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Are online reputation management and public relations the same thing?

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Confused about the differences between online reputation management and public relations? You’re not alone. However, you need to be aware of the subtle distinctions between the two if you want to effectively solve your reputation problem.

Here’s a closer look at how online reputation management and public relations differ, as well as how they work together to boost your brand image.


Online reputation management and public relations both seek to influence an audience. However, there is little overlap between these two audiences.

ORM—Online reputation management techniques target people who are searching for something online. The Internet is the first place most people look for information, and a lot of people assume what shows up in Google is automatically true. But that’s not always the case. ORM works to correct the balance so that the people searching for you find accurate information instead of outdated, misleading, or untrue content.

PR—In contrast, public relations techniques target media professionals like editors, journalists, and radio/TV/podcast hosts, to garner earned media and spread a positive image of you to existing and prospective customers, investors, employees, and other constituencies. These media validators provide an authoritative, third-party perspective, which is vital when you consider that people trust media sources far more than brand messaging. PR done well makes it easy for media professionals to find newsworthy and positive material about you to share with the world.

Focus of activities

Online reputation management and public relations both strive to improve your reputation. In fact, many PR clients expect to see positive stories on page one of Google. The main difference between the two approaches is the channels they use to convey their messaging: While ORM focuses on search results, PR professionals concentrate on earned media and publicity.

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ORM—Your online reputation is defined by your search results. Social media posts are ephemeral, appearing and disappearing quickly in people’s feeds. In contrast, items that appear in a search for your name can stick around for years. This is why online reputation management techniques focus almost exclusively on altering search results.

Because 93% of people don’t ever look beyond the first page of search results, gaining control of these first 10 links is an effective way to manage the narrative surrounding your name. As such, ORM techniques aim to place sites you own on page one and render negative content nearly “invisible” by pushing it onto subsequent pages, where most people never look. Ideally, the first page of your search results would contain your website, a few of your social media profiles, positive reviews about you or your brand, video content you’ve created, articles or blog posts you’ve written, and positive articles others have written about you.

PR—Because brands don’t pay for earned media, people view it as an extremely credible source of information. As a result, appearing in a third-party, top-tier, objective news piece, for example, can position you as an authority in your sector. For this reason, public relations professionals strive to secure earned traditional and social media coverage as the primary channels for communicating positive information about you to your various audiences.

PR professionals leverage earned media to raise awareness, generate interest, create demand, promote goodwill, and polish and reinforce your brand image, all of which contribute to a strong reputation. Consequently, PR strategies can involve a broad range of tactics.

Approaches and tactics

Online reputation management and public relations both work behind the scenes to improve your image. Here are some of the key approaches used in each discipline.

ORM—Online reputation management professionals employ their knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to build up a robust online presence, suppress negative results, and defend against future reputation attacks.

Some common ORM tactics include:

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  • Performing situation or threat analysis grounded in quantitative SEO measurement. This lets you know the health of your online reputation and how much time and resources you’ll need to allocate to successfully address your particular issues.
  • Measuring search terms for their reputational impact. This shows you which terms will be most effective in altering your search results.
  • Sending signals to search engines that encourage them to reorder the search results and suppress unwanted or incorrect items.
  • Building out web properties to increase your control over your web presence.
  • Monitoring your name for new threats or opportunities. This enables you to respond quickly to prevent new negative content from going viral. It also lets you start promoting positive items as soon as possible to get the most traction from them.
  • Submitting take-down requests (in certain situations) to quickly mitigate any reputational damage and stop the spread of negative content across the Internet.
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  • Systematically publishing and promoting valuable content that will be valuable to search engines and human searchers alike. One way ORM professionals do this is to follow Google’s expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (EAT) guidelines when creating content. (These guidelines are based on what Google has found to be most useful to people, both through user groups and algorithmic machine learning.) Therefore, aligning your content with these guidelines signals to Google that your content is valuable, which means it has the power to rank high enough to push negative items off of the first page of your search results.

Online reputation management is an ongoing task which serves to create, cultivate and maintain your brand name and its good standing online.”—Bright Local

PR—Public relations professionals promote your brand in the media and in person to gain visibility and build authority. They also deliver organized responses to mitigate reputation damage from negative press.

For an event I was helping to promote, one of the ways we brought visibility to the event was by building and promoting the reputation of the founder. We did things like submitting her for awards, pitching her story to publications, securing speaking opportunities – and through building and managing her reputation, we brought visibility to the event she organizes.”—Michelle Garrett, public relations consultant and contributor to PR Daily, Muck Rack, and Meltwater

Some common PR tactics include:

  • Creating and distributing press releases through the PR firm’s network, relying on the reputation the firm has built throughout the years as a source of unique, engaging, and relevant information.
  • Writing speeches for executives, political figures, and other high-profile individuals, ensuring that the content aligns with the narrative that the client is trying to project.
  • Crafting bylines and op-ed pitches for journalists to gain earned media that the public will trust.
  • Designing special events to enhance public outreach and media relations.
  • Conducting market research to find angles for pitches to distinguish clients from their competition.
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  • Attending or sponsoring events to expand a client’s business contacts through personal networking.
  • Copywriting and blogging for internal or external sites to promote a client’s brand.
  • Developing crisis communications strategies to avoid reputation damage by ensuring a coordinated and well-thought-out response.
  • Planning social media promotions to garner earned media and valuable social proof.
  • Developing working relationships with editors of popular industry publications. Editors are often inundated with PR pitches. However, a PR firm can increase the odds of editors being receptive to their pitches if they have first established a human connection with them.

“A public relations specialist is an image shaper. Their job is to generate positive publicity for their client and enhance their reputation …”—The Princeton Review

How public relations and online reputation management work together

Online reputation management and public relations are complementary parts of a larger strategy to present your best face to the world. They both work together to:

  • Increase your online presence—By increasing the number of search results that appear for your name.
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  • Improve public perception—By creating and promoting positive content about you and making sure it ranks highly in the search results when people look for you online.
  • Mitigate negative sentiments—By proactively creating new content to provide a buffer of positive information that protects your reputation when new negative content appears.

One only need look through all the definitions of PR to realise that the sole purpose of PR is to build and protect a person’s, brand’s or company’s reputation.”—Craig Badings, partner at SenateSHJ and author of four books on thought leadership

Moreover, the tactics of one approach can fuel the success of the other. For example, successful public relations efforts result in reputable third parties writing about you. Online reputation management professionals can then use those articles as high-quality links in an ORM campaign.

While you can control your search results with online reputation management, you can never fully control how the media portrays you. For example, you can have a great news article in your search results, but if the link below it reflects badly on you, then the positive article ends up making less of an impact. 

Because it deals with the complete online image that you project, online reputation management—can protect the messaging that public relations professionals work so hard to promote. Online reputation management can also support public relations by emphasizing on-brand messaging that makes it easier to generate positive press about you.

To learn more about online reputation management and how to present the best version of yourself online, check out one of our self-help articles.

You can also call us to speak with one of our reputation advisors. They are happy to provide free, no-obligation consultations.