Are you paying for links with your principles?

Olivia Wiltshire

I find myself writing this in the wake of what should be a time of great pride thanks to the Three Lions’ fantastic run at Euro 2020. Yet what I’m feeling is an enormous sense of shame and disgust for the racist abuse that’s been thrown at Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho.

Although this originates from a minority of people, it’s once again been amplified and exacerbated by our British tabloids. What makes it worse is it’s these very tabloids that lauded the England team of all races as heroes for getting us to the final, but blamed only three for “losing it”.

If you’re fired up like I am and have got 10 minutes to share your thoughts on the topic, have your say here. I’ll be using the anonymised survey as the basis of a report and share back findings in the coming weeks. And check out why this is so important to me below.

It’s time to reassess priorities

Are you paying for links with principles_Screenshot of The Sun newspaper and opposing views

Full credit to Jo Maugham for eloquently calling out the two faces of The Sun.

The reaction and blatant hypocrisy from the tabloids act as a stark reminder that as a country we have a long way to go when it comes to being kind, not least the British tabloid media. It’s particularly troubling that it was only last February we learnt of Caroline Flack’s tragic passing – yet another untimely death very much influenced by the same media outlets (as Geoff noted at the time).

Has nothing changed?

In the wake of Flack’s passing, there seemed to be a bit of a step change. #BeKind received a lot of airtime and there was a feeling of needing to do better amongst the media, marketing industry and brands alike, evident in searches for the Be Kind movement.

Are you paying for links with principles_Google trends data from July 2019-Feb 2021

(Source: Google Trends. Data collected 6th July 2021)

Looking beyond that peak, I’m sad to see that searches have since dropped off dramatically and the trendline has flatlined.

Are you paying for links with principles_Google trends data zoomed out from July 2019-July 2021

This lack of interest is compounded by the continued outward celebration from industry peers for landing links in the sorts of publications that drum up hate and influence our society in the wrong way. I ask myself, why is the industry still celebrating these outlets?Are you paying for links with principles_Screengrab of anonymised tweets fuelling haterags

What does being kind mean to Digital PR?

Before I get into exploring why the industry is celebrating what we feel is the wrong thing, let’s briefly reflect on what it means to be kind in Digital PR, since people’s interpretations will be different.

In our opinion, it comes down to having a set of key principles:

  1. Limiting our contribution to stories that could be perceived to encourage negativity, hate or abuse
  2. Ensuring all work pushed out upholds integrity to avoid fake stories being flung around the press, and potentially discrediting a brand, individual or body
  3. Avoiding working with third-parties that come under fire for not paying attention to the above
  4. Being a human when it comes to our interactions with other people

More on how we uphold these later on…

Why is the industry still celebrating the wrong thing?

Aside from the hard-to-ignore fact that tabloids are a clear source for inflicting harm and damaging people’s lives, it’s these publications that offer very little from an SEO perspective.

I recognise that on the surface a link from The Sun seems attractive thanks to its readership, authority and traffic driving potential and there may well be a time for that depending on KPIs. Moreover, it’s likely a name that the C-Suite will recognise, compared to a niche blog, which certainly makes for easier conversation during QBRs and flashy coverage video roundups each week. But when it comes down to it, does a tabloid drive the referral traffic that brands actually need? I sincerely believe not.

The above is not to say that these sorts of outlets can’t be used as a force for good. You can absolutely share good news stories that are based on credible research and data, but that story is likely to last on the front page of a tabloid for few hours at most. Your story will quickly become buried while bearing in mind these outlets do little to protect those it talks about – at least as far as we’re aware. All the while your meaningful referral traffic will likely be lagging.

A few links from a niche publication relevant to the brand you’re supporting will far outweigh a tabloid in terms of relevance and meaningful referral traffic potential. Once more, scoring a handful of relevant links will build up your brand’s Topical Trust Flow in niches that it should – which in turn will help Google correctly categorise your site, all working towards organic performance gains and building awareness in front of the right audience.

The below is an example of how a handful of hyper-relevant links can have a considerable impact by driving genuinely useful traffic to a brand. This impact is off the back of some work my team have been doing for one of our B2B clients. The aim of the game was (and is) to reach out to our client’s prospective customer’s ‘go-to’ places to raise brand awareness, and importantly build our client’s reputation with, in the small business niche. Using audience research, we targeted relevant hubs and small business publications to get our client placed.

At the time of writing, impressions had improved by 468% to an otherwise forgotten page.

Are you paying for links with principles_Graph of movement

So, weighing up all the above, why allow your brand or your agency to celebrate and support the very outlets that are continuing to let this toxic echo chamber exist when you rarely actually need those links for SEO and Digital PR gains? It’s time to reassess priorities.

We all have a role to play

Brands have corporate social responsibility and there’s a growing expectation from consumers for them to be more accountable. There are countless examples of this, perhaps notably from Facebook; brands should take notice and do more to prevent the onslaught of disinformation. There is, of course, a big difference between putting out a few quick-fire brand statements versus long-lasting action as Gideon recently pointed out.

On a positive note, there’s clear evidence of brands taking stock and action off the back of consumer activism.  Big brands likes Ikea, Grolsch and Nivea recently pulled their ads from GB News TV channel after it came under fire for its ‘alternative’ anti-woke approach. On the surface, this outcome paints those brands in an accountable light, but I wonder how this message infiltrates behind the scenes…

Corporate social responsibility sits with brand, and as such I wonder if CMOs are making clear how far this responsibility extends within a company. Is it filtering through to all channels and internal teams, including Digital PR and/or PR? If it’s not being enforced by CMOs, then that in itself presents significant issues, and internal teams, not least Digital PR and/or PR need to be clear about the part they play.

Whether you have an in-house or agency Digital PR and/or PR set-up, it’s those who represent your brand to the media. It’s those people who create stories, headlines and campaigns, and ultimately choose where you should be covered.

Those teams can therefore directly encourage marked and positive change, through a whole host of different activities and approaches, including, but not limited to:

  1. Creating campaigns that are motivated by the relevancy of the links they’ll build and audience that will read them, rather than aiming to score a link on a site just because of how well-known it is
  2. Creating stories that are grounded in authentic data and material as a way to limit the proliferation of fake news and misleading headlines which have grappled our world in the past few years
  3. Vetting media lists and carrying out due diligence on campaign contributors to ensure that an outlet or an involved influencer isn’t passing on the baton of toxicity
  4. Actively avoiding outreach to leading outlets that repeatedly come under fire for fuelling hate
  5. Prioritising good news stories, and side-stepping click-bait headlines if it’s likely to drive negativity.

The list goes on, and at Builtvisible we hold ourselves accountable on all the above.

But there’s still some way to go.

How is Builtvisible trying to do better?

In February 2020, my team and I got together to talk honestly about our role when it comes to working with the media. We agreed we were guilty of reaching out to some of those outlets that continue to drum up a culture of hate – also that we wanted to do better. As a result, we created our own Be Kind policy:

Are you paying for links with principles_Builtvisible Be Kind policy front cover

The intent of which is simple. We’re trying to limit our contribution to the toxic tabloid culture, and with that it means we actively avoid targeting those very publications with all Digital PR activities.

Although we have black-listed a few leading tabloids which we feel are beyond the pale for various reasons, it’s unfortunately not as simple as that when you consider that most tabloids are owned by a few select corporations which in turn own a sub-set of freesheets and so on. The issue becomes very complex, and I’m by no means saying that we have it sussed yet, it’s very much a work in progress for us too.

In circumstances that a Digital PR campaign has organically been picked by a blacklisted publication, as a team we come together to discuss the best course of action. One example includes donating money to charities that actively fund stop fuelling hate campaigns e.g. https://stopfundinghate.info/.

It could be that a brand we’re working with, or their PR team aspires to be covered in a certain publication we avoid targeting. In this case, we’ll approach the topic with honest conversation.

First and foremost we need to understand why the brand wants to target X publication. If it’s for “vanity” reasons i.e., because it’s well-known and has large readership, this calls for conversation about how targeting relevant publications will be far more beneficial for organic performance. Caveat: naturally, this will be dependent on wider KPIs.

The second step involves explaining our approach to handling these sorts of publications and why they’re not beneficial from an organic perspective.

We’re still learning

As mentioned further up, in the past, my team – myself included – have reached out and successfully landed links and placements in the tabloids we now actively avoid. As a result, you’ll find mentions of a piece of coverage from The Daily Mail on our website, for example. I think this is a snapshot of the sign of the times. That more than two years ago we were also getting caught up in the furore of landing links on arguably less useful websites, rather than place emphasis on building more links from less “sexy” yet relevant sites.

I do think there’s a time and a place to target sites which offer larger readership at the cost of slightly less hyper-relevance. Those instances come about in situations such as when there’s a start-up with little brand presence and therefore needing to gain eyeballs quickly. Alternatively, on occasions when we’re working to raise the profile of a brand stakeholder and so on. As always, it’s always a case of finding the right balance, and never to the detriment of a brand’s credibility.

The future

Like everything in digital, you need to keep evolving to keep up with Google’s search algorithm and remain relevant. If you don’t adapt as you go, you’ll be left behind in the SEO dust.

Our outlook is that Google will only continue to become more adept at valuing relevancy. Its goal, after all, is to return the most relevant search results for its users, and to do this, it needs to be able to understand a website and its sector. You can ensure this is the case by prioritising building links from the right sites, rather than chasing authority or maybe even vanity and then shouting about the latter.

As a team, and as an industry, we should continue to learn and adapt, and most importantly we should question celebrating the the hate-fuelling tabloids.

The topic of where responsibility begins and ends, and specifically what people’s attitudes about this gives me pause for thought. I doubt (and hope!) my team is the only team who have set up specific policies to be kinder and actively attempt to ensure stories are credible and being sent to the right publications.

Moreover, I can see how passionate fellow Digital PR’s are about issues such as race, climate, equality and so on through their social platforms, so why is it those same people talk about the wrong links? Is it because the pressure of link targets force you to park your principles? Is it because there’s lack of understanding of what it means to receive a placement in an irrelevant publication? It’s time to find out!

How do you see things?

Remember, you can have your say here.

Anything you submit will be anonymous, the purpose is to get a general feel of how people are feeling within the industry and create a report of those, which I’ll be sharing back the findings of within the coming weeks.

For now, all that’s left to say is please remember to be kind, and consider how you can do your bit to stand up against those outlets promoting a culture of hate.

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