Who's master of the Web?: Public relations and advertising are embroiled in a battle to control the content of client Internet sites Rebecca Flass polls advocates from the two camps.

Advertising professionals don't want to write press releases and PR pros don't want to develop ad campaigns. But ask who should develop Webcontent and the arguing begins.

Advertising professionals don't want to write press releases and PR pros don't want to develop ad campaigns. But ask who should develop Web content and the arguing begins.

As a relatively new medium, the Web has blurred the lines between PR and advertising. While web site development in its infancy often fell upon IT professionals who understood the complexities of the Web, it became apparent that information technology professionals didn't understand branding issues, how to sell on the Internet or how to position a company.

As consumers adopted the Internet as a communications tool, PR professionals saw the advantages of a 24-hour communications channel that would allow them to communicate with consumers, the media, and the financial community, while advertising pros saw an opportunity to sell products and services.

Let the battle begin.

The advertising position

Kevin Wassong, senior partner/director of digital communication at J. Walter Thompson in New York, believes advertising agencies should be responsible for developing web site content because, he claims, they understand brands.

'Essentially, our role has been to be stewards of brands and the development of brands,' says Wassong. 'Web communication is an extension of the brand today, and when you look at the development of the brand for the client, it's a holistic experience. We are absolutely critical to creating a brand experience online.'

Ted Pulton, executive vice president at Gotham in New York, agrees that advertising is best suited to control the Web. 'There are a number of PR agencies that have Web design and Web developers as part of their capabilities, but advertising agencies have the core competencies of branding and understanding the consumer,' says Pulton. 'Brands are built today in an offline world, through voice, attitude and tellings?all things that represent the brand experience. Advertising companies are the keepers of the brand.'

However, Kevin Olivieri, director of online marketing for Hill Holliday Interactive in Boston, says potential clients are still skeptical of an advertising agency's ability to develop a web site.

'I think advertising agencies have a problem with trying to come across as providing strategy,' says Olivieri, but he adds: 'PR agencies are in a similar boat, although they can react a lot more quickly to provide a Web-based communications tool and achieve awareness of their client's business.'

More than e-commerce

At the heart of this argument is the purpose of the web itself. Is it an e-commerce tool, designed to ship product? Or is it a communications tool in a broader sense, embracing everything from e-commerce to crisis to IR to community relations and even employee relations?

Web sites created by advertisers for the sole purpose of selling packaged goods may be destined for failure, according to a 1997 Forrester Research report on 'Branding on the Web.' The report concludes: 'Ambitious destination sites mounted by packaged goods advertisers will be lucky to get one unique visitor for every dollars 5 they cost. Managers of sites like Lifesavers' candystand.com and Campbell Soup's Campbell's Community will wonder how they ever got into the content business. When they get out, they'll take the bulk of their Web-branding budgets with them.' What the report is saying, in effect, is that sites designed with the sole purpose of being a sales tool are unlikely to succeed.

Olivieri believes the Web is critical for communicating with investors.

'I definitely think that (IR information) should be on every site,' says Olivieri. 'It's very easy to get it up there, but it shouldn't be the only thing.' However, he rejects the notion that PR pros are therefore the natural service providers.

'Public relations is definitely critical to brand-building, but should they be the ones developing what the actual Web experience is?' asks Wassong.

'I don't think so. Should they be responsible for disseminating information and coming up with key messages? Yes.'

What PR can do

Most PR agencies polled weren't willing to claim that they alone should be responsible for web site content and development. Instead, many touted the values of a shared approach that would allow for the strengths of both sides.

'The very fact that there is a debate about placing communicators on one side and marketers on the other shows how far we have to go,' says Scott MacIver, vice president, interactive communications for Weber Public Relations Worldwide (Boston).

'It's all about collaboration and consensus-building and partnering across integrated marketing in terms of advertising, public relations and direct mail. There's no way to succeed without a comprehensive, integrated approach.'

Jason Teitler, VP and director of interactive marketing for Porter Novelli in New York, says sites should be developed by marketing-based PR professionals who can address all the audiences and strategies, including advertising, promotion and direct mail.

That said, there is no doubt that the Internet was made for PR with its targeted audiences.

'The Internet is to public relations practitioners what broadcast was to advertising,' says MacIver. 'Because we adopted the Web so early, we understand the community building and relationship building that defines how the Web works.'

Online pressrooms, crisis sites and press events are reducing costs, improving PR program efficiency and allowing for immediate response. This flexibility is what has enabled Microsoft to post its views on the government's antitrust trial, and to even add a message to the Internet site visited by millions of people updating their copies of Windows, encouraging them to write to Congress about the case.

Look to build brands

While advertising pros claim they are the keepers of the brand, MacIver disagrees. 'Public relations is now seen as one of the great brand-building tools, versus advertising, which is a brand-sustaining tool,' says MacIver.

'For us, the Internet and the World Wide Web became the communication channel that embraced constituent relations, community development and the audience of one.'

Even when selling is a function of the site, the type of product being sold may dictate whether content is more PR-focused or advertising-focused.

PR pros also claim advertising agencies are more concerned with fancy graphics than with information. Graphics not only take longer to download, but end up costing the client more money. Ad agencies we spoke to said prices typically started at dollars 50,000-dollars 100,000 up to dollars 10 million; while PR firms quoted as little as dollars 5,000 up to dollars 500,000 per site.

PR pros also say advertising agencies overlook the media and potential company partners when developing sites.

'Advertising sites are almost looked at as an extension of the 30-second spot,' says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman PR Worldwide in New York. 'They miss the value of corporate reputation and relationship building. They're just about the transaction.'

Bill McLaughlin, executive vice president of Lois Paul & Partners in Burlington, MA, says a web site should contain content, community and goods or services, but Edelman disagrees that a site must contain all three things.

'I divide the Web into commerce and content,' says Edelman. 'Everybody talks about how those streams are linked, but I don't believe that. There is some type of non-selling discourse going on the Web. If the only time people wanted to surf was to buy something, I would buy in on the idea that advertising rules.'

But even if that were the case, Edelman also says that sites designed to sell should include some information to draw consumers in.

'Even Amazon.com and barnesandnoble. com know that to get people interested in a book, you've got to also have reviews and readings by authors to make you feel like a player,' says Edelman. 'Something purely promotional that doesn't allow people to engage in a dialogue, I don't see as working too well. A smart marketer will say, 'What can I cover in PR, which is all this solid stuff, and still get branding with advertising?''

PR involvement increases

According to a December 1998 Counselors Academy telephone survey of 62 firms nationwide on 'PR on the Internet,' 8% of agencies said they have never been involved in Web development on behalf of clients, 22% only become involved if a client asks, 20% said they write copy and provide it to developers, 14% work with a single developer, 18% work with multiple developers, 10% provide all development services and 8% have a special Web division.

However, most expect their involvement to increase within the next year. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed expect to serve 51-75% of their client base with interactive Web development services (up from 25% of agencies today), while more than half said they expect to provide Web services to 76-100% of their client base, up from 25%.

In addition to ad agencies, Porter Novelli's Teitler points out that PR agencies are also competing with consulting firms, such as Ernst & Young, for control of the Internet.

'The consulting field feels they're well-positioned as well,' says Teitler.

'They consult on everything else. It's just a different vehicle and a different delivery message.'

Mastery is up for grabs

Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age, says neither PR nor advertising has yet proved to be master of the Web. 'Both PR and advertising missed the boat,' says Donaton. 'Editors preferred this aggressive new media, and PR agencies had the real opportunity to jump in five years ago and really say more, but they didn't. They were usurped by companies such as Modem Media and Organic.'

This is happening because advertising companies try to make the Internet behave like television, while PR agencies see only broad communications opportunities, according to Kathy Biro, CEO of Strategic Interactive Growth (SIG), the Boston sister company of Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, 'We say it's about e-commerce and alternative distribution, broader business-to-business consulting, channel marketing and optimizing strategy, systems integration, site-building and online and offline marketing - it's a broad set of needs that the major clients require,' says Biro.

Karen Carbonnet, director of marketing for Organic in San Francisco, says companies like Organic are suited to help clients develop a Web presence because they create a business plan, conduct research to obtain third-party data and build and promote sites.

According to Stovin Hayter, editor of Internet marketing magazine Revolution, and PRWeek columnist, marketing and PR don't conflict and it doesn't have to be either/or, because companies have to do both. 'You can have a central corporate site that's a press center or investor relations tool, but what most corporate web sites come down to is that they're investor relations and public relations focused, then there are separate sites that focus on the product, brand and direct selling,' says Hayter. 'The Web has revolutionized not just how a company communicates, but how it operates.'


The PR-friendly site www.cisco.com

Richard Edelman president and CEO of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide (New York)

What's Good 'Basically, they've got a pretty terrific thing. There's a good amount of corporate information, keynote presentations from their CEO and recent acquisitions and strategic alliances. There's a nice section on people at Cisco and the Foundation piece was very useful, with quite good specifications on what they're seeking from grant applicants.

There's also quite a bit of practical stuff, like supplier enrollment.

I liked the fact that they focused on community development and people, too. I definitely thought of them as good guys. From the perspective of Wall Street, the community, charity and employees, it's a first-class site, with whiz-bang stuff like the multi-media gallery. It's definitely an A.'

What's Bad 'I didn't notice if it allowed direct chat with the CEO.'

Jeff Streeper Associate Creative Director and SVP, Doremus (New York)

What's Good 'It's got all the information you need on the home page. It's a fairly well-done site and is extremely easy to navigate.'

What's Bad 'It's not very attractive. It seems like a strange color palette and it doesn't match their logo. They also seem to have four different, competing logos: there's the 'Cisco Powered Network' logo, the 'Cisco Networks' logo, the 'Cisco Systems' logo and the 'Cisco Connection Online' logo. From a brand perspective, it doesn't have a clear direction.

There also doesn't seem to be any motivation to get you into any of the areas. You have to know what you're going for, but with Cisco, you probably should already know. There's not a whole lot of information about what the company is, just what they do; there's no point of view about how they position themselves in the market. Their advertising is very much about how they're global and they seem to take a leadership position, but that doesn't come across here. It's all information and very little sales. It could be more user-friendly in terms of the language they use.'

The ad friendly site www.saturn.com

Richard Edelman president and CEO of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide (New York)

What's Good 'It's easy to get around.'

What's Bad 'It's a very inferior site. It looks like a first generation site from two years ago. With eight triggers on the home page, only one establishes anything beyond commerce. It asks about price and what type of car you want, but it doesn't take advantage of the brand heritage at all. It tries to have a family feel with the letters, but the quantity is very disappointing. Even the 'Homecoming' thing lacks in building a connection.

It almost looks like a press kit in its worst iteration and doesn't have the fizz it should have. I wouldn't go back.'

Jeff Streeper Associate Creative Director and SVP, Doremus (New York)

What's Good'It loaded a lot faster, which is good. And it has a little commercial at the beginning of it! It's very engaging?it seems like you're actively participating in something. From the beginning, you get their point of view about the brand. All the words they use are user-friendly.

It says, 'Welcome Home. Saturn Home' - a funny play on words for their home site. Saturn is a very design-driven company and the whole site design is much more 'designed.' It seems to have all the stuff you'd possibly want.'

What's Bad 'When you click on the L-Series Sedan, they're not showing the whole car, which is a little annoying.'

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