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,’
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
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
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.
TOP 10 TIPS FOR CREATING ATTENTION-GRABBING WEB SITE DESIGNS
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.
DESIGNING A SITE FOR THE PAN-EUROPEAN INTERNET EXPERTS
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
The starting point for the design of the site was the company logo.
’This is deliberately quite simple and fresh using quite bright green
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.