Panda Watch: Why Quality PR Content Needs to be More Than Classy

Adam Novak

I can remember two times when a significant, new panda has entered the world:

  1. When Anchorman’s news team reported on the birth of a giant panda at the San Diego Zoo
  2. When Google released a new version of Panda, its algorithm that prioritizes the ranking of content

One is 10 years old, the other was released last week. Ron Burgundy is one of my favorite movie characters, but as a public relations professional, I’m trying to get more familiar with the other Panda.

Here’s why: Panda 4.1 promises to have a big impact on web searches fueled by content. Panda 4.1 is designed to eliminate “thin” content, meaning that substantive, well-linked, expert and unique content wins. And irrelevant, unoriginal, poor quality content loses.

I’ve seen enough pumpkin spiced lattes to know that it’s harvest season – so think of Panda as an online reaping machine that’s out to separate the “wheat from the chaff,” or the spam from the substantial.

This means that content from newswires, aggregators and superficial PR writers is on Panda’s chopping block.

PR news source, MediaBistro’s advice to avoid being cut? Do better. Be a better writer and add depth to your content. Thanks, but that advice is pretty thin on its own. In the interest of creating better content, I’m taking MediaBistro’s advice and offering an original perspective on the issue.

The spread of thin content is deeper than thin writing. We need to change how our programs are structured, conducted and measured, to get to the root of the issue.

Program Structure

First, content programs are often fundamentally flawed, due to an overemphasis on quantity. How many blogs should we write each month? How can we develop a steady “pipeline” of content, so that the blog is updated once or twice a week?

We need to stop counting content and ground our programs in metrics that matter: the total number of pageviews, time on site and referrals to the website. Let’s track how many people are reading our posts, and whether those people are coming from afar to be introduced to our clients, as a result of our words. There are many programs that don’t have this visibility – yet if we can’t demonstrate the value of a compelling post, then our content is doomed from the start.

Access to Expertise

PR people can be criticized for being a “mile wide and an inch deep.” It’s especially prominent at the agency level, where writers are placed on a variety of accounts in disparate industries. People lean on this model because it works – but it does generate voids that need to be filled. As professional writers, we should be able to understand what makes for a good story. But we often need some help if we want to craft it from start to finish.

We need to acknowledge our shortcomings and admit when our story doesn’t stick. If we can demonstrate that quality posts yield greater results, then we must more closely collaborate with the experts, in order to get the job done right. Many of these people don’t have the time to offer much assistance – that’s why they hire ghostwriters in the first place. But they should be able to take a critical eye towards their content and offer a concrete perspective. If they can’t, let’s find another topic.

Messaging Malaise

A key guideline of PR and marketing content is staying “on message.” Elevating key phrases and words (the higher the better, right Google?) is a critical part of creating content that becomes visible around certain important topics. Creating a viewpoint should be articulated within the lens of the brand’s advantageous position.

Overall, the philosophy makes sense. But it can go overboard in a hurry.

I often wonder what inspires great authors and journalists to pen works of art. I don’t believe that they’re overly concerned with key messages; it constrains their creativity. When I have to stay overly “on message,” I feel like I’m forced to type with one hand.

PR professionals need to adhere to one principle: is this a story that your audience would really read? We might not all be soccer moms or programmers – but we know a lemon when we see it. We need to create a compelling story first, make it on message second. If those two processes don’t marry well, then find a new topic.

I feel the same way about Panda that Wes Mantooth feels about Ron Burgundy. I hate that our content is losing its value – but dammit, I respect it too. Let’s use this change as the content catalyst, to restructure our entire programs for the better.

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