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