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8 min read

Traditional PR vs Digital PR: what’s the difference and what’s the point?

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

A question that we’re often asked within the PR team, directly and indirectly, is the main differences between traditional PR and the digital world of PR. I mean, at first the clue might seem like it’s in the name. I’ll admit before I became fully submerged into the digital world, I also naively assumed that digital just meant ‘online’.

This guide will be useful for those working in more traditional PR landscapes who are interested in moving over into a more digital sphere, or those questioning the value of PR itself within digital.

My background is traditional PR. I started my career working in agencies you could only describe as traditional, measuring newspaper clippings and working out AVE. Despite the fact that many digital experts consider this an outdated metric in a world today where everything can be measured granularly, I know traditional PRs who still use this as a primary metric in their reporting. Considering this, understanding the multitude of factors at play within the digital realm can understandably be alarming.

The similarities

Firstly, let’s take a look at where the two industries crossover. Digital PR is coined as such because it uses a lot of the same principles from the origins of PR. The end goal in many ways is the same; to secure clients with high level, relevant placements. On a daily basis, my fellow PR comrades and I find that we’re creating pressworthy narratives, pitching stories to journalists and writing engaging content. None of this really differs to what Edward Bernays set out when he coined the term public relations in the first place.

Although the main aims may seem the same, there are naturally many new metrics at play when it comes to online placements. Previously, a double page feature in a key industry magazine would be a huge result. As a young PR, there really was nothing quite like receiving that brown A4 envelope in the post, sliding out *insert mundane trade publication in niche sector* and flicking through to find that article in print that you’d been slaving over and pushing your client for approval for weeks. I’m sure there are sectors that this is still relevant. Today though, the work we do in digital PR is a bit different.

Digital is part of something bigger

Firstly, it’s important to remember here that in digital PR, we’re part of a bigger team. Everything we do has a wider focus, meaning our work and results have a broader aim other than just building ‘awareness’. Although we consider digital PR to include many of the same goals of traditional PR; brand exposure and putting positive and relevant messaging in front of the right audience, we’re also considering the technical SEO elements of building placements.

This might be basic stuff for the SEOs amongst us, but to those of you that work in more traditional industries or simply aren’t aware, search engine algorithms rely heavily on links. In order to improve your position in Google, you need other sites to link to your or your client’s site. No doubt that Google is smarter than all of us, and it knows that not any old link will do. In fact, too many rubbish links will negatively affect your rankings. This means we need publications that have a decent authority and are reputable and relevant to link back to our clients site in order to gain SEO benefit.

You can see already the benefit of traditional PRs within this then. Previously, before the Google algorithm was updated, SEOs could purchase low level irrelevant links by the thousand. In 2012, an algorithm update was released called Penguin, and sites were hit with penalties for having these poor links. These sites dropped out of Google rankings, their traffic decreased and they desperately needed to counter this negativity with good quality links. The SEO industry was suddenly crying out for people who could secure high level media placements, something the PR industry had been doing all along.   

The link itself

For me, the main difference is that there are so many other metrics and factors at play when we secure a result. Most simply, when we write an article or gain a media placement, we want the journalist to link back to our client’s site. On a basic level, putting a link actually makes the process so much easier for the user wanting to find out more information. Of course the editor has no obligation to do this though, and sometimes we simply cannot predict if they will include a link or not. The best bet is to ensure we really know the publication and the journalist, monitor previous articles so that we can accurately predict and create the kind of content that would include a link. Again, knowing your publications and journalists inside-out is a skill indicative of an exceptional traditional PR, and this has benefits that go far beyond this one metric.

Another way to ensure that the journalist links to your desired site is to create something valuable on your domain, meaning there’s an unmissable resource that requires a link back to benefit the audience. In this way, content marketing is a popular practise for digital PRs, which my colleague Rebecca has spoken about previously.  


Another challenge is that sometimes journalists will link but will include a little bit of code called ‘nofollow’. Nofollow links look like regular links to the average reader, however they tell Google to ignore any of the link equity that the site otherwise would have gained from it. This may seem pointless, but there are reasons behind nofollow links. Within official Google guidelines, no website should pay for or exchange goods in return for a link. There are instances where journalists or bloggers may have genuinely reviewed a product, in this case, they should ‘nofollow’ any links they include. If not, Google recognises something has been exchanged for this link and without this nofollow, they may slap a penalty on the site.

Anchor text

Unsurprisingly, the way in which a journalist presents the link to the reader is important for digital PR too. When I said every metric is measurable, I wasn’t joking. The text an editor chooses to use when it links out is called the anchor text. Typically, a website’s anchor text profile should not include anything too obviously keyword or product focused, as this looks like unnatural link building to Google. This is something else that digital PRs have to bear in mind when organising articles and features in the press for our clients.

Authority makes a difference

After we’ve considered whether or not a journalist includes a link in the first place, we’ve also got to then take into consideration the publication we’re being featured on. Of course, this has always been an important factor within PR. Ideally, we need features in publications that will put the client in front of the right audience, and we want them speaking about a topic that is relevant to their industry.

There’s now one more factor at play however, the authority of the certain domain. The higher the domain authority, the better the link equity for the SEO benefit. Generally, it’s larger, reputable publications such as national newspapers that have the higher domains, and as in traditional PR, getting a media placement in this way is seen as most valuable (and often most difficult).

However, certain industries are slower on the uptake into digitisation than others. Building up a strong domain authority takes years, and reputation alone isn’t always enough. A key publication in the construction industry for example may have only just moved online a few years ago due to the nature of the press within that trade sector. This means that a key media placement that is highly relevant for the audience might not be beneficial from an SEO perspective due to low domain authority. The value of the digital PR person in this instance is to weigh up the various traditional and digital benefits of a link from this key target, and evaluate whether the balance is worth it.

The importance of digital PR

I’ve just gone over a few of the main differences we have to consider when looking at results in digital vs traditional PR. I know that there are people within the digital realm still cynical of traditional PR practises, claiming that basic link building alone is the way forward. I’m wary of this personally, as I believe that relevance above anything is crucial for decent results.

Ultimately, digital combined with traditional PR presents a whole new series of challenges in order to get a result, but I see this as a positive thing for two reasons.

Reason one; it gives us a really broad spectrum of results. Whereas a traditional media placement is seen as one result, in digital PR, we can receive a link with a brand mention that gives us direct coverage and exposure, but also provides decent referral traffic and assisted conversions.

We can see these results in practise through looking at one of our clients that has invested in purely digital PR from the organic side. Taking experience from traditional PR tactics, we incorporated these into their off-page strategy. This includes a solid digital link-building strategy directly targeting high level placements and consistent feature opportunities within their specific target sectors, but also includes many more traditional PR aspects into this; awards, speaker opportunities and thought leadership pieces.

This integration of both sides of the PR spectrum has resulted in organic coverage and media placements in front of the right audiences which ultimately has helped boost their organic profile, as you can see in their organic traffic improvements since we started implementing this digital PR strategy on the account.


Organic Traffic Performance (1st January 2017 – 26th May 2018)

Finally, this leads me onto my second reason why I think digital PR presenting new challenges is a good thing; no fun without a challenge, right?