OPINION: Blair has shown sense in postponing

Dot.com fever may be on the wane, but, as companies become more

sceptical of the commercial benefits to be accrued in the online

environment, the importance of the internet as an information medium

continues to grow.



At the forthcoming PRWeek reputation.com conference on 3 May, delegates

will hear how the internet has infiltrated every area of PR activity,

from marketing communications to investor relations and public affairs

(see panels).



But they will also hear that, although theoretically the PR industry may

have taken on board the dynamics of the online environment, in reality

the practice of online PR is still in its infancy.



In fact, with a few notable exceptions, PR practitioners working in both

consultancy and in-house have, to date, been continually outstripped by

pressure groups and direct-action experts, such as reputation.com

speakers PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who have

more successfully engaged with global issues-based communities.



They have also done little to defend companies against the very real

danger posed by hackers and disgruntled consumers, who, armed with a

little technical know-how, can wreak havoc with a company's

reputation.



Even the Government has recently fallen foul of hackers - last month

they defaced several top government websites. Govtalk.gov.uk, the site

for intergovernmental communication, for example, was labelled with the

graphic 'owned by poizon.box'. Other recent targets include IBM, the

World Economic Forum and Microsoft.



Despite the rapid rise of a number of online hot shops such as Midnight

Communications (PRWeek's Small Agency of the Year 2000), many in the

agency world are still formulating their internet strategies and trying

to decide the best way to structure their internet offerings. Some

agencies have decided that the best approach initially is to set up

specialist online divisions, but there is a growing move towards

developing online skills within practice areas.



Global operators such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller have

established globally-operating online divisions, staffed with experts

who then disseminate online expertise to practice areas. Core tasks at

H&K include developing software, such as the monitoring package Radar,

building online press offices and auditing clients' existing websites.

'The importance of the netcoms division is that they are consultants at

a high level charged with supporting practice teams and helping them

learn about trends in online PR,' explains Hill & Knowlton UK deputy

chairman Andy Laurence.



'At Edelman, our approach is to integrate the online expertise within

the practice teams,' says Chris Dickens, Edelman Interactive Solutions

(EIS) managing director. EIS executives sit within practice teams and

'are involved in every aspect of a communication campaign with the

practice teams, from initial brainstorming to execution, with the

ability to migrate across sectors,' adds Dickens.



Earlier this year, Countrywide Porter Novelli (CPN) acquired technology

agency Fodor Wyllie, giving it a 'core of expertise' in online PR.

According to director of interactive Steve Marinker, Fodor Wyllie is

sharing its expertise across CPN practice areas through workshops,

training sessions and general networking, but he insists that it will

not be solely responsible for online strategy.



B-M has also been developing online expertise in practice areas. 'In the

healthcare practice, for example, there are two people who specialise in

online PR,' says practice MD Jonathan Hargreaves.'



At Edelman, EIS executives play a key role in online campaigns within

practice areas. 'A designated senior EIS executive works alongside the

main account director to get a full understanding of the communication

objectives and strategy. Taking this, EIS then creates the online brand

strategy as a complementary part of the overarching communication

strategy,' explains Dickens.



Creating the online brand strategy becomes more of a challenge when an

agency works for a client across several practice areas. H&K uses its

central planning process, Compass, to set the strategy. 'We would have a

director in charge of the client relationship and a core team, and bring

in other experts from other parts of the company according to what was

needed,' says Laurence.



Dickens acknowledges that managing reputation online across practice

areas is not easy. 'You have to have a centrally agreed and signed off

communications strategy at the outset,' he says. 'It takes a lot of

account co-ordination and internal communication.'



Edelman is currently handling an account across both practice teams and

countries, and is making wide use of a project management extranet on

which documents can be shared and signed off to help with account

co-ordination.



'The starting point for managing reputation online is to take an

integrated approach between on and offline. The overall communications

strategy should be at the heart of that ... while taking into account

the ability to engage stakeholders in a two-way relationship,' says

Hargreaves.



Whereas many agencies are setting up specialist online arms, some

in-house PR departments have decided that this is unnecessary. 'We don't

have a specialist online PR division,' says Virgin brand development and

corporate affairs director Will Whitehorn. 'We don't delineate between

online PR and any other PR. It's just another distribution outlet.'



One of the explanations for Whitehorn's stance may be that Virgin owns

several online businesses and has developed online expertise

in-house.



Tesco.com corporate affairs manager David Sawday has similar sentiments

to Whitehorn. 'Existing PR skills are the same as those you need for

online PR. Anyone who regards online as separate from existing media is

thinking in the wrong way.'



Whitehorn insists that all PR practitioners should have online skills:

'If you work in PR and you're not au fait with the world of the internet

then you're failing yourself as an individual.'



The distinction between online and offline PR may peter out within the

next few years. The ways in which reputation is managed online are also

sure to change. 'There are clearly opportunities to communicate in

different ways using tools such as online press offices. PR is going to

become more about driving demand for information rather than pushing

it,' says Laurence.



Marinker believes the internet will be used in more sophisticated

ways.



'Companies and brands will slowly start to enable web-based communities

rather than simply use the internet to publish their brochures,' he

says.



But inevitably, advances in technology will have a big effect on the way

reputation is managed. 'Audio-visual communication will become really

important,' says Hargreaves. 'Companies will proactively manage their

reputations through effectively broadcasting to stakeholders. We're

already seeing this in investor relations with webcasting to announce

results, and it could be done in a number of different areas around

particular issues.'



HOW TO HANDLE INVESTOR RELATIONS ONLINE



The days of releasing crucial financial information by having a word

with some investors and journalists are becoming a faint memory. The

growing importance of private investors means immediate simultaneous

disclosure is crucial.



The huge range of people with whom to communicate - analysts, fund

managers, employees, shareholders, government agencies and journalists -

means increasingly sophisticated communication is needed. All these

needs are being fed by a number of online options for IR experts.



The range of tools available varies from straightforward websites to

costly webcasting.



Merchant - the Brunswick sister company that advises on visual

communications, such as annual reports, corporate identity and the

internet - carried out research last autumn that revealed startling

omissions from the websites of some of the top 100 UK companies. Only 51

per cent clearly stated their market position and 45 per cent talked in

detail about their growth prospects. These are both pieces of

information without which fund managers would not be able to value

companies accurately.



Merchant MD Robert Moser, who will outline the research at

reputation.com, says: 'Some companies still don't understand what they

should be aiming at. Two or three years ago this wasn't on people's

radar.'



Merchant compiled research from city organisations, fund managers and

analysts, and produced the Merchant Benchmark, a checklist of 85 types

of information that should be included on a website. This helps a buyer

value the company and includes forward-looking information, contact

information, news, policies, shareholder information, third party

comment and company managers' CVs.



Marconi director of business communications Charlie Foreman claims to

have one of the best websites around, but other companies admit they

have only just seen the light. Foreman says: 'The information, ease of

use, intuitive power, real-time nature and active management give you

more than just a good snapshot.' Marconi also streams its results

presentations.



Halifax has just completed a new group site, having acknowledged that

its previous site did not serve investors as well as it might. General

manager (IR) Charles Wycks says it now includes strategy, management

presentations, detail about investment opportunities, previous accounts,

FAQs and shareholder details. It offers shareholders closer

communication with the top brass and will offer e-mailed responses to

questions direct from the CEO where possible.



'We are prepared to be as interactive as our shareholders would want us

to be,' says Wycks. He adds that it is a useful way of beginning and

maintaining a dialogue with international investors.



According to Mark Hill, director of investor relations consultancy The

IR Group, e-mailed information alerts are gaining popularity and will

eventually become a powerful relationship marketing tool. He also

advises clients to use teleconferencing for results presentations.



But he warns of the reputational moments that can be damaged when

analysts, journalists and smaller investors are all listening in on the

same presentation.



Inflammatory questions from an analyst can alert journalists to a

headline grabber, he warns. 'It's very easy to be a bear on that stock.

When there's blood in the water, sharks swim around and take chunks. Do

you really want to have all those people listening in at that time?'



Webcasting is not worth the money yet, he says. But he predicts that

online information will eventually replace annual reports - a view not

shared by many of his contemporaries.



In the meantime, however, much money will be spent on in- and ex-house

IR as companies feel their way around the online landscape.



HOW TO HANDLE PUBLIC AFFAIRS ONLINE



When it comes to effective use of the internet in public affairs, it is

pressure groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth that have

led the way. 'Building coalitions via the web - through websites, chat

rooms and e-mail - is something that until recently has been primarily

dominated by pressure groups and activists as a means of galvanising

opposition. But that is now changing,' claims Golin/Harris Ludgate

divisional director Justin McLaren.



A growing number of companies are now setting up issue-focused websites

to enable them to deal efficiently and effectively with specific issues

affecting their business, and often to counter the arguments of pressure

groups. 'A virtual media centre gives a specific URL for the press

interested in one particular issue, separate from the existing corporate

website. We can use these for webcasts, online briefings and for

downloading pictures and information,' says McLaren.



APCO associate director Graham Kendall also advocates issue-based

websites and believes more companies should have them. 'It's surprising

how many blue-chip companies don't have an area on their website that

addresses current issues,' he says.



Kendall finds it is companies in contentious sectors that are leading

the way in developing issue-focused sites. 'We're doing a lot of work in

this area for pharmaceutical companies, and there's also a lot of scope

in other environmentally sensitive areas.'



PA practitioners are continually searching for ways to proactively

advance their messages to the media and the wider stakeholder community.

McLaren was press secretary to Steve Norris during the London mayoral

election last year. 'Not only were there countless requests for online

questionnaires to be filled in, we also received an endless stream of

invitations to webcasts and chat rooms,' says McLaren. He says it is

difficult to know how effective these were, but thinks exposure on sites

such as Tubehell.com and Guardian Unlimited was useful. 'Likewise we

were able to generate publicity for ourselves through the results of

independent online polls that were conducted,' he adds.



McLaren believes the key to success is 'using the language, tone and

informality of the web to put your message across - something that is

sometimes difficult for more traditional practitioners to

undertake'.



PA practitioners are also increasingly using the web for research. 'The

first thing to do when an issue comes up is to go to the web to do

research,' says Kendall. APCO has developed software called Digital

Vigilance that is able to sift through the net in an intelligent way to

track issues.



'Using Digital Vigilance enables us to give immediate and timely

feedback to clients,' says Kendall.



Hill & Knowlton public and corporate affairs MD Andy Pharaoh believes

that there has been a fundamental change in PA thanks to the

internet.



'The idea of PA as taking information and spraying it out again is

really changing,' he says. 'PA has to be a lot more value-added. It's

now much more about interpreting and using information.'



With information readily available online through sites such as Hansard

and the new Number 10 site (www.number-10.gov.uk), PA practitioners are

having to look further afield for useful information for their

clients.



'We're using tools to enable us to research more widely, not just for

what MPs are saying but also what people who influence them are saying,'

says Pharaoh.



With a general election in the offing, Pharaoh thinks the web will

become increasingly important in PA: 'This is not going to be an

internet election, but the next one could be.'



REPUTATION.COM COMING SOON



The latest developments in online PR will be discussed and debated at

Reputation.com at the Millennium Hotel in London on 3 May. The one-day

conference provides the opportunity to hear from some of the leading

practitioners in online PR from both the agency and in-house sectors.In

his keynote address, Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman will

examine what PR lessons can be learnt from the dot.com blow-out of the

past year and the 'indecent' rush to build brands online.



A range of speakers, representing some of the UK's leading brands, will

discuss the challenge of reputation and brand management in the online

environment.



Froydis Cameron of Shell's sustainable development group, and John

Williams, Fishburn Hedges chairman, will reveal the tactics behind

Shell's award-winning corporate reputation programme, which used the

internet to engender dialogue and debate about the company's values and

actions.



The threats and opportunities presented by the internet will be explored

by a range of speakers. Cyveillance International MD Andrew Muir will

demonstrate why companies must proactively manage their brands on the

net. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) European

campaigns co-ordinator Toni Vernelli will show how activists are using

the web to build communities of interest, while the emerging corporate

strategies for dealing with protest websites will be examined by ERM

director of corporate advisory services Dr Tom Woollard.



A variety of case studies will show how successful online brands are

using online PR to build their reputations. Tesco.com corporate affairs

manager David Sawday will look at the challenges of bringing together

on- and offline PR. Amazon.co.uk European PR director Christina Smedley

will explain the importance of PR to the company's business, and Virgin

brand development and corporate affairs director Will Whitehorn will

reveal how Virgin manages its reputation online.



Two of the most active areas for online PR will also be discussed.

Merchant MD Robert Moser will look at how top European companies are

using the internet to communicate with investors, while

PoliticsDirect.com director David Beamer will examine the increasing use

of the web in public affairs campaigning.



The Reputation.com conference will take place on Thursday 3 May at the

Millennium Hotel, London. For further information or to make a booking

please look at the conferences website www.haymarketconferences.com or

telephone 020 8267 4011.



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