FOCUS - WEB SITE DESIGN: New breed of screen stars - PR agencies now have to decide between developing in-house design capabilities or outsourcing. Nick Purdom investigates the options

One of the most significant ways in which the internet is affecting the PR industry is that consultancies have had to move into territory which, until recently, was inhabited only by specialist web site design companies.

One of the most significant ways in which the internet is affecting

the PR industry is that consultancies have had to move into territory

which, until recently, was inhabited only by specialist web site design


Not only are PROs carrying out on-line PR programmes for clients, but

are also becoming increasingly involved in the more technical aspects of

web site creation, and are expected to give strategic advice as to how

they can best be used.

One of the fundamental decisions facing PR agencies is whether to offer

a web site design service in-house, or to use the specialist web site

design companies that have sprung up in the last few years.

But as with many disciplines in PR, the bottom line could soon become

the defining factor and only those agencies with a major amount of

internet-related work can afford to maintain in-house web design


A recent report from marketing services group Willott Kingston Smith

revealed that despite increased productivity from internet-related

activity, profits fell short of expectations as agencies expanded their

on-line divisions and chased the limited supply of staff qualified to

undertake e-commerce work.

For some agencies, the decision has already been made to create a

division specifically to deal with web site design. Mark Robson, senior

partner at Insight Marketing Concepts, based in Berkshire, says 30 to 40

per cent of the agency’s work now comes from creating web sites.

’We started our own web site design section in response to demand.

Initially clients were asking us to look at their press pages; now

clients with second and third generation web sites are asking us to

design them from scratch.’

Like Robson, Saffron James, associate director of Cohn and Wolfe’s

interactive division, has seen a surge in demand for PR companies to get

involved in the more technical aspects of web design in the past few


’Cohn and Wolfe has been incorporating web sites and on-line promotions

into PR programmes for two years. In the last six to nine months this

has increased significantly as industry understanding of the web as a

marketing tool increases,’ she says.

Many in the PR industry now think there are very good reasons why they,

rather than specialist web design agencies, are best placed to play a

leading role in web site creation. One of the main reasons is

consistency of brand messages.

Triangle PR managing director Chris Hamer, says. ’You probably know your

client best, understand their culture and know what they want to focus


Financial and corporate affairs specialist College Hill took the

decision to build its design capability in-house. ’The advantage for the

client is that it’s an integrated offer. In one meeting they can discuss

the PR programme and the creative work associated with it, so it saves

time,’ says College Hill creative director, Guy Lane.

’You’re also more likely to get a coherent and consistent campaign than

if you use separate agencies who may or may not talk to each other.’

Other PR agencies have decided the best approach is to offer a design

service in-house, but to use external agencies as required. Cohn and

Wolfe has two in-house web developers, and also works with design

company Blue Dog, which shares its office space.

’It depends on the client whether we use an external agency. If it’s a

major brand they may have their own preferred suppliers,’ says


Burson-Marsteller has a sister design agency, Marst-eller, but uses

external suppliers too. ’It often depends on the client, and the time

available,’ says Hannah Wythe, senior associate in B-M’s new media and

e-commerce practice. She points out that there are advantages in using

external suppliers: ’There are web design companies that specialise in

various industries and can look at an individual client’s


Linda Dodge, head of new media for UK-wide PR network Harrison Cowley,

says: ’It is logical that PR takes a lead role because a web site is

brand communication. It should be part of an overall communication

strategy and fit within it.’

Dodge was able to build Harrison Cowley’s new media division from the

ground upwards at the start of the year, but has come to the conclusion

that there are very good reasons why it is better to outsource


’I think having design in-house limits you too much. If you have a large

network like us, the sheer variety of clients makes it difficult to

cater for them specifically. There are a lot of web design agencies

hungry for work, and they’re only as good as their last job.’

The availability of inexpensive web design software tools such as

Microsoft Publisher and NTM’s WEB! Pro Edition might make it tempting

for PR executives to learn the skills of web design themselves, but

agencies recognise that this is a specialist skill.

Jim Bisset, senior partner at web design company Mediachrome, which

works closely with Triangle PR, warns against the DIY approach.

’The problem with many web sites is caused by the easy availability of

so-called web site design software, allowing virtually anybody who can

work a PC to create a page of something, give it a web address and call

it a web site,’ he says.

’It’s a bit like the boss’s secretary designing the company brochure or

writing a press release. It’s not what they’re best at and they won’t

have the right tools for the job.’

However, Hamer points out that while it may not be essential to have

specialist design skills in-house, it is necessary to have an

understanding of what can be achieved.

’The speed of change in web design means you really have to be on your

toes and keep up-to-date with the latest advances, so you know what’s

achievable and what will work.’

Whether they design in-house or not, PR agencies are increasingly

playing a lead role in web site creation from a strategic point of


Biss Lancaster now works on several web sites a month, according to

chairman Graham Lancaster. ’If PR has an important role to play it’s

making sure there is proper consistency of the message being

communicated,’ he says.

Dodge says the starting point for developing a web site is a good

communications strategy. ’You need to ask questions about why they want

the site, who they want to go there, and how they want them to feel when

they leave the site. We see a lot of sites that are a mess because they

haven’t answered these basic questions,’ she says.

Web sites are now being viewed as part of a broader marketing


’Clients really need to have a broader marketing perspective and an

understanding of how a brand needs to be communicated on the web,’

suggests James.

Wythe explains Burson-Marsteller’s approach to web site development: ’If

we start with a complete blank sheet of paper we look at the brand and

the core appeal and develop the corporate identity first. We then

develop the messages and work with the designers to get the messages

onto the site.’

Insight has recently developed a web site for Icetrak, an IT company

that was looking to reposition itself as an application services


’We approached the job as a marketing campaign and the web site became

part of this campaign,’ says Robson.

’The corporate branding drove the design of the web site. We

storyboarded it and once we’d got the structure in place, we worked on

the look and feel. We said to the designers ’this is what we’re saying

in words - how can we brand the company?’.’

Briefing designers well is a key element in any design project, whether

they are in-house or not. ’We set the objectives, tone and style,

messages, the language the company uses, and brief on colours and

provide a style guide,’ explains Lancaster.

Dodge believes that initial briefs to designers should be no more than

two A4-sized pages long. ’We brief them about the personality of the

site, technical requirements and must-haves in terms of navigation,

e-mail response and so on. The next stage is to do a site map, very

detailed content specifications, and a page-by-page brief on the look

and feel.’

Corporate image and messages may come first, but public relations

agencies are under no doubt that design is important. ’If someone’s

first impression of a web site is not a good one, they’re not going to

come back and they’re not going to understand the core appeal of a

company,’ believes Wythe.

She thinks the essential elements of a well-designed web site are that

it should be simple and easy to navigate. ’It should be easy on the eye

and not try to be too clever, but be sophisticated enough to make people

have a reason to go back.’

As web technology becomes more sophisticated, however, many sites are

being criticised for allowing flashy effects to get in the way of the

message. ’Too many look great, but rely too heavily on animation and

audio-visual technology,’ says Robson. ’The key element is speed. If

people don’t see what they want immediately they’re off to another


Creating an effective web site is one thing, but PR agencies are also

playing a role in maintaining and updating sites. ’It’s not enough to

design a site and leave it for a couple of years or more as you might

with a brochure. Like good PR you’ve got to be on it constantly. You’ve

got to develop it, introduce new ideas and keep it moving,’ suggests


Wythe agrees. ’Once a web site is up it’s so important that it’s

constantly evolving.’

Sites can be used for web casts, web chats and speeches, and feedback

from the site can inform the ongoing communications strategy, she


’We also offer training to clients so they can easily make textual

changes and add press releases.’

Web site design is constantly evolving, but those PR agencies that can

demonstrate they understand the medium, and can keep up to date with

developments, are in a good position.

Whether or not they decide to take the design skills in-house rather

than sub-contract them out, PR people will play a major role in the way

that sites look and feel in the future because of their understanding of

their client’s business and communications needs.


1. Do take time to understand the audience and what appeals to them, and

then make the site relevant.

2. Do make the purpose of the site clear so that users aren’t confused.

Don’t bombard visitors with conflicting messages.

3. Do make sure the web site is consistent with the corporate image and

is not out of step with other branding.

4. Do come up with the structure and content first. Then create the

design to and enhance this.

5. Don’t try to be too clever and use the latest animation and video

technology just for the sake of it.

6. Don’t let design get in the way of the message - text should be

legible and the whole site should be easy on the eye.

7. Do pay attention to navigation - the site should be simple to

navigate and users should always be able to return to the home page with

one click. The rule is no more than three clicks to complete a


8. Do ensure that visitors can contact the company easily - include an

e-mail link, telephone number and even an address.

9. Do give people a reason to come back to the site, for example, by

promising updates and competitions.

10. Don’t just leave the site once it’s up and running - make sure it

keeps up to date with what’s happening in the company.


Three months ago 1eEurope didn’t exist. Now the company, whose business

is helping other companies get on the internet, has its own distinct

corporate identity and a web site that is a key part of its marketing


Burson-Marsteller was charged with developing 1eEurope’s image from


The task involved integrating the work of graphic designers, web

designers and advertising specialists. Having first developed the

corporate identity, the job was then to reflect this in the design of

the web site.

’We wanted to portray 1eEurope as a team of experts in e-commerce; the

site had to reflect this expertise,’ says Hannah Wythe, senior associate

in B-M’s new media and e-commerce practice.

Wythe continues: ’Rather than create something state-of-the-art, we

advised that the group create a site modelled on simplicity. This

adoption of a simple approach demonstrates 1eEurope’s understanding of

internet technologies far better than a site stuffed with ’whizz-bang’

technological add-ons which might add visual stimulus but would almost

certainly be more difficult to use.’

Ease of use was important because visitors to the site would almost

certainly not be internet experts and might well be put off by anything

too complex.

The starting point for the design of the site was the company logo.

’This is deliberately quite simple and fresh using quite bright green

and blue.

If I look at it I immediately think of a map,’ says B-M senior

associate, Rebecca Woods.

The map theme was important because it reflects 1eEurope’s pan-European

offering. The colours of the logo are carried over into the map-based

interface which makes it easy for visitors to navigate the site.

Rather than have a conventional left-hand navigation bar, B-M decided to

put the bar at the top with drop-down menus. ’It seemed easier to have a

clickable map. For example you click on the UK and go straight to

information relevant to that. Using a left hand navigation bar would

have encroached on the map,’ explains Woods.

B-M is now working on expanding the site to create a magazine-style

destination on the web alongside a functional corporate web site. The

aim is to develop research-led white papers and opinion pieces that will

demonstrate what the company terms its ’thought leadership’ in

e-commerce, and provide added value for users.

’Part of our work was to consult on wider cyberculture issues

surrounding usability and accessibility of web sites. We wanted anyone

to be able to arrive at the site and leave with a clear understanding of

the company,’ says Wythe.

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