OPINION: News Analysis - News of the dot.com’s death is exaggerated/PR agencies are blaming media exuberance for the hype surrounding the flotation of Lastminute.com and predictions of a bubble about to burst

If you have just returned from Venezuela, where you have been negotiating the trickier sections of the Orinoco since February, you have an excuse for not knowing who Martha Lane Fox is. Otherwise, you have not picked up a newspaper for the last six weeks.

If you have just returned from Venezuela, where you have been

negotiating the trickier sections of the Orinoco since February, you

have an excuse for not knowing who Martha Lane Fox is. Otherwise, you

have not picked up a newspaper for the last six weeks.



The on-line travel booking and leisure company she co-founded floated in

March amid the sort of media trumpeting usually reserved for the antics

of Posh and Becks - in PR terms, a remarkable achievement for what is

essentially a financial story. Much of the excitement was generated

around Lane Fox herself: attractive, young and soon-to-be very rich

indeed. These points may not be subject to change, but Lastminute.com’s

opening share price fell quickly after a brief rise and has not really

recovered since.



This is hardly the instant magic that the casual investor was

expecting.



The Lastminute.com experience raises one question: was PR responsible

for over-hyping this particular product? It also invites two wider

thoughts.



Is Lastminute’s performance so far the precursor of the dot.com bubble

finally bursting? If so, what implications would this have for the PR

industry?



Lastminute employs three agencies in this country: Citigate Dewe

Rogerson for financial and business PR, Gnash for business and tradePR,

and Ketchum for consumer PR. Nancy Prendergast, director at Gnash, is

unequivocal: ’It is less that PR hyped them and more media hype. We were

quite successful in telling their story at a time when the media wasn’t

even engaged. Over the last year there has been an incredible take-up in

coverage.’



And once newspapers, radio and TV were interested Prendergast says ’it

was almost like a train that couldn’t be stopped. They are the first

really high-profile dot.com, with a charismatic team of leaders the

press loved to get hold of’. ’We tried very early on to shift the

emphasis from Brent (Hoberman, Lane Fox’s business partner) and Martha

as personalities and on to the business and what they were offering to

it.’



Admirable aims but it probably doesn’t hurt too much if you can’t make

that shift.



If the popular perception is of a feted start-up which has failed to

live up to expectations, it is worth asking how much hype there can

actually have been since all activity around flotations is subject to

strict regulatory controls. Tony Carlisle, executive director of

Citigate Dewe Rogerson, is stern: ’I don’t believe there was any hype

whatsoever in the Lastminute share offering,’ he says bluntly. ’It was

by design already a very visible entity, a big name brand.’



’Anyway,’ he says, ’hype suggests extreme presentation, which has not

been the case. It may be more the media itself which has created that

impression.’



And as to the notion that this might mark the beginning of the end for

the rise of the dot.coms, he is politely scornful. ’Some of the comment

about dot.coms is seriously daft. In any revolution, not all of the

companies are of the same quality. You are going to get some that bomb

spectacularly.’



Grace Fodor, founding director of specialist dot.com agency Fodor

Wyllie, likewise reckons there is no need for panic. In 18 months’ time,

PR opportunities may not be so markedly different, she thinks. ’It may

not be a booming, booming, unrealistic market,’ she says. ’It needs a

realistic alignment - but that realistic level is still booming.’



Despite this correction in the market, ’in terms of the quality of

services coming through, it will increase and finesse itself. There may

be fewer players but the quality will be dramatic,’ she says.



Back to Martha and Brent. Carlisle says that, despite the amount of

personal publicity they - especially Lane Fox - received, neither is

interested in pushing their personal profile. ’A high proportion of that

hasn’t come from their mouths.’ Interviews have come up with a lot of

the intimate stuff without agency prompting,’ he says.



However, Neil Morgan, managing director of e-Space, an on-line contract

publisher, thinks agencies concerned with simply maximising instant

publicity could be forgiven. ’Lastminute was a PR dream in a way: two

photogenic founders with an interesting idea which could be understood

in about three seconds. It must be so tempting to take the short-term

hit because everyone wants to write about how the 27-year-old girl was

now a paper millionaire - (the media) are hardly going to talk about the

business model. In the new economy, first mover advantage is seen to be

so important and PR is a crucial part of that.’



Still, the agencies concerned stand by their assertion that activity was

both proportionate and justified, and that a combination of factors was

responsible for the subsequent level of media and public interest.



Lastminute.com is the first of the e-commerce businesses to become what

virtually amounts to a household name. It came to prominence as internet

companies were entering the mainstream; it got attention because the

media was ready to cotton on to it and it is a simple idea at a time

when ordinary people realise that owning shares can be a smart move.

Finally, Martha Lane Fox is 27, blonde and - on paper - a

multi-millionairess. And it is foolish to underestimate people’s

interest in any combination of the above.



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