help clients cut costs, or sell more.

I do SEO, produce websites, content marketing, set company’s digital strategies. All the things the PRCA report points to as growth areas.

Exception not norm

But my impression is that outside London and small pockets of regional expertise, this is the exception rather than the norm.

And I am talking about traditional public relations agencies here. The ones which a few years ago you’d have viewed as public relations firms before the lines started getting blurry.

Before SEO firms started creaming off the brightest graduates by paying them £10,000 more than traditional public relations agencies, and hiring the best and most adaptable journalists to write content.

Before digital marketing firms set up public relations departments (media relations wings) to aid their SEO and content marketing efforts.

Surprise at findings

So, in a room full of 40 mainly Scottish PRs, it was with a fair degree of surprise that I viewed some of the PRCA’s findings, particularly with regard to agencies.

Statistics such as:

  • The biggest digital service offering for agencies remains content creation, which 91% of agencies provide.
    What does that mean exactly? Press releases? Writing social media updates? Penning blog posts?
  • 47% of agencies offer online ads/PPC.
    Eh? Really?
  • 54% are offering SEO services.
    Say what!


Search engine optimisation is the biggest single opportunity for the public relations industry. But it’s passing us by. Again.

Regionally in the UK (and while I am only going on anecdotal evidence admittedly compared to a rigorously conducted survey) this figure is so wide of the mark it is almost comical.

It reminds me of a blog post I read this week by Bruce Kasanoff. He draws the analogy of a waitress in Los Angeles who when asked the question “what you do” replies: “I’m going to be an actress”.

Fifty-four per cent might be where we want to be as an industry but it’s not where we’re at.

I ain’t saying there’s NOT a growing recognition among public relations that we need to get with the SEO programme.

There is.

Staff are getting group training courses from digital marketing agencies and there’s even the odd SEO hire being made my larger regional public relations outfits.

Do me a favour

But more than half of agencies with public relations at their core offering SEO services? Do me a favour. Divide that by 10 for “the regions”.

Until agencies invest heavily in SEO training/digital mentoring or give their staff dedicated time to increase their digital knowledge, little progress will be made.

Secret sauce

Search engine optimisation is the secret sauce behind this brave new digital world in which we find ourselves.

And it’s undergone massive change as a discipline over the past few years. It’s what drives clients’ sales, and helps the public and third sectors get their message across.

And you can measure it. Properly.

Core public relations consultants – with their storytelling skills, news-sense, and ability to communicate and persuade – are ideally placed to benefit.

But if we accept statistics like this and kid ourselves that everything in the garden is rosy – and perhaps SEO will go away as a half-understood dark art that’s on the wane anyway – we are doing ourselves and our clients a disservice.

And nothing is going to change.

About David Sawyer

David Sawyer FCIPR is director of Glasgow-based Zude PR and a United Nations award-winning PR. He helps SMEs make money.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Hi David,

    Interesting thoughts, thank you. As Chair of the PRCA Digital Group I wanted to respond on a few of your points briefly. I’d be delighted to discuss further as we are continually looking at ways in which we can develop and improve this report for future years.

    There are challenges with research like this. You mention the sample size. It would be great to get this higher – please do participate in it next year if you didn’t this year, we rely on practitioners giving us feedback and their input.

    Because of that, it is hard to segment by agency/business size or region. I fully accept there are differences across the board and sweeping statements are only ever going to be so useful. (I was at a event to launch the research in Belfast last night.)

    But, when launching the research three years ago, I was keen that we achieved two things:

    1) That we demonstrated the positive steps our industry is taking when it comes to digital. And I do genuinely believe there is much to celebrate, much as we all love to beat ourselves up repeatedly (and p.s. other marketing disciplines are the same).

    2) To demonstrate and provide discussion and debate in the industry about where we need to improve and get better. And there is plenty to fuel this in the research this year – especially when it comes to education and training.

    Surveys like this – as we in the PR industry know better than most – will always be subject to anomalies and statistical quirks, but I still feel this remains a positive initiative for the industry and one that hopefully will help and support the hundreds of practitioners that have engaged with it over the past week or so.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.



    • Hi Danny

      How are you? Thanks for commenting and glad you appreciated.

      I agree with everything you say in your comment. And like the fact you (PRCA) seem to have held a series of regional events.

      The Glasgow panel debate (which I am sure was mirrored in Belfast, Birmingham etc) was excellent, and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it. As did everyone I spoke to. Thom was v. good.

      And the report has done what it set out to do, among other things,…spark a debate.

      But (and this is a rhetorical question) where DID that 54% figure come from:O). I nearly fell of me chair.

      Have a good weekend.



  2. David, Great post and agree with the wake up call. Regardless of whether I was standing for CIPR President I would be saying this – so please this isn’t bandwagon jumping on my part.
    We need to wake up in PR to changing times and opportunities – we need a ‘New School PR’ that embraces SEO which is led by a Brand Storytelling or Corporate narrative.
    One of our barriers is a self-limiting belief that many of us in PR ‘can’t do digital’. If you can do your expenses form you can be a ‘Digital Competent’.
    Hope others will respond to your call.

    • Cheers Andy, nice to hear from you. Now about that creativity training course 18 years ago in Dundee…best £XXX my boss ever spent:O). Good luck with the election.

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