Extranets: Keeping account teams on the same page

An extranet can be a vital conduit of communication between an agency's account team and its client contacts. Christie Casalino looks at best practices

An extranet can be a vital conduit of communication between an agency's account team and its client contacts. Christie Casalino looks at best practices

A breakdown in communication is a severe blight on any relationship, and those between employees are no exception. So it's no mystery why so many PR firms use intranets to help communications flow seamlessly.

"A key component of intranets is about engaging employees," says Warren Engal, a senior consultant at Porter Novelli.

"To do that, it's most important to be completely transparent in terms of the internal information you share."

Much of this information is proprietary to the organization. But in order for account teams to be able to function at the highest possible level, many need a real-time communications platform with their counterparts on the client side. "That's why we work very closely with our clients to develop extranets, because clearly there is an important role for collaboration to play in the client-agency relationship," Engal adds.

For a firm, an extranet can pick up where an intranet leaves off. In addition to boosting communication between staffers, clients are no longer left in the dark about an account's progress.

But with all the tech advances, questions on many topics will arise, such as what facts determine the need for an extranet, will the service be cost-efficient, who should have access to the information, and what should be included.

Andy Getsey, cofounder of Atomic Public Relations, says there was no questioning the creation of an extranet when he started the firm five years ago.

"We designed this right from the start, before even taking on a single employer or client," says Getsey of Atomic's extranet structure. "All of our clients want to work this way; it's partially why they choose us."

Based on information shared by the company's intranet, its extranet hosts such tools as real-time news tracking, awards and editorial calendars, workgroup calendars, and remote presentation software.

Getsey adds that the shared information removes barriers usually set by time constraints. "If a client has a question on Sunday [about] whether we reached a journalist on a Friday, they can answer those questions on their own easily."

But Getsey advises researching your clients' needs before creating the extranet. If they're interested in a collaborative effort, posting drafts might be acceptable, while others might wish to only use it for disseminating information - in which case everything posted must be proofed, with read-only status.

Matthew Wahn, a senior account supervisor with Hill & Knowlton, suggests making sure that an extranet will be fully utilized by promoting its features to the client.

"It's cost-effective when people use it. If you invest in a system and you're not getting day-to-day involvement, like any technology investment, you haven't spent your money wisely."

In a business climate focused on instant results, it seems a given that global partners would be obvious candidates to receive the highest return on investment from an extranet. Josef Blumenfeld, founder of Tradewind Strategies, a firm specializing in the management of global PR programs, became an advocate of extranets after working on the Philips Electronics account at Brodeur Worldwide.

"The hardest thing with a client like that is coordinating the global calendar when you have dozens of launch activities, review cycles, and approval processes going on at the same time," explains Blumenfeld. "To have the same information at everyone's fingertips is a valuable tool."

When GCI Group pitched for the global Dell account three years ago, the agency leveraged its extranet capabilities, which helped win the global business. Offering an extranet would support a 24-hour work cycle, which is integral when communicating across different time zones. "It was part of the initial pitch that we would establish an extranet through which the client and firm could access and share information," says Gretel Perera, Latin America regional manager, GCI Group. "It's been something that the client and agency have now been using globally for the past three years."

"We definitely consider our Worldwide Resource Center extranet as a key tool for our daily job," notes Paulina Lopez, PR manager for Dell Mexico and Colombia. "This should be a best practice for both clients and agencies, as it saves plenty of time and increases productivity."

For larger clients, the account can sometimes outgrow an agency's in-house technical capabilities. In those instances, investing in an extranet off-site to host the server might be the most efficient option.

Phil Nardone, president of PAN Communications, uses his client PixelMedia's extranet services with other accounts. "The beauty of the tool is that we get away from e-mailing large documents and combing through hundreds of e-mails to find what's in draft or final release," says PixelMedia's cofounder and CEO, Thomas Obrey.

Another external service called Internet Archives, from Fluency Media, has recently seen a rise in the amount of PR and marketing firms utilizing the program, which originally was used by consumer-based companies like Tropicana and Quiznos. Although the price tag can be less than $100 a month, smaller firms might still pause because of cost issues.

But tech advances have created alternatives to standard off-site extranets. Companies like Five Across offer free products that fulfill a firm's basic needs. Its collaboration service, InterComm, allows multiple groups to share files and view the same information from RSS feeds, all the while taking part in group instant messaging. Extra features can be added, including file-revision control. When faced with a limited staff and no internal IT department, many boutique agencies might want such services that allow complete content control on-site.

It's important to keep in mind how the service will affect both internal and external relationships. "Culturally you attract people that like to collaborate because everyone can see what you're doing," says Getsey. "For us, it promotes a hearty relationship where our clients absolutely trust what we're doing because they can see it. If we say something is going to be available at a certain time, they can just go to their site and look for it."

Technique tips

Do research what the client expects from the extranet before creating one

Do give all team members access to posted information

Do stay on deadline, as all information is viewed in real-time

Don't dismiss creating an extranet in-house through an online service

Don't give all members of the team the ability to make changes to documents

Don't forget to brief the client on how to utilize the extranet

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