'Journos don't appreciate being used as a marketing tool' - PR pros urge caution against SEO link requests

A divide has erupted between PR pros who believe their ilk should ask journalists for links (usually from an SEO background), and those who find the practice cringeworthy, damaging and "laughable".

Should The Times' take a leaf out of Wikipedia when it comes to using hyperlinks?
Should The Times' take a leaf out of Wikipedia when it comes to using hyperlinks?

PRWeek asked PR pros for their view on auto link requests following a Twitter battle between a hacks and flacks over the issue.

Earlier this week, The Times retail and M&A editor Deirdre Hipwell used Twitter to vent her frustration at being asked by consumer PR professionals to provide hyperlinks for clients mentioned in editorial.

Hipwell pointed out that a journalist’s role isn’t to market the companies they report about and the aim of a news article is to provide readers with all of the information they require without linking to external sources.

Other considerations journalists and news website editors consider include the reader experience and how dolling out external links to every company mentioned can impair the perceived independence and credibility of a news outlet.

In the ongoing war for attention, there is also a legitimate commercial reason why media companies which adopt an advertising-led business model shouldn’t steer readers away from their platforms. It’s the same reason why digital media walled gardens like Facebook and Google, by default, keep users on their own ad-driven platforms, rather than directly linking them away to external news websites.

On Hipwell’s Twitter trail, most of the opposition appeared to come from PR professionals with an SEO background. Garnering links from reputable news outlets is one of the tactics used to drive a company’s ranking on search engines like Google.

PRWeek approached PR professionals to offer their views about asking journalists for links.

All indicated that requesting links carte blanche is not good practice, but one professional believes there is a case to ask the question when warranted.

Furthermore, the question also needs to be asked as to how valuable SEO backlinking really is these days. 

‘If there’s a genuine reason, ask’

David Fraser, founder and MD of PR-for-SEO agency Ready10, told PRWeek he found the 119-message long Twitter debate "depressing", adding that neither "journalism or PR (or SEO for that matter) comes out of it particularly well".

However, Fraser is in the pro-link camp, arguing that PR professionals should ask for links when there is a justification to include it.

"I found myself as angry at the PR people who said they would never ask for a link (what type of clients are giving these people briefs and budgets?) as I was at the journalists who thought it was a liberty to ever be asked," he said.

Fraser believes the debate highlights a fundamental lack of understanding by both sides about each other’s respective roles.

"In recent years, part of that request to journalists has been to include a link, something that is more important than ever because links are a currency of SEO and are increasingly becoming a deliverable of brand teams," he said.

"But the same rules still apply  – if there is a genuine reason to link, like extended blog content and further detail to interest the reader, then invariably a journalist will see the value in a link. If it’s random, then why would they?"

Fraser said part of the problem is that SEOs are often "clumsy at asking for incongruous, undeserved links" and don’t work hard enough at "creating the right content and reason for a journalist to link".

‘Beware letting SEOs call journalists’

Other professionals PRWeek approached are less enamoured by link-gathering.

Third City MD Chris Blackwood described the notion that PRs have a right to a link for providing content as "nonsense".

Reflecting on the Twitter trail, he said: "These SEOs wading in to mansplain that to a highly respected journalist is laughable," he said. "This is low quality short-cutting from SEO companies who don't understand PR and are actually damaging their client's brand, rather than enlivening it.

"Suddenly people have woken up to the power of the link via PR and there's a lot of people doing it badly - like research in the early 00s."

Blackwood said PR professionals need to earn a link by offering valuable off-page content that a journalist will see the value of sending readers away from their article.

He warned: "Brands beware of letting SEO people call journalists on their behalf."

How to damage media relations

Ketchum director of strategic communications Richard Griffiths chaired a panel debate on what journalists want at Cision’s CommsCon earlier this week.

He told PRWeek that it’s important for brands to understand that asking for a hyperlink to be embedded into editorial isn’t best practice because it runs the risk of undermining relationships with the media, which can "harm both clients’ and our own reputation".

He added: "Journalists, as a rule do not appreciate being used as a marketing channel. Why would they? And in reality, it adds little value to the brand. It simply isn’t an accurate marker of whether content is resonating with target audiences."

It is the potential damage to media relations that also bothers W Communications director Grace Henwood.

Improving the organic SEO of clients is an important part of Henwood’s day-to-day role, and she found the tit-for-tat spat between a highly respected journalist and PR professionals "galling and cringe-making in equal measure".

"Call me old school, but whether journalists believe in backlinks or not, it’s down to us as PR professionals to know their preference well before we ask them to link to our clients' websites," she said.

"Then, and only then, will you know what news they’re looking for and what their beliefs are – be that on organic SEO or any other editorial subject."

Henwood stressed that "strength of our media relationships is and always will be one of the core tenets of our profession".

"It’s one of the ways we develop our instinct for news, our ability to secure quality earned-media coverage and (if the journalist is that way inclined) those all important backlinks."

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