FOCUS: INTERNET; Riding the wave of the Internet

GOING ON-LINE: Making the Worldwide Web work for public relations consultancies as well as for their clients SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE: Companies are racing to take the Internet reins and create a common user language SITESEEING: Sit back in your chair and relax as we take you on a fully guided tour of some handy PR web sites

GOING ON-LINE: Making the Worldwide Web work for public relations

consultancies as well as for their clients

SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE: Companies are racing to take the Internet reins

and create a common user language

SITESEEING: Sit back in your chair and relax as we take you on a fully

guided tour of some handy PR web sites



You don’t need to be an expert surfer to learn how to hang ten on the

Net, says Tom Dawn



According to last year’s IPR survey, 40 per cent of public relations

operators have never used the Internet. On the other hand, 90 per cent

of PR people believe it can help them do their job better.



That at least provides a reassuring contrast to the high proportion of

complete novices. After all, public relations is a trade whose purpose

is communication.



There are, however, valid reasons for having waited this long before

joining. There are technical and financial barriers to joining the

Internet; it only works if the people you want to communicate with are

on it as well and the Internet is still far from being a mature

technology.



The barriers are easy enough to cross, once your need or curiosity

grows. Necessity usually means that you have a client who wants to

communicate with you by e-mail, you have colleagues at another location

with whom you need to swap notes, or enough journalists in your domain

requesting information by e-mail.



These are examples of direct communications where e-mail helps, probably

with people you know and have already contacted perhaps by telephone.

Like a cross between a telegram and Federal Express.



‘E-mail is 80 per cent of our use of the Internet,’ says GBC partner

Jill Coomber. ‘You have got to understand what e-mail can do for you.’

The main advantages she cites include sending documents, for example,

the fanning out of information to the network of European agencies that

GBC runs for Digital when e-mail is easier, faster and more reliable

than paper alternatives.



E-mail also has status. ‘There is a definite pecking order in these

things,’ says Katherine Leavenworth, managing director of

Miller/Shandwick Technologies. ‘First it’s the FedEx deliveries, then

you check your e-mail, and the post gets done sometime later.’



Leavenworth and Coomber both have the added incentives of hi-tech

clients and international communications to spur their use of e-mail. In

Leavenworth’s case, her colleagues in the US are in different time

zones, and e-mail irons out the differences.



The time factor in e-mail is useful at a local level as well. It can

open new lines of communication. ‘What Bill Gates calls asynchronous

communication,’ says Jan Stannard, joint managing director of Marbles,

which handles northern European PR for Netscape. ‘You fit into people’s

schedules more easily. We find we can get closer to some journalists who

are difficult to talk to otherwise.’

There is of course a risk of offending people if you overload their e-

mail with low-grade information. Distribution services such as PiMs and

Two-Ten Communications are sensibly making great efforts to find out who

wants to receive mailings by e-mail. Some people don’t want it any other

way.



European IT journalists and analysts for example, have what could be a

role model for broadcasting PR information by e-mail. The service is

IPMG Newsdesk, which has now also launched a US subsidiary. A weekly e-

mail contains press release headlines from many of the world’s top IT

companies, sent to 1,200 users. Users automatically receive copies of

the press releases by e-mail that they then request. The attraction is

to get press releases from several top companies in one message. It is a

kind of PR shopping mall.



So much for e-mail. The most frenzied Internet activity is going on in

the graphical, interactive, bells and whistles part of the Internet -

the World Wide Web. The specialist discussion groups (newsgroups) should

also be included in this area, because they are relevant to public

relations in a similar way, being ‘public’ like most World Wide Web

pages.



Number one use of the web for PR is to find out information about

prospective pitches. Information is often free, and quickly retrieved.

Several PR companies also use the growing number of subscription-only

dial-up and Internet-based services.



The web is also used to monitor special interest discussion groups, to

‘surf the Web’ and to keep in touch with clients and their markets. This

is becoming as vital to PR as reading the newspapers, particularly in

the hi-tech sector. This may seem passive, but tapping into the web,

accessing information and passing it on to clients is important. PRs

need to be users first and producers next.



A simple, but powerful example of use of the web for running a campaign,

is the Friends of the Earth effort to stop the proposed Newbury by-pass.

There are daily press releases, buckets of background, and instructions

to protesters about where to find the action.



Ironically, one of the most enthusiastic readers of the FoE pages is

Sally Costerton, divisional director of Arygll Public Relations. Argyll

handles PR for Reliant Security, lately in the hot seat at Newbury. ‘The

FoE site is brilliant for Reliant...we know what they know, at roughly

the same time,’ she says.



An obvious and direct approach to actually getting new business out of

the web, is to design and produce web sites for customers. Having the

nuts-and-bolts skills to produce these computer-based presentations is a

good way to get into the job at the start, but it is not essential.



There is a well-worn saying that the web is 99 per cent index and one

per cent content and content is one of the key elements that PR people

can use to differentiate their web consultancy from others.



A number of agencies have expanded into the web site production area,

integrating their content-oriented PR outlook with new skills in

electronic design.



Edelman Interactive Solutions, Edelman’s dedicated company handles home

page development on behalf of clients such as Bacardi, Fuji Film,

Microsoft, Visa, the Korean Foreign Trade Association, as well as

running a Butterball Turkey information hotline telling Americans how to

cook Thanksgiving turkeys. The company puts up Edelman’s own press

releases, seen by 600 journalists a day, as well as providing an

Internet monitoring service of focus groups, weekly tracking and key

word monitoring.



Weber Group also has a specialist consultancy called Thunderworks, based

mostly in the US, but also recruiting at Weber Group Europe. Shandwick

is doing likewise with its US-based Spiderworx agency. Firefly which has

worked hard at producing its own substantial web site, is planning an

innovative new site; has adapted Compaq’s site for UK consumption; and

has launched other web sites, such as GQ magazine’s. Marbles is also now

launching a web site design consultancy.



Not every approach to the Internet has to be so direct. The influence

of agencies such as Text 100 and A-Plus on company web sites is often

low-key, and aimed at improving the content of customers’ web sites,

matching the message to the company’s business objectives, rather than

producing the sites in the first place. Many of their clients have the

necessary computer skills in-house.



Equally, Countrywide Communications is now implementing its own Internet

strategy.

‘We haven’t pioneered technology at Countrywide, but we have certainly

caught up,’ says chairman Peter Hehir. Countrywide’s first step is to

train its staff to use the Internet. This, the agency hopes, will lead

to its advising clients on the effective use of the Internet. The third

element of its strategy is issues management, centred on a service

called SafetyNet.



This specifically Internet-oriented service will be about tracking the

Internet, recognising potential crisis situations, and applying crisis

management methods through Internet channels to diffuse public concerns.



Some of the strongest views about the pervasive influence of the

Internet for public relations are held by Complete Pharma PR, which

represents half the world’s top ten pharmaceutical companies.



‘Our vision is that the Internet is going to become the whole envelope

that traditional channels of communication will fit into - press

meetings, symposia, exhibitions, opinion leader meetings, radio and

television,’ says managing director Scott Clark. ‘Our vision is

interactivity.’ Complete Pharma has taken the unusual step of buying and

managing its own computer server and Internet feed. High investment and

commitment maybe, but ownership gives Complete Pharma the flexibility to

do what it wants, including setting up password-protected discussion

groups for doctors and specialist journalists.



‘Traditionally public relations has been used to handle more credible

technical information that you may not be able to convey in the

strapline of an advertisement. That’s very important in the medical

industry,’ says Clark.



‘Good public relations consultants are particularly well placed to meet

those challenges through the medium of the web.’



Shandnet: Guidance through the electronic labyrinth



When Shandwick announced last June it was pumping pounds 10 million into

a three-year technology investment project, it was the biggest sign yet

that the PR industry really was serious about the Internet.



Known as Shandnet and scheduled for completion by 1997, the technology

programme incorporates two main elements: a private network which will

see all 90 Shandwick offices around the world linked via the Internet,

and an interactive database open to outside users.



Daphne Luchtenberg, Shandwick’s marketing manager for the UK and Europe,

says that the project, once completed, will give Shandwick an unrivalled

edge by giving clients a truly global communications offering.



‘With that kind of connectivity between offices you can work together on

projects quickly and efficiently,’ says Luchtenberg. ‘Another benefit is

that we are learning a lot about the Internet in the process and can

advise clients about it.’



Although the internal hook up is still in its early stages, Shandwick’s

worldwide web site is already up and running and ready for any casual

surfer with the time and interest to access.



Officially launched in the UK this month, the Shandwick home page

includes features common to many other PR agency web sites, such as

general information on the Shandwick group and lists of existing

clients.



But, explains Luchtenberg, the site is also a tool to promote clients,

draw in new business and position Shandwick as the point of contact for

anyone seeking advice on communications issues.



Visitors to the Silicon Newstand section can, for example, find the

addresses of other home pages on the Net for organisations relevant to

the public relations profession, such as newspapers, magazines and

political groups.



Sourcefinder, a facility aimed at journalists, gives details about

client companies and highlights directors willing to act as spokesmen

within their respective industries. The user selects a subject and can

e-mail the appropriate contact directly.



‘We want journalists to come to us and use the site as a navigational

tool,’ says Luchtenberg. ‘Most web sites are brochures about agencies

and libraries of press releases. But we want journalists to come to us

when they need help to get to the right places.’



Meanwhile, Shandwick invites anyone to e-mail the agency with a PR

problem with a response guaranteed within 48 hours. The idea is to

demonstrate the agency’s creativity and establish contact with potential

clients.



Luchtenberg admits that Shandnet has a long way to go before it becomes

a regular feature of the PR scene but, argues Shandwick, with the

technology in place the benefits will follow.



‘As more of our client companies get used to the idea of the Internet it

is important for us to take the lead,’ says Luchtenberg.’



Survey: Net marketing potential



Believe the vast media hype and the Internet is the best business

invention since the first fax whirred into action.



But far from cruising bumper to bumper down the ‘information

superhighway’ businesses have been slow to catch on to its potential as

a marketing method.



‘The Internet is still very much in its early stages as a commercial

tool,’ says Rob Lawson directorof NOP DSi, a division of the NOP

Research Group which published the results of a report on the Internet

in January.



The survey compiled with the help of its members, which include Barclays

Bank, IBM, British Gas and BT, found that over 150,000 consumers have

used the Internet to purchase products and services in the past six

months, with encouraging signs for increased spending in the future. The

survey claims its findings quash US reports of ‘Internet hangover’ among

users as three out of five asked still found the Internet ‘fun to use’.



PR agencies planning to target computer buyers in companies, however,

face a tougher time. Ninety per cent of business decision makers don’t

‘sur the Net’ according to last year’s report by marketing

communications company Banner and Co.



The report, entitled ‘The Banner Computer Readership Survey’ (BCRS)

studied the brand of IT products bought, size of budgets and readership

habits of 8,900 decision makers. It found that 49 per cent catch up with

national news by reading the Sunday Times; 22 per cent follow the Times;

and 20 per cent the Financial Times.



Journalists, too, appear reluctant to use the Internet to view press

releases. While it enables them to cut and paste quotes easily, they

spend enough of their day staring at screens. So most prefer to deal

with paper.



Paul McFarland, managing director of PR support company Two-Ten

Communications, which offers a press release distribution service,

thinks he has the answer.



The company has just launched an advertising drive in UK Press Gazette

to launch a web site specifically aimed at journalists.



All news stories released on Two-Ten’s UNS newswire feed automatically

into the database on the web site. In addition, relevant news material

that comes through the doors of Communications House in the form of

releases to be distributed on behalf of clients such as Unigate, the

Post Office, The Body Shop and British Gas will be posted on the

database giving journalists access to around 50 new releases updated on

average every two minutes.



‘If all releases are in one place it is a very easy option for

journalists, especially freelancers looking for ideas to sell in,’ says

McFarland.



‘Most sites never change and journalists lose patience with that,’ he

adds.



Cyber visions: The future of the web



The most confusion about the web results from the battle for ownership.

The commercial pressure is enormous for the world’s software and

hardware makers to carve up the market, despite the fact that it has so

far resisted most attempts at taking it over. No one company owns all

the gateways on to the Internet, the hardware it uses, or the software

we use on it. In fact the language of the web, html, is determined by a

nebulous committee.



Of course, once most people are using your software, say to browse the

web, you can start calling the tune about how the language of the web is

written, and so keep one step ahead of the competition. Such is the case

with Netscape’s browser, the most spectacular success on the web to

date.



The most spectacular failure to ‘take over’ the Internet so far, was the

Microsoft Network. But Microsoft is back again, fighting with Netscape

for ‘ownership’ of the web browser market.



Part of the success of the Internet is down to the fact that anyone with

almost any computer can share in it, but this is not quite the case with

many of the documents people want to exchange via the Net. PR companies

exchanging electronic documents with design studios are a case in point.

The most popular solution to this problem so far is the Acrobat Reader

which runs on Macs, PCs and Unix computers, and preserves the formatting

of documents exchanged between different computers.



Ask a techie what are the future developments on the web, and you will

get an answer like ‘Java’ or ‘VRML’. Java is the programmer’s choice for

adding more bells and whistles to web sites -another ownership battle

won, in this case by Sun Microsystems. VRML is virtual reality modelling

language, for which the ownership battle is not yet won. There are

several competing (and incompatible) systems vying to become the

definitive way of describing a three-dimensional interface. A big yawn

at the moment.



The Intranet, another ‘hot topic’, is an internal, company-wide version

web. The idea is that individuals, departments, or business units,

within a company should post details about themselves for consumption

only by people from inside the company. It has the same benefits as the

web of making information easily available but with distinct objectives

relevant to company communications. Controlling who sees what raises

additional technical issues and again there are already numerous rival

technologies offering solutions.



Last but not least, there is the battle to make the web a ‘formatted’

interface. Believe it or not, it is not possible to determine exactly

what readers see when they read a web site. The mark up language does

not say: ‘that is 36pt Times New Roman, ranged right’. The language of

the web says: ‘this is body text, that is a headline’ and so on, and

leaves the formatting choices to the browser software.



So someone reading the page on a Mac will see something rather different

from a person reading it on a PC. Even now, the big software companies

are ganging up to try and come up with a way of formatting web pages.

The emphasis throughout is on design and presentation.



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