By common consent the emergence of the internet is extremely good
news for the PR industry. But there is still debate about how PR can use
the internet to its best advantage.
Can existing PR tactics be adapted to the internet in the way that they
could to other relatively new media like television? It is certainly
true that almost all traditional PR activities can be carried out
virtually on the net, but what new web-based skills, more relevant in
the on-line world will practitioners need to develop?
For some, the traditional approach still holds true. Ken Deeks, MD of
the hi-tech PR agency Kaizo, says: ’The internet does not mean a new
type of PR, just a new type of media and PR practitioners always need to
adjust their methods to different media. The communication skills are
much the same. It is all about starting from the audience - knowing how
it buys and why it buys - and then deciding how to influence it.’
Glen Goldsmith, managing director of Text 100 UK, broadly agrees, but
adds: ’The internet can certainly be used for PR in new ways, but good
communication skills are still valid just the same. The internet has
just made everything happen faster.’
But there is also a view that the internet is more than simply another
medium. According to academics such as Anne Gregory, head of the school
of business study at Leeds Metropolitan University and an ex-Shandwick
executive, the internet requires a PR approach that is totally new.
Those who do not understand and embrace this, she warns, will be left
’There is a natural role for PR on the internet, but agencies have to
get to grips with it. If they do, the opportunities are fabulous, but if
they just see the internet as a tool, they will end up as
Just as communities on the net morph and change, PR needs to morph too,’
Gregory is the author of a report to be published shortly by the joint
IPR and PRCA Internet Commission. The report predicts that because the
internet is such a different medium, it will radically change what PR
does and how it does it.
She points out that a major differentiating factor is that whereas
traditional media involve a sender - such as a publisher or radio
station - sending information to passive recipients, the internet
reverses this arrangement.
Users generally ’pull’ information towards them.
Gregory says the way the internet works impacts on the skills needed by
PR practitioners. First, the web has the capacity to allow people to
take information and use it to their own ends - something she calls
’agency’, as the web is acting as an agent of change.
An example is the use of pirated company logos on dummy web sites. It is
not difficult to lift company content and set up a site detrimental to a
company, using its branding for added authenticity. Losing control of
content in this way is an enormous challenge.
The internet can also make organisations more porous and information can
flood out. For example, an ex-employee or anyone else with a grudge can
easily make information available to a wide audience using the net.
At hi-tech specialist agency Firefly, director Mark Mellor agrees with
Gregory that the internet cannot be seen as simply an extra medium.
’The internet replaces what we used to call the ’nuts and bolts’ of PR
with new mechanisms. PROs can be in control of those mechanisms, but
they need to understand the medium they are playing with. For some
sectors of the market, the internet will become inherent, rather than
being seen as a new thing, very soon. To capitalise on this, we will
have to learn about the new tools of the job.’
Mellor says this will include learning how to use the various search
engines properly, and how to register domain names. He says these skills
can be taught - Firefly runs regular internet workshops with experts in
their field talking about various skills, and emerging trends.
But not all the tactics are completely new. Identifying and targeting
audiences has always been a significant part of PR - it is just being
done in different ways on the internet.
PROs still have to work in a targeted way, but will need to know which
web sites and newsgroups to target out of the thousands of possible
places to communicate with audiences. Mellor believes that the sheer
quantity of channels opened up by the internet will require every agency
to learn the skill of media planning.
’Quite a few agencies already understand that media planning is an
essential part of the new media. The advertising industry has been doing
this for years, and every PR agency that wants to add value to its
internet service will have to provide this function.’
Firefly has a central editorial services team which is drawn on
constantly by its 70 client-facing staff. The team acts as a central
resource of media knowledge, and Mellor describes it as being ’as
important as the IT department’.
One of the most powerful things about the internet is that it can be
personalised, and PROs can learn more about the person they are talking
to, whether it is journalist, analyst, investor, or consumer.
At Fodor Wyllie, a consumer agency specialising in new media clients,
director Grace Fodor says this is one of the most important skills for
PROs to learn: communicating on behalf of clients to various publics
without the media as a middle man.
’Classically, much of a PRO’s responsibility is in inspiring and
communicating with journalists, so they are usually one step removed.
On-line you are dealing directly with consumers, and suddenly you are
handling the way the client presents itself with a subjective audience
instead of fairly objective journalists.’
Fodor also believes PR has something to learn from other disciplines in
this area, as some of the skills required can be borrowed from
For instance, dealing directly with consumers requires a greater
understanding of what makes them tick. This psychological modelling of
small targeted consumer groups is traditionally an advertising skill, as
is the responsibility for brand development. It’s still about generating
coverage in one sense, but this is married with a need for brand
’We are training people up internally but they can’t go on courses yet
because the tactics are too new,’ says Fodor.
Because of the way the internet allows access to company information,
some believe that PR people will have to accept a diminishing role as
information gatekeepers and begin to act in a more facilitatory,
enabling role, which requires a new approach, and a new skillset.
Independent consultant and internet specialist David Phillips agrees
that PR will take some kind of overseeing, information management role
and believes it is this which will differentiate PR from other
communication industries. His point is that the tools that most PR
agencies are using on-line at the moment - such as e-mail, web sites,
intranets, and video conferencing - can all be used by other
communications practitioners such as advertising agencies and management
One of the ways in which PRs are increasingly putting these new enabling
skills into practice is in the area of a significant internet
communications channel - the chat room or newsgroup.
Fodor says: ’In conventional PR, the journalist is your spokesperson and
you have no control over what he says. On the internet you can talk
directly to consumers using forums such as news groups.’
This ability to talk directly to consumers in this way offers PR a new
Targeting opinion formers used to be a big part of a PR campaign, but
there is not the same hierarchy anymore. In a chat room everyone is
equal, so an unknown can raise an issue which can attract a groundswell
of support without the help of mainstream media.
While some of the smaller, web-focused PR agencies participate
enthusiastically in news groups - both as declared ’company
spokespeople’ and covertly to try to direct discussion in favourable
terms to a client - there is some uncertainty in mainstream agencies as
to how to approach this new forum.
Mellor reports from discussions among his peers that: ’News groups are
one of the contentious issues - should we participate or not? The
consensus seems to be that you should monitor them rather than
Either way, the increasing importance of newsgroups is leading to the
emergence of a new PR service, and new skills, as agencies start to
monitor the way a client is being represented on-line.
Vicki Hughes, account director of Midnight Communications in Brighton,
says chat rooms need to be monitored to become aware of issues and
opinions that are going to be important for clients. ’For example,
before Brent Spar became such a major issue it could have been spotted
in the newsgroups. The Seattle WTO protests are another example,’ she
These discussion forums often also allow agencies to get a good idea of
who is leading the debate on any issue, where they are, and what they
are driven by - useful information for those seeking to combat its
PROs clearly have a huge raft of new skills to take on board, often
feeling their way as they go, as the internet ceases to be something new
and becomes an integral part of the PR armoury. These include on-line PR
tactics such as content distribution; using e-zines (highly-targeted
e-mail newsletters), and other areas, such as on-line sponsorship and
Much of the work that is starting to be done by PR people overlaps with
what has previously been seen as the preserve of advertising, marketing
or management consultancy, but PR is the only discipline that is in a
position to take up the mantle of gatekeeper and knowledge-holder of the
- PR Week will be running its first reputation.com conference on
managing reputation on-line on 25 May at the Royal Garden Hotel in
For further information, call 020 8267 4116. See also next week’s issue
for ’Best Practice’ pull-out guidelines on managing reputation on the
FODOR WYLLIE BOOSTS PROFILE OF ASSOCIATED SITES
Fodor Wyllie was asked by the new media arm of Associated Press -
Associated New Media - to run a PR campaign to raise the profile of, and
generate traffic to, the company’s on-line sites This is London - the
Evening Standard’s site - and the Daily Mail’s Soccernet site.
The agency developed and implemented a strategy of content distribution
for Associated, getting the company’s content represented on popular web
pages and using this presence to drive traffic to home sites.
Content distribution involves a deal between a popular web site, such as
a search engine or portal site, and an organisation with specialist
content. A limited amount of content is placed on a partner site as a
teaser and users can get the full details by clicking through to the
home site. This is commonly done by either showing a series of headlines
and associated paragraphs of text, or simply with various headlines
scrolling across a ’ticker’ box.
To promote the This is London web site, Fodor Wyllie negotiated deals to
place a limited amount of content - the headlines and a precis of each
story from the Evening Standard’s London news, on portals such as Excite
and MSN - allowing the reader to get the full story by clicking through
to the home site.
The arrangement generated traffic for This is London, and gave the
portal credible content. Negotiations centred on how prominent a placing
the content’s level of exclusivity would secure it, but no money changed
For the Soccernet site, which is an in-depth football information site,
Fodor Wyllie put a pull down menu box on partner sites allowing users to
click on any one of the teams competing in the football World Cup at the
time to click through to Soccernet to get full team information.
Agency director Grace Fodor said content distribution was a good example
of the type of new internet-related skills that PR people were having to
learn on their feet.
’It’s not just about existing skills and tactics - content distribution
is an entirely new and requires PR people to get to grips with other
skills such as negotiation. It’s so new that we often have to explain to
people what it is, and train people in-house.’ One of the strengths of
the content distribution technique is that you can easily measure how
successful you have been as you know exactly how many page impressions
are being generated by click throughs from each site.
The company targeted portals such as Excite and MSN and for Socccernet
site, football club sites. The content distribution resulted in a big
increase in traffic. Soccernet now gets 18.7 million page impressions
per month (November 1999) and This is London gets 5.6 million (November
1999). The sites also both won awards - Soccernet won Best Use of New
Media by a Media Owner in the 1999 Revolution awards and This is London
took the Grand Prix prize at the 1998 New Media Age Effectiveness