Not long ago, the idea of a PR agency tinkering with a brand’s ranking on Google or Amazon, generating online demand or facilitating sales would have been hard to imagine. Now, it looks set to become the norm.

Threepipe is one company that exemplifies this new direction for the industry. Last September, the agency launched Emergent, a division that promises to help brands raise the visibility of their products in Amazon searches and strengthen conversion rates. It also offers paid search and display advertising services.

Other agencies are pressing into the digital marketing space more widely. Octopus Group last March brought in a marketing services director, Nicola Pestell, as it looks to grow its strategic and digital services and advise clients on platform management. Paris-based Jin recently began moving to a new model based on communications technology through a martech startup studio, which has attracted business from the likes of Samsung and Philips.

The Hoffman agency engages paid strategies as well as optimising content for search. Usually, this approach used to augment successful earned media coverage, Mark Pinsent, the agency’s managing director for Europe says. For goals like lead generation, paid social media efforts are a natural part of an integrated content marketing campaign.

A combination of increased pressure for concrete results and algorithmic challenges are driving the shift. David Fraser, founder of Ready10, which offers PR for SEO among other services, says Google’s introduction of Panda and Penguin marked a turning point whereby earning attention via links become pivotal.

He says his agency launched in 2016 on the premise that SEO “is a great way to provide accountability and measurability for earned media campaigns” and that demand has been strong.

“Increasingly, presenting clients with a list of coverage doesn’t fly,” says Cordy Griffiths, chief executive of Ballou, a PR agency that focuses on enterprise technology. In the age of Google Analytics, the idea of not being able to see clear ROI is becoming unacceptable, she says.

Threepipe co-founder Jim Hawker does see the adoption of SEO as “a case of trying to wrap better measurement metrics around the impact of PR work” but notes that it has bigger potential than that “because SEO insight should be used for campaign development”.

He says SEO is a natural progression for the PR industry since online PR already has a significant impact on organic search. “Having more of an SEO mentality when it comes to crafting and measuring PR campaigns goes a long way to further demonstrating PR value in performance metrics that clients can understand,” he reckons. “The SEO industry uses many tools which add considerable value to PR teams in determining content ideas as we assess distribution strategies, which shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Ballou’s head of SEO, Ben Johnson, joined the company last year after working at Sky, Rightmove and JustPark. He describes it as a unique discipline that sits at the intersection of big data and user experience. His involvement ranges from brand positioning to conversion-rate optimisation, interfacing with CMOs to digital marketing managers. (Read more about how Ballou expanded to SEO and other services here.)

In parallel to SEO, investment in paid media has become essential as social platform algorithms limit the organic reach of content, Hawker notes. He says it also offers better targeting ability. “Good creative content on its own isn’t enough to drive distribution and engagement,” he says.

Despite making “lots of nice noise” about a client rebranding, for example, there is likely to be a lag before Google picks up on it, Griffiths says. In this instance, a paid advertising campaign makes sense. “As a PR person you don’t think of it, but we’re trying to think more holistically,” she says. “PR has been focused on media relations for so long and I think it’s time we move beyond that, grow up a bit, become more truly digital and really think about the whole experience from the client’s and customer’s point of view.”

When it comes to platforms like Amazon, “PR has a supporting role in terms of driving consumers to product pages in the form of media product reviews and also influencer product reviews,” Hawker says, explaining the thinking behind his company’s new division. “As Amazon becomes more of a branding platform, there will come an opportunity for PR people to feed in creative content ideas that do a job at the top of the funnel in terms of driving awareness.”

Hawker and his peers deny that these capabilities are at odds with the basic premise of PR—the organic spread of information and ideas. “It depends on how you define PR,” he says. “I think SEO and paid media can be viewed as ways of supporting the impact and measurement of PR.”

Others are more vociferous in their defence of this direction. “All good SEO and paid advertising strategies follow a top-down content strategy, which PR should be part of alongside all the other channels and content formats within paid, earned and owned media,” opines Pete Hendrick, managing director and PR practice lead at Octopus Group. “Sure, great PR is about storytelling, but it has to be anchored in a targeted content strategy.”

Fraser says: “Not only is it not at odds, it’s absolutely the future of our industry. The way that Google now works and rewards good content is an enormous gift to the PR industry. Since the inception of PR, we have been struggling for a way to evaluate and prove that our work makes a difference to the brand and its bottom lines. Data and online performance now provides us with that. We can still do all the great brand work we have done before; we are just now no longer guessing at its effectiveness.”

Of course, while the theory and intent are there, the uptake and integration of these capabilities isn’t always smooth. It’s still early days, Hawker says. “One of the biggest challenges is having people within the PR industry that understand the opportunities that the wider challenges can bring. At the moment the PR industry isn’t attracting them. Why would a paid media specialist or SEO specialist join a PR agency to be surrounded by people that don’t understand what they do?”

Ballou’s Griffiths admits that SEO specialists are sometimes “put off by the fact we’re a PR agency”. Bringing them onboard means building a bridge, but it also requires a mindset from applicants of wanting to help develop a whole new field. Johnson says he joined the company because he had always worked quite closely with PR teams and found both disciplines “quite symbiotic”.

“From an SEO perspective, PR teams help build links which in turn helps with improved rankings,” he says. “From a PR perspective, SEOs are the ultimate data gatherers, pulling insights which can often be turned into compelling stories.”

As has been the case when hiring people such as creative directors in the past, PR agencies often tend to dip their toes in the water when it comes to bringing in new talent. But for these emerging capabilities to really take off, one or two specialists in an agency will achieve little, Hawker thinks.

“There needs to be a cultural change and a real commitment to pivot to new ways of working,” he says. “We ended up acquiring teams of SEO and paid media talent and integrating them in at scale.”

Many more traditional ‘PR people’ do still look at search “as weird, technical and not in their comfort zone,” Pinsent says, but adds: “There are some real principles around SEO that aren’t technical. Understanding the importance of headlines [and so forth] is just about understanding the terms people are searching on and using those in copy while making it readable.”

Still, siloed budgets and teams on the client side are a further obstacle. “The PR team is there to hire a PR agency and the SEO team is there to hire an SEO agency and one doesn’t feel confident hiring the other,” Griffiths says. “There’s no sense of how to judge them.” But it can be easier for smaller companies to cotton on, she notes, due to greater fluidity and general open-mindedness.

Hendrick agrees, saying that while comms leaders are becoming “more integrated”, actual integration of digital marketing technology varies considerably between organisations. Smaller brands are helped by lacking “the resources or time for any efficiencies with standalone programmes that don’t feed other channels”, he notes.

For PR and digital marketing services to form a successful bond, PR, marketing and sales leaders must sign off their plan for the year together, Hendrick insists. “They’ll be using different tactics in terms of how they engage the market, but their content strategy must be consistent at a top-line. They are after all targeting the same individuals. Sales decks, direct mail, customer newsletters, eBooks, bylines, blogs—they shouldn’t differ massively at their core.”

Additionally, “everyone needs to realise what they are good at and, crucially, what they are not good at,” says Fraser. “SEOs thinking they know what ideas will earn attention with publishers and PRs thinking they understand online performance is a perfect storm. In theory, both sides should be able to not only co-exist but also create magic together if integrated right.”

Does this integration represent the future of PR as an industry? Some are more bullish than others. Hendrick, who describes his company as a “full-service agency with PR at our core”, thinks further investment in such capabilities is the only way to stay relevant. Fraser sees them as a “giant gift” that people are too timid to exploit.

Pinsent sees the blurring of the lines between marketing and communications services intensifying. “I don’t think anyone can stay in lane as we are all looking at connecting client business to target audiences through a whole mix of content and channels,” he notes. “Any PR agency who thinks they can just plough the earned media furrow will see their business depleting over time. Why wouldn’t we use paid channels to make sure our content is getting to our audiences?”

On the other hand, “PR is a very broad discipline and investing in these additional skillsets doesn’t make sense for all types of PR organisation,” cautions Hawker. “I think there needs to be a complete rethink of how agencies are structured and can attract the right talent to enable this kind of work to be done.”