Dot.com fever may be on the wane, but, as companies become more
sceptical of the commercial benefits to be accrued in the online
environment, the importance of the internet as an information medium
continues to grow.
At the forthcoming PRWeek reputation.com conference on 3 May, delegates
will hear how the internet has infiltrated every area of PR activity,
from marketing communications to investor relations and public affairs
But they will also hear that, although theoretically the PR industry may
have taken on board the dynamics of the online environment, in reality
the practice of online PR is still in its infancy.
In fact, with a few notable exceptions, PR practitioners working in both
consultancy and in-house have, to date, been continually outstripped by
pressure groups and direct-action experts, such as reputation.com
speakers PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who have
more successfully engaged with global issues-based communities.
They have also done little to defend companies against the very real
danger posed by hackers and disgruntled consumers, who, armed with a
little technical know-how, can wreak havoc with a company's
Even the Government has recently fallen foul of hackers - last month
they defaced several top government websites. Govtalk.gov.uk, the site
for intergovernmental communication, for example, was labelled with the
graphic 'owned by poizon.box'. Other recent targets include IBM, the
World Economic Forum and Microsoft.
Despite the rapid rise of a number of online hot shops such as Midnight
Communications (PRWeek's Small Agency of the Year 2000), many in the
agency world are still formulating their internet strategies and trying
to decide the best way to structure their internet offerings. Some
agencies have decided that the best approach initially is to set up
specialist online divisions, but there is a growing move towards
developing online skills within practice areas.
Global operators such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller have
established globally-operating online divisions, staffed with experts
who then disseminate online expertise to practice areas. Core tasks at
H&K include developing software, such as the monitoring package Radar,
building online press offices and auditing clients' existing websites.
'The importance of the netcoms division is that they are consultants at
a high level charged with supporting practice teams and helping them
learn about trends in online PR,' explains Hill & Knowlton UK deputy
chairman Andy Laurence.
'At Edelman, our approach is to integrate the online expertise within
the practice teams,' says Chris Dickens, Edelman Interactive Solutions
(EIS) managing director. EIS executives sit within practice teams and
'are involved in every aspect of a communication campaign with the
practice teams, from initial brainstorming to execution, with the
ability to migrate across sectors,' adds Dickens.
Earlier this year, Countrywide Porter Novelli (CPN) acquired technology
agency Fodor Wyllie, giving it a 'core of expertise' in online PR.
According to director of interactive Steve Marinker, Fodor Wyllie is
sharing its expertise across CPN practice areas through workshops,
training sessions and general networking, but he insists that it will
not be solely responsible for online strategy.
B-M has also been developing online expertise in practice areas. 'In the
healthcare practice, for example, there are two people who specialise in
online PR,' says practice MD Jonathan Hargreaves.'
At Edelman, EIS executives play a key role in online campaigns within
practice areas. 'A designated senior EIS executive works alongside the
main account director to get a full understanding of the communication
objectives and strategy. Taking this, EIS then creates the online brand
strategy as a complementary part of the overarching communication
strategy,' explains Dickens.
Creating the online brand strategy becomes more of a challenge when an
agency works for a client across several practice areas. H&K uses its
central planning process, Compass, to set the strategy. 'We would have a
director in charge of the client relationship and a core team, and bring
in other experts from other parts of the company according to what was
needed,' says Laurence.
Dickens acknowledges that managing reputation online across practice
areas is not easy. 'You have to have a centrally agreed and signed off
communications strategy at the outset,' he says. 'It takes a lot of
account co-ordination and internal communication.'
Edelman is currently handling an account across both practice teams and
countries, and is making wide use of a project management extranet on
which documents can be shared and signed off to help with account
'The starting point for managing reputation online is to take an
integrated approach between on and offline. The overall communications
strategy should be at the heart of that ... while taking into account
the ability to engage stakeholders in a two-way relationship,' says
Whereas many agencies are setting up specialist online arms, some
in-house PR departments have decided that this is unnecessary. 'We don't
have a specialist online PR division,' says Virgin brand development and
corporate affairs director Will Whitehorn. 'We don't delineate between
online PR and any other PR. It's just another distribution outlet.'
One of the explanations for Whitehorn's stance may be that Virgin owns
several online businesses and has developed online expertise
Tesco.com corporate affairs manager David Sawday has similar sentiments
to Whitehorn. 'Existing PR skills are the same as those you need for
online PR. Anyone who regards online as separate from existing media is
thinking in the wrong way.'
Whitehorn insists that all PR practitioners should have online skills:
'If you work in PR and you're not au fait with the world of the internet
then you're failing yourself as an individual.'
The distinction between online and offline PR may peter out within the
next few years. The ways in which reputation is managed online are also
sure to change. 'There are clearly opportunities to communicate in
different ways using tools such as online press offices. PR is going to
become more about driving demand for information rather than pushing
it,' says Laurence.
Marinker believes the internet will be used in more sophisticated
'Companies and brands will slowly start to enable web-based communities
rather than simply use the internet to publish their brochures,' he
But inevitably, advances in technology will have a big effect on the way
reputation is managed. 'Audio-visual communication will become really
important,' says Hargreaves. 'Companies will proactively manage their
reputations through effectively broadcasting to stakeholders. We're
already seeing this in investor relations with webcasting to announce
results, and it could be done in a number of different areas around
HOW TO HANDLE INVESTOR RELATIONS ONLINE
The days of releasing crucial financial information by having a word
with some investors and journalists are becoming a faint memory. The
growing importance of private investors means immediate simultaneous
disclosure is crucial.
The huge range of people with whom to communicate - analysts, fund
managers, employees, shareholders, government agencies and journalists -
means increasingly sophisticated communication is needed. All these
needs are being fed by a number of online options for IR experts.
The range of tools available varies from straightforward websites to
Merchant - the Brunswick sister company that advises on visual
communications, such as annual reports, corporate identity and the
internet - carried out research last autumn that revealed startling
omissions from the websites of some of the top 100 UK companies. Only 51
per cent clearly stated their market position and 45 per cent talked in
detail about their growth prospects. These are both pieces of
information without which fund managers would not be able to value
Merchant MD Robert Moser, who will outline the research at
reputation.com, says: 'Some companies still don't understand what they
should be aiming at. Two or three years ago this wasn't on people's
Merchant compiled research from city organisations, fund managers and
analysts, and produced the Merchant Benchmark, a checklist of 85 types
of information that should be included on a website. This helps a buyer
value the company and includes forward-looking information, contact
information, news, policies, shareholder information, third party
comment and company managers' CVs.
Marconi director of business communications Charlie Foreman claims to
have one of the best websites around, but other companies admit they
have only just seen the light. Foreman says: 'The information, ease of
use, intuitive power, real-time nature and active management give you
more than just a good snapshot.' Marconi also streams its results
Halifax has just completed a new group site, having acknowledged that
its previous site did not serve investors as well as it might. General
manager (IR) Charles Wycks says it now includes strategy, management
presentations, detail about investment opportunities, previous accounts,
FAQs and shareholder details. It offers shareholders closer
communication with the top brass and will offer e-mailed responses to
questions direct from the CEO where possible.
'We are prepared to be as interactive as our shareholders would want us
to be,' says Wycks. He adds that it is a useful way of beginning and
maintaining a dialogue with international investors.
According to Mark Hill, director of investor relations consultancy The
IR Group, e-mailed information alerts are gaining popularity and will
eventually become a powerful relationship marketing tool. He also
advises clients to use teleconferencing for results presentations.
But he warns of the reputational moments that can be damaged when
analysts, journalists and smaller investors are all listening in on the
Inflammatory questions from an analyst can alert journalists to a
headline grabber, he warns. 'It's very easy to be a bear on that stock.
When there's blood in the water, sharks swim around and take chunks. Do
you really want to have all those people listening in at that time?'
Webcasting is not worth the money yet, he says. But he predicts that
online information will eventually replace annual reports - a view not
shared by many of his contemporaries.
In the meantime, however, much money will be spent on in- and ex-house
IR as companies feel their way around the online landscape.
HOW TO HANDLE PUBLIC AFFAIRS ONLINE
When it comes to effective use of the internet in public affairs, it is
pressure groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth that have
led the way. 'Building coalitions via the web - through websites, chat
rooms and e-mail - is something that until recently has been primarily
dominated by pressure groups and activists as a means of galvanising
opposition. But that is now changing,' claims Golin/Harris Ludgate
divisional director Justin McLaren.
A growing number of companies are now setting up issue-focused websites
to enable them to deal efficiently and effectively with specific issues
affecting their business, and often to counter the arguments of pressure
groups. 'A virtual media centre gives a specific URL for the press
interested in one particular issue, separate from the existing corporate
website. We can use these for webcasts, online briefings and for
downloading pictures and information,' says McLaren.
APCO associate director Graham Kendall also advocates issue-based
websites and believes more companies should have them. 'It's surprising
how many blue-chip companies don't have an area on their website that
addresses current issues,' he says.
Kendall finds it is companies in contentious sectors that are leading
the way in developing issue-focused sites. 'We're doing a lot of work in
this area for pharmaceutical companies, and there's also a lot of scope
in other environmentally sensitive areas.'
PA practitioners are continually searching for ways to proactively
advance their messages to the media and the wider stakeholder community.
McLaren was press secretary to Steve Norris during the London mayoral
election last year. 'Not only were there countless requests for online
questionnaires to be filled in, we also received an endless stream of
invitations to webcasts and chat rooms,' says McLaren. He says it is
difficult to know how effective these were, but thinks exposure on sites
such as Tubehell.com and Guardian Unlimited was useful. 'Likewise we
were able to generate publicity for ourselves through the results of
independent online polls that were conducted,' he adds.
McLaren believes the key to success is 'using the language, tone and
informality of the web to put your message across - something that is
sometimes difficult for more traditional practitioners to
PA practitioners are also increasingly using the web for research. 'The
first thing to do when an issue comes up is to go to the web to do
research,' says Kendall. APCO has developed software called Digital
Vigilance that is able to sift through the net in an intelligent way to
'Using Digital Vigilance enables us to give immediate and timely
feedback to clients,' says Kendall.
Hill & Knowlton public and corporate affairs MD Andy Pharaoh believes
that there has been a fundamental change in PA thanks to the
'The idea of PA as taking information and spraying it out again is
really changing,' he says. 'PA has to be a lot more value-added. It's
now much more about interpreting and using information.'
With information readily available online through sites such as Hansard
and the new Number 10 site (www.number-10.gov.uk), PA practitioners are
having to look further afield for useful information for their
'We're using tools to enable us to research more widely, not just for
what MPs are saying but also what people who influence them are saying,'
With a general election in the offing, Pharaoh thinks the web will
become increasingly important in PA: 'This is not going to be an
internet election, but the next one could be.'
REPUTATION.COM COMING SOON
The latest developments in online PR will be discussed and debated at
Reputation.com at the Millennium Hotel in London on 3 May. The one-day
conference provides the opportunity to hear from some of the leading
practitioners in online PR from both the agency and in-house sectors.In
his keynote address, Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman will
examine what PR lessons can be learnt from the dot.com blow-out of the
past year and the 'indecent' rush to build brands online.
A range of speakers, representing some of the UK's leading brands, will
discuss the challenge of reputation and brand management in the online
Froydis Cameron of Shell's sustainable development group, and John
Williams, Fishburn Hedges chairman, will reveal the tactics behind
Shell's award-winning corporate reputation programme, which used the
internet to engender dialogue and debate about the company's values and
The threats and opportunities presented by the internet will be explored
by a range of speakers. Cyveillance International MD Andrew Muir will
demonstrate why companies must proactively manage their brands on the
net. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) European
campaigns co-ordinator Toni Vernelli will show how activists are using
the web to build communities of interest, while the emerging corporate
strategies for dealing with protest websites will be examined by ERM
director of corporate advisory services Dr Tom Woollard.
A variety of case studies will show how successful online brands are
using online PR to build their reputations. Tesco.com corporate affairs
manager David Sawday will look at the challenges of bringing together
on- and offline PR. Amazon.co.uk European PR director Christina Smedley
will explain the importance of PR to the company's business, and Virgin
brand development and corporate affairs director Will Whitehorn will
reveal how Virgin manages its reputation online.
Two of the most active areas for online PR will also be discussed.
Merchant MD Robert Moser will look at how top European companies are
using the internet to communicate with investors, while
PoliticsDirect.com director David Beamer will examine the increasing use
of the web in public affairs campaigning.
The Reputation.com conference will take place on Thursday 3 May at the
Millennium Hotel, London. For further information or to make a booking
please look at the conferences website www.haymarketconferences.com or
telephone 020 8267 4011.