7 Essential Digital Marketing Skills for PR Professionals in 2024

Intersection of PR and Digital Marketing

Digital technology has changed public relations in big and small ways.  

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a full-time PR professional, public relations and digital marketing were two separate disciplines. There was little overlap. 

But technology has changed a lot in the last 25 years. Instead of using fax machines, beepers, landlines, and dial-up internet connections, most PR professionals simply have smartphones. 

In addition, the internet—which now includes websites, online news sources, social media, blogs, podcasts, organic search, SEO—has completely changed how the news, earned media and public relations operate. 

Now, the fundamentals of PR have not changed. Most PR professionals must be good at these things. 

  • Developing messaging 
  • Cultivating relationships with journalists
  • Writing press releases
  • Pitching stories
  • Crisis communication planning
  • Media training 

But to be a successful PR professional in 2024 and beyond, you not only have mastery over those basics. You need to know how the internet affects news, public relations, and earned media, and how they interact with the digital space. 

How Earned Media and Digital Media Influence Each Other

  • Decline in Print Circulation: Print circulation plummeted between 2015 and 2023. Now, they’ve made up some ground in digital circulation, but it’s not enough to make up for the loss in print circulation or ad revenue. So there are fewer news outlets and fewer reporters.

That makes the actual news coverage that PR pros are so good at securing for your clients or employers even more precious and hard to secure. But it also makes it more valuable. 

  • Rise of Social Media: And what are people reading instead of newspapers? Social media! And, at least in the US, most of them are on Facebook or YouTube. But consumers’ relationship with social media and news is changing, as is social media’s attitude toward the news. Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram), for example, has made efforts to reduce the amount of news that shows up in its users’ feeds. This continued through last year.

The decision to deprioritize algorithmic news curation was seen by users as a positive change: A recent Morning Consult survey found that “People Like Facebook More Now That It’s Less Newsy.”

The result of this shift? For years, news outlets counted on social media to funnel traffic to their website—to drive subscriptions and ad revenue which allow these news sites to stay in business. But the percentage of website traffic that top news sites are getting from social media has been cut in half just in the last three years. So more and more people are using social media, but fewer and fewer of them are going to news sites from social media.

  • Google and SEO: It now appears that Google may be making adjustments to how it handles news as well. For more than two decades, publishers big and small have packaged their content to rank highly in Google’s search results. A New York Times article suggests that some online news sources are seeing less traffic from Google. Google cut some members of its news partnership team in September and laid off as many as 45 workers from its Google News team. 

“Some publishers have seen declines in Google referral traffic in recent weeks, two people at different major media sites said. Though Google remains the most important referral traffic source to publishers by far, those people are concerned that the decline is a sign of things to come,” according to a recent Times article.

The consequence of all these changes is that many news organizations—even some of the major players—are struggling. Last year, the LA Times, Washington Post, and Time Magazine, which are important media organizations, lost millions of dollars.  

And other publications—most notably Sports Illustrated—have been accused of publishing not just AI-generated content but creating fake AI-generated reporters. And now Sports Illustrated appears to be on the brink of shuttering completely.   

Some, like the New York Times, Boston Globe and the Atlantic, all seem to be thriving. But the media landscape is very volatile right now.

PR and Earned Media Still Matter—Maybe More Than Ever

But despite all this—and partly because of all this—PR and the ability to secure earned media coverage matter more than ever now. 

Trust in the News Media: That’s because earned media still has value. Earned media stories are more valuable now because there is a lot of online noise. They are more valuable compared to random blog posts or social media rants. And reaching the dwindling number of reporters is harder and harder. So PR jobs are more and more important. 

The importance of the news—especially local news—is evident from this Pew Research Center study.

Americans tend to have the greatest trust in local news organizations. A large majority of Americans (75%) still say they have at least some trust in the information that comes from local news. 

Overall, about six in ten U.S. adults (58%) say they have at least some trust in the information that comes from national news organizations. 
Social media continues to engender a much lower level of trust. About a quarter of Americans (27%) say they have at least some trust in the information that comes from social networking sites, with just 4% expressing that they have a lot of trust in it. 

Earned Media and SEO: PR can impact SEO and website traffic. Earned media content can lead to direct links or, more likely, searches for the organization’s branded name, its products, or its SMEs (whose names are effectively branded search terms). So earned media is one of the best ways to improve awareness and credibility for your business and drive engaged and interested users to your website. We’ve seen this with clients and track and report it back to them. 

7 Steps PR Professionals Should Take

So, what should PR professionals do to become more digitally savvy? Here are seven key things: 

1. Track website traffic sources & impact on digital channels: PR/Earned media can be leveraged to drive brand awareness among key audiences—so it’s important to find which online journals lead to site traffic.

When you find a journal that contributes to traffic on your client’s site make sure to reach out to them to cover you more because that builds credibility and authority for your client. Or find which journals you think should lead to site traffic and develop connections with journalists at those outlets.  

Earned media coverage will also drive interest in your brand names and products in online search, as news coverage often leads to a spike in website volume. Tracking this impact helps show the value of earned media successes. 

You can track and analyze all this using Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

2. Follow and engage with journalists online: I used to advise PR professionals to try and connect with journalists on Twitter (now X). But Twitter’s utility for journalists has fallen a lot in the last 12 months. For a while, reporters were giving Mastodon a try (and a few tried Blue Sky). And then Meta launched Threads and it seemed like it might be the Twitter replacement reporters were longing for.

But it’s not clear if Threads is going to end up being their new home. And the Meta executive in charge of Threads has made clear that he doesn’t want Threads to be a home for news consumption and conversation. So figure out which social media channel the journalists that matter to you are using and follow and connect with them there.

3. Monitor and contain crises online: One important way you can use social media is as an early warning system for situations that could metastasize into a full-blown PR crisis. By working with your social media team to carefully monitor comments and customer/client interaction on social media, you can often contain something minor by acting quickly and taking it offline. The social team and PR team should collaborate to plan how to handle potential crises and not simply delete or ignore complaints and criticisms.

4. Plan and prepare for PR crises to spill over into social media: When preparing for a PR crisis, always include planning for how to manage social media as well. So many crisis planning meetings spend hours and hours on coming up with talking points for communications officers to use while talking to the media but neglect how to handle social media. Most PR crises are likely to spill over to social media, so be sure to develop plans for that as well. 

5. Use online tools to track emerging trends: PR professionals should use online listening tools to keep up with trending topics on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and others. If you can identify an online trend that applies to your client, it’s a great entry point for potential pitches to key reporters. 

6. Amplify earned media success: When a PR team secures positive earned media, share these stories on your website, blog, social channels, and internal communications outlets. And don’t forget to share with investors, sales teams, potential clients, and current clients. 

7. Measure and report success: In addition to simply identifying and sharing earned media wins, quantify the impact on SEO, website traffic, and social media. Your digital counterparts can help track and record these metrics. Then report the impact to key internal stakeholders. Showing the value of earned media will bolster a PR professional’s credentials.

PR and Digital Partnership

Effective PR does not operate in a vacuum. It is now just one part of an integrated communications strategy that should include: 

  • Blog posts
  • SEO
  • Social media
  • Website content
  • Email
  • Digital advertising

And the single best way to maximize your effectiveness as a PR professional is to become better versed in the online space and to partner with your colleagues in the digital marketing sphere. 

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