The Best Practice Campaign: PR and the internet - PR Week’s Best Practice campaign continues with a debate on managing reputation on the internet

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.

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

course, inescapable.

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.’

Tracking issues

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.

Issues management

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

a trick.’

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

this occurring.

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.

Ongoing maintainance

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

Sources for internet research

On-line monitoring of the internet and audience research searching news

groups (using its Usenet option)

Search engines to identify web sites or using ’bots’

Specialist search engines Knowledge management search software (helpful for

searching your own intranet or extranet)

Professional monitoring and research companies



Internet communications and strategy are now central to PR. Therefore

every public or private sector organisation should have its own internet

strategy guidelines.

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

that company.

- 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.

Web marketing

- 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


Do it!

- Internet content should not be evaluated in a vacuum but as part of

the broader communications programme and in the context of content on

other media.


- Don’t build a web site unless there is a strategic or commercial need

for it.

- 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



- 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 key.

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

portals etc?

- 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.


- Practitioners must take into account the nature of communication via

the internet- its immediacy and interactive nature for example - in any

on-line strategy.

- 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


Media Relations

- 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.

Crisis management

- 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

internet communities.

- 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.

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