TALKING TECH: A ROUND TABLE - Everyone agrees that technology canhelp the PR industry. But how? PRWeek gathers the experts to share theiropinions. Robin Londner listens in


Jack Bergen - President, Council of PR Firms

Connie Connors - President and CEO, Connors Communications

Barbara Dreyer - COO and co-founder, Ntercept Communications

David Hafner - Senior manager of corporate communications, Etranslate

Adam Leyland - Editor-in-chief, PRWeek

Michael Lissauer - VP of marketing, Business Wire

Robin Londner - New York reporter, PRWeek

Don Middleberg - CEO, Middleberg Euro RSCG

Andrew Peloso - CEO and co-founder, Onclave John Pearce CEO, Media Map

Mike Spataro - EVP, Weber Shandwick Interactive

Mike Smith - Independent PR consultant

David Wickenden - Senior VP and senior partner, Global Practice group

head, FH Interactive, Fleishman-Hillard

Adam Leyland: I think we all agree that technology can have a part to

play in improving PR, but the question is where, how, when, to what

extent, and how much? Let's start by identifying some specific


David Wickenden: One area that holds a lot of promise is professional

service automation. That would improve billing and create internal

tracking systems and so on.

Andrew Peloso: We've also got to plug the information gap. I read the

other day that it costs dollars 6,000 to get an account executive up to


In an industry with high turnover, a structured way to capture and help

employers "store" and "retrieve" the expertise of their employees will

cut that cost and have an obvious effect on profit and quality.

Don Middleberg: The use of Web sites, particularly in a crisis, is

exceedingly important. The press kit is regarded as a desk-cluttering

encumbrance by journalists. But now journalists are actively seeking out

the press sites.

Jack Bergen: And the Web also means that we can talk directly to the


David Wickenden: Another area that can have a significant impact on how

we go about our business is through enterprise project collaboration

software programs and extranets to enable disparate offices and clients

to work together in collaborative ways.

Mike Spataro: At Weber-Shandwick, we are breaking down technology into

bit size chunks. Technology to some people in our industry would be

having a laptop computer and remote access so they can communicate when

they are not in their offices. We've got to spoon-feed it to our network

and our clients in bits that make sense.

Connie Connors: I think the education process is a big challenge,


We're a long way off from these great enterprises, collaborative things,

when we're still begging our clients to get their Web sites together and

they're worrying about printing a brochure.

Adam Leyland: Are you saying that they want you to produce their

brochures first?

Connie Connors: I'm saying the Web is underutilized by most of our


They'll still think about all these other marketing tools when they're

getting a million people a day to their Web site and there's no front

porch where they're offering the right messages - a metaphorical mint

julep - and enticing customers to buy their services and goods.

Don Middleberg: It's not underutilized from the journalist's standpoint,

however. It's funny. When it started seven years ago, people wondered if

journalists would ever become wired, and now they're using the Internet

more than the telephone. Our ability to find a medium in which they want

to communicate is enhancing our position as practitioners.

John Pearce: You can already see that in the way stories are pitched and

the way journalists collect information. The spamming of press releases

is increasingly unpopular with the media. By contrast, in less than a

year, our SourceNet has gotten 25,000 PR users. Things like Source-Net,

ProfNet and Expert Source are the eBay of public relations. It's linking

the buyer and seller of information directly. A matchmaking process.

Michael Lissauer: Not to create a fight here, but I think many people in

PR are behind the times. With new technology you can imbed a press

release with audio, video, flash and logos. We put out something like

1,500 press releases in a day and only 5% even have a photo.

Don Middleberg: Our survey of journalists shows that among the largest

300 newspapers in the country, 80% of all photo editors want pictures

delivered digitally. So it behooves us to create Web sites for our

clients or to tell our clients that Web sites where photos are available

in digital format can be downloaded more easily.

Michael Lissauer: I think PR people are very comfortable with so-called

traditional journalism. But there's a new audience out there of dot-com

newsrooms. There's 6,000 of these sites out there, like, that

are dying for content and they're 24-7.

Adam Leyland: They are dying, period.

Michael Lissauer: Okay, so there's 5,800 sites, but the point is they're

begging for better content, and PR isn't giving them what they want.

Connie Connors: You're changing the whole skill set of the profession,

which is why it's a long way off. Your average person can't put together

a multimedia presentation.

John Pearce: PR people do not like discipline, form, structure. It's an

education issue that the universities are trying to explore as to how

much technology even a liberal arts major should take in college because

they're not coming into the business world well prepared to embrace all

this technology. So it really starts long before they get to a job.

David Wickenden: This touches on a really critical point. Historically,

PR people have viewed the IT function as a separate, distinctive thing

rather than a strategic function. PR people have to stop thinking about

it as being technology and start thinking about it as being simply

another tool kit. That's a big jump for a lot of people.

Connie Connors: Twenty-five percent of our IT department is billable

now. We've fully integrated them into the account team.

Don Middleberg: I think you've just got to look at who's running the

agencies today. With few exceptions, the large agencies have pretty much

abdicated this area. It really does have to start from the top, and if

they don't get it, if they're not committed to it, it will be very hard

to sell.

The other point to make is that - as our study of journalists shows -

journalists are not empowered either. I believe we should push the

envelope a little, but it may be a little too soon for us to make

elaborate press releases.

Barbara Dreyer: I think there are real blurred lines out there between

the public relations firm, the Web design firm and the advertising

agency. Some firms are trying to do it all, others are trying to take a

particular niche, but how can you be in PR and not be involved in the

Web? And yet as soon as you're in the Web, you're really stepping on

somebody else's toes.

Adam Leyland: I think PR has missed a major opportunity with the

Internet because of the obsession with the Web as an e-commerce

mechanism, rather than as a communications tool.

David Hafner: I agree. A lot of PR firms say they're experts on the Web,

and yet when you look at their sites, they're poorly designed, with

little or no information. As a client I would have to ask myself, "Do I

want them working on my Web site?"

John Pearce: But the design and navigation of Web sites is poor even at

large corporations. Even at Cisco's site, you had to dig five layers

down to get to details of their recent carnage. This is Cisco. And as

David said, the politics can get in the way. There can be as much as a

three-month delay because you have to go to IT to get the site updated.

One of the challenges for technology companies is to provide fast,

approachable Web site modification tools that are easy to use. But

that's useless until the content owner and the content designer are on

the same page.

Mike Smith: It is possible, as a PR person, to create enclaves within a

Web site where material can be developed without going through the IT

department. The last thing the Web/ IT guy wants is a press release.

They want to put up cool animation, graphics, some flash. They don't

want my stuff.

Mike Spataro: PR wasn't involved in the first and second generation of

corporate Web sites that were being built. But companies now want the

input of PR people to improve the site, particularly from a journalistic

standpoint, but also from an overall content standpoint.

Connie Connors: The frustration, on the interactive side, is in being

able to charge appropriately under a PR umbrella. I'm probably not the

only one who thought about creating an Acme brand and spinning out my

interactive group so I could charge more money. There's real value


John Pearce: But if you look at the firms who have done that, they've

crashed and burned. It's a moot point. We should ask everyone in the PR

industry: are you a technology company, or a content company, or a

professional services company?

David Wickenden: The distinction is irrelevant. If we think about the

Web as being not just about Web sites, but about communication with

targeted audiences across the Internet and leading audiences to content,

then we have to think about the application of technologies as a

fundamental, core way we have to learn to communicate. So, Web design,

application development, all those things are going to become core and

central to the way we think strategically about communicating.

John Pearce: But who's going to build the fundamental technologies?

Adam Leyland: If you're a Web content provider, you need to set up

what's essentially an in-house publishing operation. Of course, you'll

need technology, same as publishers need Quark and Photoshop. But the

development of the actual software, and even the templates, can be

outsourced. The idea that account executives should be dabbling in HTML

is ludicrous. They just need to know how to plunk their press releases

and pictures onto some prearranged template.

Jack Bergen: The problem here is that when you're running a business and

your source of revenue is the time of your people, you're inclined to

have people do things that are not core. The real problem we've got goes

back to the fundamental way we bill.

John Pearce: As long as there is an hours-oriented billing system

instead of a technology-oriented billing system, there will be a charge

for technology without benefit.

Mike Spataro: Let's be clear here. Our clients aren't calling and

clamoring for technology. They want a return on investment and better


Connie Connors: Clients want measurement, but they don't want to pay for


Barbara Dreyer: It's a Catch-22. You've got to wait until a client wants

it in order to justify the extra cost. What you really need is someone

to embrace it yourself and then sell it to a client.

David Wickenden: Exactly. In order for us to get at that higher level

where we should be, that consultancy level, we need certain tools to

eliminate the lower functions. The industry must incorporate that as

added value, not as an extra.

Barbara Dreyer: I've been on the client side for years, and I've

consumed a lot of PR, and let me tell you that agencies do a terrible

job at justifying themselves. They promise the earth. Then they say, "By

the way, we like to do this on a retainer basis because it's going to be

much more cost-effective for you." And when you ask how they are going

to measure themselves, they tell you not to worry about that. So, the

bills come and you don't know what the hell it's for. They might give

you a clipping book if you're lucky, but other than that, there's no

measurement criteria, and there's no indication of how many hours

someone worked on what. If you try and drill into it, the agency will

say, "Well, we don't do business that way.

That's why we're on a retainer, so we don't have to worry about that


Adam Leyland: Isn't this a problem simple billing software can


Barbara Dreyer: It's also a cultural thing. If my attorney comes, I see

every single thing - the faxes, the phone bills, every little bit of

detail. I think the client community needs to be more aggressive in

asking for accountability. When software first came out for the legal

firms, the ones who had it marketed it against the ones who didn't. It

became an actual value added, so that they could go in and say, "Look,

we're going to show you what we're doing for you." It doesn't mean we

can't work on some kind of retainer basis, but we're going to show you

what's happening as opposed to you getting this big blob. So I think

it's a case where competition would be the best way to get this adopted.

If you see your competitor doing it, you're going to have to do it


Don Middleberg: Do you know one of the biggest profit centers of the

average law firm? The mail room. They use tons of paper. They charge you

every time they put together a fax, every time they do a Xerox copy. You

get billed for that and they mark it up to God Almighty. When it comes

to PR firms, I don't think you could get away with that today. Our

billing has certainly changed dramatically. I don't know if we're

typical or atypical, but we almost have two lines of billing. One line

is for public relations services for the month. The second is for

out-of-pocket expenses. But the out-of-pocket expenses are minimal,

maybe three lines and a few hundred dollars. We insist that vendors like

the newswires bill our clients directly.

We don't mark up any out-of-pocket expenses so we don't want the

accounting hassle.

Adam Leyland: There's one final challenge that we haven't talked about,

and that's how the PR industry should go about finding the solutions

that will enhance the future for PR practitioners.

Don Middleberg: I hate to say this, Adam, but the place to start, I'd

say, is by looking at PRWeek. This is one case where good, old-fashioned

print advertising really works. And you should have a columnist like

Walter Mossberg to review technology every week.

Adam Leyland: But part of the challenge is that it's a real

investigative exercise just to find out what tools are available. I'm

passionate about this subject, but I come across solutions and suppliers

almost by chance.

I don't think enough suppliers even know about the PR industry. I'd love

to have a column every week, but we don't have enough content, the kit,

the software, to review.

Mike Spataro: We look outside the industry for technology. That is my

job. Most technology solutions are designed and pitched to the

advertising and marketing community. PR isn't big enough to appear on

the radar screen. I can't tell you how many vendors are developing great

products and not thinking about our industry, and when we point it out,

they go back to their offices and completely rewrite their business

plans. I even had one client with an e-conferencing solution, and I told

him he should be marketing this to the PR industry. His response: "I

never thought of that. And now that you mention it, we're always having

to go to meetings with our PR people, and our own product could

eliminate this."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in