BUILDING A BODY OF KNOWLEDGE: PR is a creative business. But now,PR agencies are attempting to take a leaf from the books of lawyers andmanagement consultants. John Gaffney reports

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

expertise.



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

well.



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

management tracking.



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

margins.



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

technology capacity.



"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

dramatically.



"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

considerable service.



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

account.



Boilerplate?



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

password."



WHO'S STORING WHAT?



Burson-Marsteller



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

maintained in-house.



Ketchum



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

sources.



Porter Novelli



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.



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