Digital PR vs. Traditional PR: What You Need to Know

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Public relations far predates technologies such as the internet and social media, as well as the modern digital strategies built upon them. The analog roots of PR still show through in the use of the press release and the ongoing importance of offline relationships with members of the media, vendors and the public. However, PR has rapidly incorporated digital-first techniques, too, such as search engine optimization (SEO), backlinking strategy and content distribution via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

A PR professional prepares to assess a social media strategy.

Digital PR vs traditional PR: A comparative look at how they approach content

The best way to understand digital public relations is to compare it with traditional PR. Here’s how the two stack up across several key categories in content strategy:

Content marketing

Traditional PR campaigns usually rely on familiar formats such as press releases, email pitches and news conferences. While these different content types may support a common strategy, they are distinct from one another, as if existing in a silo built for a specific purpose. In contrast, digital PR campaigns are more flexible and integrated, with regular cross-promotion, repurposing and redistribution of content types.

For example, a press release might not merely be distributed to a wire service — it might also be incorporated into a company blog post, or have its statistics included in an infographic. Through these channels, digital PR incorporates the principles of content marketing, one of the most popular approaches to building an online presence. A study by Kapost and Eloqua found content marketing delivered three times as many leads as paid search per dollar spent.

But content marketing isn’t merely limited to attracting new clients for an agency. It’s also a great way to gain press and to support promotional campaigns with deeper assets like e-books, videos and podcasts. In other words, it’s a perfect pairing with multi-channel digital strategies in PR.

Content distribution

While PR and social media work in tandem to form a perfect pairing, the most successful digital PR strategies often differentiate themselves in how they capitalize on the scale and speed of social networks. Direct, proactive use of social also distinguishes them from traditional PR campaigns, which may attempt to reach the media and the public via other channels.

One example of an advanced digital strategy that unites PR and social media is the use of Twitter Lists to monitor journalists who might be most likely to pick up on pitches. Social platforms also play pivotal parts in the increasingly popular PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) model, which many PR professionals now use to structure and diversify their efforts for maximum efficacy.

The shared component of PESO includes distributing links to content and sites via social media. At the same time, it overlaps with earned media in domains such as influencer engagement (e.g., responding to loyalists, advocates and detractors online) and tie-ins with charities and other partners. Influencers, such as bloggers, are particularly important to digital PR, serving a similar role to media contacts in traditional PR. These individuals usually have prominent social media presences and can amplify PR campaigns that reach out to them.

Content analysis

Digital PR strategies regularly rely on data analytics to make key decisions about what content to produce and how to promote it so that it reaches its intended audiences. In this regard, digital PR intersects with content marketing as well as with more technical fields such as web development. It also offers much more granular insight than traditional PR methodologies into the performance of individual campaigns.

PR teams may leverage Google Analytics, keyword research tools like SearchMetrics and SEMRush, content performance analysis platforms such as BuzzSumo, custom site development (with specialized HTML and CSS) and many other options to boost the overall visibility of their work across the internet. They may also use these solutions to retrospectively analyze a piece of content and understand why it succeeded or failed in its aims.

Digital strategists in PR continually refine their techniques to improve SEO and build credibility. Successful digital PR can widen a campaign’s reach by increasing backlinks (i.e., the number of other sites linking to a given original asset) and seeing a subsequent rise in search engine rankings.

Digital PR strategy within the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations degree program

Graduate students pursuing a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) at the George Washington University (GW) gain deep background in digital strategy through both core courses and electives. All SPR candidates must complete Media Relations in a Digital World, which covers online and offline influences on the media and its relations with the PR sector. Beyond that, they have flexibility in the classes they take pertaining to digital strategy.

Students may also substitute the courses Maximizing Social Media and Digital Strategy, both offered via the GW Graduate School of Political Management, for some normal upper-level requirements. Here is a quick overview of these two offerings and how they address issues in digital PR:

Maximizing Social Media

This course covers the strategic use of social media, with attention to the role social platforms can play in raising public awareness of an issue, building advocacy communities, mobilizing the public behind specific causes and fundraising.

A PR professional communicating with a colleague about a digital campaign.

Young businessman talking on the phone in an office

Digital Strategy

In this class, students examine common digital strategies, tactics and tools. Focus areas include strategic planning, website management, data analytics and consulting. After completing this course students will be able to design, run, evaluate and adjust a full-fledged digital strategy as part of a PR campaign.

Earning a Master’s in SPR from GW provides the depth and breadth necessary for understanding digital PR strategy and competing for rewarding positions. Take a look at the main program page to learn more and be sure to request our free brochure for additional information on admissions requirements and the curriculum.

Recommended readings:

The changing face of PR content distribution
7 metrics for measuring PR success


The Success of PR and Content Marketing Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

9 Stats That Will Make You Want to Invest in Content Marketing

Content Marketing ROI

What is Digital PR?