If you ask many small business owners and entrepreneurs about public relations (or PR) and how it fits into their marketing mix, you’re likely to get a furrowed brow, a quizzical look and an admission that they’re not really sure.

The fact is PR is kind of a murky area for many small business owners, who have a hard time quantifying the benefits of “getting our name out there.” They often think of PR as little more than soft advertising or marketing that’s designed to generate favorable media coverage, or combat negative coverage if that’s what their company is facing.

But small business public relations in the 21st century involves much more that just getting your executives quoted in news articles or sending out press releases to media outlets. Like most things, the Internet has revolutionized small business public relations in recent years. In particular, the popularity of social media and the growing importance of content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) have given rise to a new PR discipline: digital public relations or digital PR.

More Reach, Better Targeting

Digital public relations combines traditional PR tactics like press release distribution and content placement with new digital strategies — specifically, social media, content marketing and SEO. These tactics enable companies to disseminate their news faster and further than ever before, and to target it to very specific demographics and audiences.

The principles and fundamentals of digital PR are the same as traditional PR. And like traditional PR, successful digital PR hinges on creating interesting, compelling and newsworthy content and stories. The biggest difference is that digital PR goes beyond the limited world of print distribution to include the myriad ways that content can now be distributed electronically.

One result is that you are no longer reliant on the media to get your company’s stories and messages out — you can bypass the media and speak directly to your target audiences. In the process, you can engage your audiences by creating conversations and dialog with them. This will help you build strong, ongoing relationships with customers and prospects that lead to increased brand awareness, greater customer loyalty and more sales and revenue.

How Does It Work?

So how exactly does digital PR work? The first step is to learn the basics of each one of the three key components of digital PR. Your digital PR campaign will then seamlessly incorporate each of these components into an overall integrated PR and marketing effort:

1. Social media - The sheer volume of social media sites on the Internet can make the idea of social media marketing intimidating, so start by determining the sites where your customers are most actively engaged — be it Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, or somewhere else. Then become an active participant in these online communities by posting, tweeting, pinning, and joining and participating in groups that are relevant to your industry.

2. Content marketing - Many companies today spend a lot of time and money producing a wide range of “content assets” — articles, blogs, white papers, case studies, e-books, etc. — that can be used for marketing and PR purposes. The key to getting the most value from your content is to devise a strategic plan that spells out how these assets will deployed (both electronically and in print) most efficiently.

In the digital world, a single piece of content can be repurposed many times across multiple digital platforms. For example, you can repurpose one article as a blog post, newsletter article, SlideShare presentation, Pinterest info-graphic and LinkedIn news update. And all of these can be linked together and efficiently shared via your digital PR marketing campaign.

3. Search engine optimization (SEO) - When done well, SEO has the potential to turn your digital assets into lead generating machines for your business. The goal of an SEO program is for your digital assets — be they web pages, social media posts, blogs or other content assets — to rank high in the major search engines when customers and prospects enter specific keywords and keyword phrases. SEO has become a field and discipline unto itself in recent years, as the SEO landscape is constantly changing and in flux. If high search engine rankings are critical to your company’s success, it might be wise to hire an SEO expert or consultant to help you in this endeavor.

Getting Started

In today’s 24/7, always-on digital world, there are endless opportunities for maximizing your business’ PR efforts. Often, the hardest part is not getting overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Start out slow, concentrating on a couple of digital PR initiatives first and then expanding your efforts as you increase your knowledge and comfort level.

The field of digital PR is constantly evolving, which makes it hard to keep up if this isn’t something you are focused on every day. Depending on your PR goals and budget, you might consider hiring a digital PR expert to help you create and implement a comprehensive digital PR marketing campaign.