In many ways this second PR Week/Mediadisk debate in the
CBI-supported BestPractice campaign was much tougher going than its
predecessor on client-agency relationships (26 November). It was not for
a lack of viewpoints or commitment from our panel of experts - quite the
contrary. Rather, the problems were due to the fast-developing nature of
the internet itself.
Things have been changing so rapidly that it has been difficult for PR
practitioners to get a handle on every aspect of the medium in terms of
its effects on their working lives, never mind establishing models of
best practice of usage.
But if the last year has shown us anything at all it is that the
internet is here to stay. On-line shopping is now commonplace in the UK.
Increasingly journalists and great swathes of the business and consumer
population turn to web sites as their first port of call for information
on an organisation.
These two examples represent a seismic shift in the global commercial
and media landscape brought about by the take-off of the internet. It is
an innovation that can no longer be ignored.
Depth of understanding of the full possibilities and ramifications of
the internet vary greatly across the PR industry - that much was evident
even from the microcosm of our panel of experts. But the writing on the
wall is clear. Those practitioners that do not keep themselves abreast
of internet developments will become marginalised and irrelevant.
’A new media strategy has to be integral to PR,’ says Tari Hibbitt, the
chief executive of Edelman London. ’Public relations can’t survive
unless it makes full use of new media and the internet. That means
everyone has to have access to it, managers need to know where trends
are moving and people have to move much faster. So PR needs to look
beyond web sites to web strategy, in other words treating the internet
as integral to a public relations programme. PR without a web strategy
is like a brain without a mouth.’
There was a shared strength of feeling that the PR industry must be at
the heart of the formulation of web strategies, and conversely that
these days the internet must be at the heart of PR. The guidelines on
these pages are by no means the only attempt by the industry to improve
best practice - the Internet Commission set up by the IPR and PRCA is
currently framing its own set of guidelines and recommendations, which
are due for publication shortly. However, the sentiment from our panel
was that the PR Week guidelines should not only be comprehensive but as
simple and as jargon-free as practicable. Some net terminology is, of
To this end we have included a brief glossary on page IV.
Truth be told, it took some time to knock the broad structure of the
guidelines into place and it is recognised that this is a subject that
will require revision and updates as part of the campaign. Beginning
with a section on general competencies was obvious enough. But the rest
took a while to gel. In the end, there was strong agreement that there
needed to be sections covering web marketing, issues management, crisis
management and media relations as specific areas of PR activity. To
these were added sections covering web sites and planning, and
measurement and evaluation.
For a while, the group had considered incorporating a section on the
internet as an internal communications tool in the form of intranets,
with some excellent insight on this topic in particular provided by
Smythe Dorward Lambert director Jerome Reback. On reflection, though, it
was felt that this area would be more usefully subsumed into the Best
Practice guidelines on internal communications that are to be published
later this year.
The sheer number of issues raised by the internet meant there was a lot
of ground to cover in discussion and much for the industry to grapple
with. ’Every PR company is being pulled in a hundred different
directions,’ says Mark Adams, an independent consultant and is one of
the co-founders of leading technology PR agency Text 100.
Yet the question of issues management related to the internet figured
large in the debate. Everyone was in accord that the nature of
communication via the internet - for example its immediacy and
interactive nature - should be clearly understood as a prerequisite in
developing any on-line strategy.
Beyond this, practitioners should be able to identify and monitor the
web sites that have the greatest influence on reputation in relation to
their own or their client’s business. Brunswick associate director Frank
De Maria says: ’Knowledge of the most influential sites is absolutely
critical, whether they are chat rooms or on-line publications.’
Consistently tracking issues that emerge on the web, and being prepared
to deal with them, while desirable, is clearly a time consuming and
costly process. Brodeur Worldwide director corporate development EMEA
Jonathan Simnett says: ’This is expensive stuff. There would have to be
a massive programme to lobby clients to make them change the structure
of their budgets and pay for it.’
One of the big questions for clients and agencies to deal with is
whether or not to outsource internet monitoring to one of the specialist
service companies in this field.
But the massive, fast-expanding size of the internet makes monitoring an
imprecise science. As Hill and Knowlton managing director information
industries Giles Fraser puts it: ’You’ll never know if you get
The key, to return to De Maria’s earlier point, is to focus on the sites
likely to exert the biggest impact on reputation. To narrow these down
in order to avoid the information overload that is always a possibility
when dealing with the immensity of the internet, one has to understand a
client organisation’s needs and goals.
The core skill of on-line issues management lies in being able to gauge
which issues need to be managed and those which will just fade away. A
degree of expertise is therefore essential. Ketchum chief executive
James Maxwell says: ’Any company that doesn’t have internet issues
management, either in-house or as part of their agency team, is missing
Firefly director Mark Mellor eloquently makes the point that the
internet differs from other mass media in that there is a ’lack of
censorship brought about by a low cost of entry’. A big headache for
those concerned with reputation management.
As PRCA chairman Adrian Wheeler elaborates: ’The web is different from
conventional media because there are no enforceable rules. Companies
need a mechanism for deciding whether to respond to crackpot criticism,
and, if so, to what extent. To me, this is the feature of the web world
which is most different and least soluble. The speed and reach of the
internet is a difference of degree; the absence of governance is a whole
new Pandora’s box.’
As the internet is a medium in which messages can be transformed and
attacked, there is often a greater need for issues management than with
other media. The fact that almost anybody is able to influence on-line
communities and affect reputation on the internet means that activists
or special interest groups can put their case as well as big
They are also able to interact with other stakeholders.
Moreover, the growth in the number of people buying and selling shares
through the internet - and thereby proving they consider it to be a
serious medium for transactions and information - make cyberspace
attacks on companies’ reputations dangerous to ignore. Organisations
have to be on their guard against internal as well as external
David Phillips, author of the exhaustive Hawksmere report Managing
Reputation in Cyber-space, says organisations must be watchful of
increasing ’porosity’, by which he means the growing danger of
confidential information being leaked out onto the internet by
employees. Internal measures should be taken to minimise the risk of
As the internet is a swift, fast-changing communications medium it is
sometimes forgotten that it is also a semi-permanent one. A site or
comment on-line can remain unchanged for a long time and information can
be accessed many days, weeks, months or years after it has been posted,
possibly causing major damage. Given the 24-hours-a-day,
seven-days-a-week nature of the internet, it is a medium that must be
covered comprehensively in any crisis plan. Among the options open to
organisations is to build special web sites to deal with potential
crises that can be kept out of view off-line but brought on-line as soon
as a crisis emerges.
Many PR practitioners are using their insight into the internet to
compete with consultants from other communications disciplines for
involvement in web marketing programmes. Ideally, any involvement should
begin at the earliest stage of developing and implementing marketing
programmes on the internet.
Media relations, needless to say, is as much a fundamental plank of PR
activity on the internet as with other media. Issues that must be
addressed include making it easy for journalists on tight deadlines to
find information on the internet; targeting messages to on-line media
with the same degree of rigour as happens with off-line media; and
worldwide embargo planning.
Web sites should only be built where there is a strategic or commercial
need and should be well-maintained and updated frequently in order to be
effective. Sufficient resources must, therefore, be allocated. PowerGen
corporate affairs director Esther Kaposi makes the additional point that
’there should be a corporate policy in place governing which links and
associations with other sites are acceptable’.
There was consensus among the panel that all PR practitioners should
develop basic skills in the following areas: writing e-mails;
netiquette; appreciation of technological issues for other users, such
as download times; use of search tools; and touch typing. These, says
Text 100 managing director Glen Goldsmith, are ’teachable skills that
need to be learnt’.
In addition to mastering ’e-tools’, adds Phillips, leading practitioners
should develop ’e-knowledge’ - the strategic wisdom to recognise which
tools to use and when best to use them for maximum impact and
Certainly for planning and research purposes, mastering electronic tools
is invaluable. Traditional demographics are ineffective at defining
internet audiences because, says Phillips, on-line publics are ’defined
by the issues they are interested in’. To reach them, then, requires
some insight into the nature of internet communities. As Goldsmith says:
’Audiences aren’t loyal. They only become loyal when they become a
Looking forward, one can see that the benefits of e-commerce will be
enormous. But the more business companies transact on-line, the more
their image on the internet matters. It is incumbent on the PR industry
as a whole to adopt best practice regarding this new but now firmly
entrenched medium, the growth of which continues to astonish.
Net glossaries www.netlingo.com
Sources for internet research
On-line monitoring of the internet and audience research searching news
www.dejanews.com www.altavista.com (using its Usenet option)
Search engines to identify web sites www.Yahoo.com or using ’bots’
Specialist search engines
www.cyberalert.com Knowledge management search software (helpful for
searching your own intranet or extranet) www.excalib.co.uk
Professional monitoring and research companies www.infonic.com
Internet communications and strategy are now central to PR. Therefore
every public or private sector organisation should have its own internet
Even those organisations which do not already have a web presence need
to consider the internet as part of their communications strategy, as
there is considerable traffic between ’terrestrial’ and on-line
audiences and media.
The internet is an information-driven medium, therefore PR agencies and
in-house departments must be involved at the very earliest stages in the
development of internet content and in web design. The following is a
list of guidelines to bear in mind when establishing your web
- There should be clarity in terms of client-agency relationships on
ownership of content.
- All PR consultants and in-house communications staff should have
internet access from their desks, and be encouraged to use and
familiarise themselves with the medium.
- Practitioners must keep abreast of the content posted on the most
influential web sites and those relevant to their organisation’s or
clients’ areas of operation. These may include on-line publications
and/or chat rooms.
- Up-to-date knowledge of ’e-tools’ such as browsers, search engines and
automated systems is essential. These are the hardware and software
platforms needed to allow for information gathering, information
analysis and executing appropriate PR strategies. Not only should
practitioners have the skills to use these tools but the knowledge of
how and when to use each tool to achieve an on-line communications
- The immediacy of the internet means that organisations must be
prepared to respond to issues and requests for comment/information
faster than ever before. The reputation of organisations that are slow
to respond to the demands of the cyber-world will suffer.
- Senior people in an organisation, such as board members, should be
kept up to speed with developments on, and apprised of the importance
and changing nature of, the internet.
- When using the internet, always be open and honest about who you
In an environment where anyone can establish a presence, the credibility
of an organisation or a spokesperson depends on the ability to establish
credentials and establish contact.
- Ensure that all staff are aware of the etiquette of the internet,
often referred to as netiquette.
- Appreciate how to structure and write emails. E-mails are not a form
of conversation, they are a written communication that can be monitored
or used as evidence in a court of law. With the development of
e-commerce they are also increasingly the first form of communication
with a client, and may play an important role in forming impressions of
- Bear in mind technological issues for other users when formulating
e-mails, such as how long it might take them to download something you
have sent them.
- Prepare live webcasts as meticulously as you would live appearances on
any other medium.
- PR practitioners must be involved at the earliest stage in developing
and implementing marketing programmes on the internet.
- Use on-line and off-line PR techniques to drive traffic to web
- Do not engage in ’spamming’, the sending of unsolicited commercial
- Do not indulge in ’meta-tag marketing’ (see glossary). It is contrary
to the codes of the PRCA and IPR.
Planning, Measurement and Evaluation
- E-tools should be used to define and research relevant audiences
bearing in mind that internet audiences are more easily defined by
issues of interest to them rather than more traditional demographic
- As part of your communications planning, differentiate credible,
mainstream web sites from those where content will not be taken as
seriously by your public; remember, low cost of entry makes it possible
for almost anybody to set up a web site.
- Effective post-campaign evaluation can be carried out on the
- Internet content should not be evaluated in a vacuum but as part of
the broader communications programme and in the context of content on
THE MECHANICS OF SETTING UP YOUR OWN WEB SITE
- Don’t build a web site unless there is a strategic or commercial need
- Web sites that are poorly maintained and infrequently updated are
ineffective communications platforms. Allocate sufficient resources for
management and development.
- Do not under-estimate the need for resources and infrastructure in
terms of staff and administration to support a web site. Budget these
into any strategic plan.
- Deliver on your web claims. If efficient response to e-mails is
promised this had better really be the case otherwise users will become
irritated or annoyed. The stakes are even higher with e-commerce sites
selling product on-line. If ’e-tailed’ products are not delivered when
promised, the negative impact on reputation can be high.
- Make sure the messages disseminated through your web site are
consistent with the rest of your corporate and marketing
- Always remember that the web is a global medium. Try to ensure that
site content does not conflict with what is being said in other
- Organisations should consider links to web sites related to the areas
where they are based and, where appropriate, their own microsites as a
dimension of their community relations programmes.
- Organisations with several web sites should have a policy to avoid
duplication or contradiction.
- Where appropriate, make use of the personalisation capabilities of the
web by offering different front pages to differing types of
- There should be a corporate policy covering which organisations or
types of organisation may be officially sanctioned to build links to
your web sites, and a policy for dealing with undesirable links to your
The best place to get information about the internet is on the internet
itself. There are several excellent sites devoted to explaining the
net’s sometimes arcane terminology: netlingo and webopedia for
example.However, for a swift guide to some of the most basic terms, read
Browser: Computer program for downloading and displaying web pages.
Internet Explorer and Netscape are the most widely used.
E-commerce: Commerce carried out on the internet
E-tailing: Retailing via the Internet
Extranet: Secure network linking separate organisations, such as a
client and its agencies.
HyperText: The ’clickable’ links that connect web pages.
Intranet: Internet-based internal communications system.
Meta Tag Marketing: Meta Tags are the (usually) hidden HTML words and
codes which are used by search engines to find web sites or pages. By
inserting a keyword here (company name, product or service etc), the
search engine will list your site under that keyword.
Newbies: Internet newcomers.
Search engine: Online database for locating information on the
Spam: Junk e-mail.
URL: Short for Uniform Resource Locator, the grand term for a web
Worldwide web: the easily navigable part of the internet made up of
documents comprising text, graphics and, increasingly, audio and
PLANNING THE CONTENT OF YOUR ON-LINE COMMUNICATION
- Have clear and measurable objectives. Know who your audience is and
how to reach them.
- The internet is not just another medium, it is entertainment, it is
information, it is shopping, it is a means of communication - so
deciding what you want it to be for your brand/product/company/service
Is your internet strategy extending your ’off-line’ communication
Or is on-line communication your lead vehicle?
- What are your objectives: attracting new customers, building loyalty
with existing customers, branding, making your URL famous, communicating
with on-line media?
- What will success look like? How will you measure this success? Is it
about counting clicks, like press clips, or do you need to have a more
sophisticated analysis given that no readership equivalent information
exists for the web?
- What systems will you put in place for monitoring traffic? Will you
rely on monitoring software via the host server or will you design your
site that you can data capture names and e-mail addresses of
How will you know if word of mouth has taken place?
- What is your targeting strategy? Are you targeting existing or new
- The worldwide web is not a community of millions of homogenous users
worldwide. The on-line audience cannot be defined by traditional
demographics; it is an audience that is characterised by community of
interest. Establishing what those interest areas are is key.
- Think about your target audience, and overlay this with an
understanding of your potential on-line audience.For what purpose are
people using the internet (to surf or to shop?), where are they using it
(work or home?) and how (type of operating system?).
- Understand your different audiences (women tend to use the web
differently to men, net ’newbies’ behave differently from net
- The next consideration is what type of on-line programme will be most
appropriate. How are you going to decide how to best reach the audience:
via ISPs or portals, web-sites, chat rooms, newsgroups, and e-mails.
What tactics will you employ - banner ads, blipverts, sponsorship of
- And having decided this, how are you going to test the content of your
site, promotion, sponsorship, ad or e-mail? Will it attract the
audience, if it is a site have you got a compelling URL? What pages of
your site will they access? Does it communicate your brand values and
your communications messages? Research Manning Selvage and Lee has
conducted shows that site appeal depends on both aesthetic and technical
- Finally you need to consider traffic-driving tools: how are you going
to attract visitors to your site or draw attention to your promotion,
sponsorship, ad or e-mail? Will you rely on traditional off-line PR
routes to achieve this or will you promote only on-line? If word of
mouth is key to this, how will you achieve referral? Research shows that
site loyalty is not determined by a single factor but a combination:
search engine, traditional off-line publicity - paid for and editorial -
referral, word of mouth and general surfing.
MANAGING MEDIA AND ISSUES ON-LINE
- Practitioners must take into account the nature of communication via
the internet- its immediacy and interactive nature for example - in any
- PR strategies must reflect the fact that organisations are, and will
continue to be, subjected to greater scrutiny than ever before. The
internet has made it immeasurably harder for organisations to control
what is said about their activities.
- Consistently track issues that emerge on the web and be prepared to
deal with them. The skill of on-line issues management is being able to
gauge which issues need to be managed and which will just fade away.
- Internal measures need to be taken to ensure as far as possible that
information isn’t leaked by staff on to the internet.
- Remember that the internet is a medium in which messages can be
Once a message is out, the sender loses control.
- Be careful how you enter into dialogues in on-line chat
rooms/newsgroups as consumers often resent intrusions by organisations
into their discussions.
- It is possible for almost anybody to influence on-line communities and
affect reputation. Activists or special interest groups can put their
case as well as big organisations and can interact with other
- Monitor relevant communities and newsgroups because it is in
environments such as these that consumers ask the opinions of
- The targeting of messages to on-line media should be carried out with
the same degree of rigour as happens with off-line media.
- Think about the sort of information journalists on tight deadlines
will need and make it easy for them to find it on the internet. This
includes access to spokespersons, good quality photographs that are easy
to download and simple to navigate background information.
- The global nature of the internet calls for worldwide embargo
- Provide the alternatives of high- and low-resolution images.
- Make sure you have internet crisis management procedures in place.
- Update your web crisis management strategy regularly to reflect the
rapidly changing nature of the net.
- Remember that the internet is a 24-hour medium and that a crisis can
arise at any time.
- If inaccurate, damaging or even malicious comment begins appearing in
newsgroups, act swiftly to avoid the damage spreading to other parts of
the web (the wider these untruths spread, the more likely they are to be
accepted as gospel).
- Take care, however, if responding directly to a newsgroup - you must
not appear as though you are trying to control free expression in
- It is advisable to build reserve web sites that can be brought into
play very quickly as part of a response to a crisis. Make sure the
nature of these sites and how they will be used is carefully woven into
any broader crisis strategy.