The days of counting fees from dot-com clients have given way to an
almost fond calculation of the dot-com clients you used to have. But in
its wake, the Internet has nevertheless changed the way PR firms do
business. It has changed the way they relate to clients. It has changed
the way they manage media relations. And it has called into question the
way technology will intersect with what still matters most in this
business: the human touch.
Perhaps the biggest change technology has rendered on the PR business
has been made possible by databases. In the newly fierce fight to
compete, agencies need to be able to drastically reduce the time it
takes to research a new client, or find out what tactics have been used
for similar clients in the past.
New lines of communication
Most PR firms have methods of keeping critical information in some kind
of advanced Internet-accessible or intranet database.
Burson-Marsteller, for example, has an intranet that lists every
employee around the world, complete with contact numbers and fields of
It also lists secondary areas of knowledge in case a situation arises
that calls for an expert that might be outside the current list of field
experts. For example, if a Burson healthcare client is rumored as a
takeover target by an insurance company, the database can easily tell an
executive in New York if any other account person has expertise in the
insurance space - even if that employee is in Paris.
Many firms use an extranet to manage their client relationships, as
An extranet is basically the same as the Internet, but it's limited in
access to two companies. The current best practice in this area is to
develop a series of databases that allow both the firm and its client
access to contact information for key personnel, recent actions on the
account, recent e-mail, status of current initiatives, and project
Ketchum has invested considerably in internal cataloguing and database
capacity, as well as an outbound service called myKGN. One of the most
efficient internal elements it has developed is called eRoom. The
software, provided by a company bearing the same name, is a Web-based
application that allows multiple team members to work on a document
without ever being confused as to which version is the most current, and
also allows people to post comments rather than write in the
Ketchum's myKGN is designed primarily for employees, although there is
also a customized version for each client. Internally, it has allowed
the average employee to save an hour a week searching for media coverage
or case studies on a potential or current client. In fact, Ketchum -
through a return-on-investment study completed on its tech capacity by
the META group - estimates it will realize productivity improvements of
$5.3 million over the next four years due to its internal
"In this business, your intellectual capital travels the elevator every
day," says Ketchum chief e-business officer and partner Paul McKeon.
"This new technology we've developed has allowed us to catalog
knowledge. It's a great system, and we've been able to build a stronger
business here as a result of it."
Here's another example of how the new systems can work. At Porter
Novelli, global practice team leader David Copithorne says his team was
recently involved in pitching to a major technology client. The pitch
process was particularly long, and the client asked for several ideas
and examples of work as the pitch developed. Instead of having to
research the client's latest financial developments each time a pitch
was called for, his team could simply access a database of
up-to-the-minute media coverage. Instead of rewriting case studies from
other clients' success stories, the team could immediately access them
through another database. Response time to the potential client was cut
"Half the trick in winning new business is being confident that you're
on top of information," adds Copithorne. "Technology has done this for
us, and we need to be able to extend it to our clients."
Return on investment
The prevailing thinking among top-level executives is that decent
internal tech capacity may not itself win you the business or keep that
huge client, but without it you don't stand a chance. "It has impacted
our business," says McKeon. "It helps win and retain accounts, and it
helps in a crisis management situation. You build a business on the
relationships you build with clients, but what if a person that is a key
part of that relationship leaves the company? With the intranets and
extranets we've built, we can retain more information. We're more of a
brand, and less of a loose aggregation of people."
The high price of information
Undoubtedly, improving an agency's access to information is a benefit.
But there are potential problems too.
Some clients could view the technological capacities you've built as an
overhead cost that they shouldn't have to pay for. However, people
involved in the new technology surge say internal capacities can be
billable services. If a client has a crisis that involves immediate
communication between several international offices, your firm's ability
to interface with those offices via an intranet is an applied and
Ted Graham, Hill & Knowlton's director of worldwide knowledge
management, says billing depends on the size of the account and the
complexity of the technology applied. Big accounts with large
technological demands may be billed as a one-time charge, or more
technology may be part of the hourly rate. Marsteller Interactive
director Erin Byrne says her firm bills it as part of an overall project
price, or as a very detailed part of an hourly charge, depending on the
There are also people issues raised by the increasing reliance on stored
information. Will executives be willing to use the basis of a campaign
that appears to have worked for other clients? The concept of ownership
of ideas is a strong one in many agencies - will people be prepared to
share to that degree?
"New technology can be used to help capture information and share it,
but the underlying story is that cultural barriers and old methods of
doing business make it practically impossible," says David Paine,
president of Paine PR.
"Technology is not a solution to cultural problems," adds Paine. "You
need to have the culture in place for a technology to work. If people
are not in the practice of openly sharing information, no technology
will force them to do that. People share; computers don't."
If you can crack the cultural changes needed to accompany new internal
technology, however, the benefits will be waiting for you.
Byrne says extranets and intranets have allowed Burson to stay more
closely in touch with clients, as well as strengthen communications
within the agency. Their use has compressed key decision time. Approvals
that used to take a plane trip and two days of e-mails can be
accomplished in hours due to the access that extranets provide.
"It's not even an add-on anymore," Byrne says. "Every project has
interactive potential now. It's part of everything we do. In the past
when we pitched an account, we'd leave behind a book. Now we leave a
WHO'S STORING WHAT?
Burson's intranet system houses a history of each client, including
pitches, case studies, employees who have worked on the account,
relevant e-mails, and media coverage. The company hired its own
developers to build it from scratch three years ago. Burson has also
developed its own rich-media e-mail system, which can send a
streamed-video media message from one employee to another.
Hill & Knowlton
The HK.net system places each e-mail relevant to a current project and
client automatically within a relevant folder (new business, pitches,
etc.), and archives them for easy access when needed. Designed and
Used Plumtree to build its myKGN.com portal, a customized system that
presents each person at each client with a different information package
every day, as well as a wealth of data. Internally, employees can log on
to their myKGN.com pages and be provided with an update on current
client/Ketchum initiatives, news on competitors, and a package of
relevant news culled from the Ketchum information bank and outside
Each practice has its own intranet housing proposals, e-mail trails on
each client, an employee database, and other information relevant to
each practice and its clients - both current and prospective. Designed
and maintained in-house.