A new language for software

Communications-management tools are slowly crossing international borders.

Communications-management tools are slowly crossing international borders.

Despite demand from clients and an optimistic outlook for the future, PRWeek's 2003 global report earlier this summer indicates a general slowdown among PR agencies when it comes to global business. The analysis attributes the standstill in large part to the war with Iraq, SARS, and the recession, but it also touches upon the fact that handling communications across international borders is no easy feat. Says Helen Ostrowski, CEO of Porter Novelli, "Seamlessly delivering across cultures relies on agencies having the sensitivity to understand cultural differences and to involve local regional partners in the development of the business. It's not one size fits all." Sounds of similar sentiments ring out in the PR software industry, where a truly comprehensive global solution has yet to emerge. Either through their own development or through licensing agreements, most companies have incorporated databases with international media contacts into their systems. But beyond that, few offer their services internationally on a level comparable to what's available domestically. Even Vocus, arguably the front-runner in entering the global marketplace with its own comprehensive system, is just getting the ball rolling. In 2001, the company entered a partnership with PR Newswire (PRN) to develop an international media database for which PRN supplied the data and Vocus created the technology. The result, Online Media Atlas, is sold separately by PRN, and is incorporated into Vocus Public Relations (VPR), the company's signature application. (Vocus uses data from Bacon's and Bulldog for its US media contacts). In March 2002, Vocus continued the global expansion of its offerings when it launched international-language versions of VPR. The product is currently available in international English, French, German, and Spanish, in addition to standard English. The user interface changes, depending on the preferred language, and users can also select the language in which they want summary reports of campaign results or media clippings to appear. But the application does not have language-translation capabilities built in that allow team members to convert clips from one language to another. Internationally, Vocus has sales offices in the UK, France, and Asia- Pacific, as well as hired consultants that train companies that adopt the software. Along with the training, Vocus provides customized implementation of VPR for its international customers. Some functions of the software are adaptable, depending on the country. In France, for example, e-mailing press releases is less popular than it is in other parts of the world, so the system can be set up to issue news via regular letters. Similarly, in the UK, users don't perform searches by city and state, so VPR is implemented there to enable users to conduct searches by town. "The work our trainers do is not always based on the technology, but on managing implementation across countries. They [the trainers] are assigned to an entire company so that cultural issues can be worked out if necessary," explains Kay Bransford, VP of marketing for Vocus. Coordination breeds consistency Discovery Networks International, a global organization under which 14 television brands including the Discovery Channel reside, recently selected VPR as its communications-management tool. Petra Buchanan, VP of communications for the company, says Discovery decided on Vocus after considering several other options because of the TV company's need to coordinate automation around the world. She admits, however, "Vocus still has a ways to go. Buchanan explains that VPR "creates a great backbone by allowing us to streamline the way we work with agencies and avoid stepping on each other's toes." However, despite Vocus' recently launched multiple-language capabilities, "We use the system almost entirely in English. The rigor is not there in foreign language yet." It's clear that there is a growing need within corporations for seamless communications management across international lines, and that Vocus' jump on global expansion has paid off. Novartis, for example, ultimately went with Vocus after months of undergoing an extensive search for the appropriate account-management system. Kate King, associate director of communications for the Swiss company, says VPR's global capabilities were "absolutely a factor" in the final decision. The demand for integrated global systems, however, among PR agencies - the main audience that the majority of these products were originally intended for - has not been as great. "You don't build something and then hope the need is going to be there," tells Joe Bernardo, president of Bacon's Information. "We see the cross-country demand beginning to grow, but it's just not what is driving business right now. Whatever there is largely comes from the big corporates." Bacon's MediaSource solution is a US-based product, available only in English. The company, which is owned by Observer Group AB, caters to clients with global needs by directing them to the parent company's international organizations. MediaDisk Online, for example, is the European equivalent to MediaSource, but Waymaker, another Observer company, makes it. All Observer companies use a web-based system called International Ordering Point that allows salespeople to place orders for services in countries outside their own. Bacon's is currently involved in formal discussions to incorporate Waymaker's media contact database into MediaSource, but beyond that, according to Bernardo, "Most needs for globalization at this point can be satisfied with access to different resources." MediaMap, another main player in the software sector, offers international media databases that cover Western Europe, and is also presently in talks with an international information provider to expand that content to cover more than 70 countries. However, the company's main application, Performa, currently does not have multiple language capabilities, and no concerted sales efforts have been mounted outside of the US. Reid Carr, president and strategy director for Red Door Interactive, believes that the lack of demand among agencies for PR automation systems lies in the reactive nature of the industry. He explains, "Until a press release goes out at the wrong time, or a reporter gets called twice, people don't realize the value of these tools. ROI is very difficult to prove until a problem actually comes up that could have been solved or prevented by adopting these technologies." Ironically, this sector that is built around demonstrating ROI for dollars spent on PR has struggled in certain areas to convince senior management of its own value. Red Door, which makes a press-release-management product called Interactive Press Center, tries to overcome this challenge by showing prospective clients the implications of potential mistakes. "We throw their daily tasks up on a wall," tells Carr, "and force them to determine what problems might come up. We try and get them to take the initiative towards saying, 'How can I take my agency towards e-business?'" According to Carr, that - getting PR people to change their behavior and attitudes towards how they manage accounts - is the biggest issue behind why the PR software sector has not penetrated the global marketplace with much force. "There has not been enough pull from PR agencies realizing the internet is as strong a tool as it is," believes Carr. "The people in the decision-making positions at agencies are not the ones that grew up with these technologies, so the software companies are left marketing their products to the IT people." Hence, the lack of demand for - and in some cases, even the knowledge of - the systems. The lack of familiarity with using such technological platforms makes adopting them a significant undertaking, even domestically. Never mind trying to coordinate the effort so that everyone around the globe is on the same page. Says Buchanan, "It takes a big level of advocacy to get everyone on board with a system like this. It changes the way people work because you no longer have that same sense of autonomy. You are logging in your work everyday." It took Discovery Networks International five months to fully implement VPR into its workflow. Vocus provided trainers to help employees adjust, but a senior internal staff person was also assigned to make sure the system was customized appropriately for the company's needs. Buchanan calls the set-up process "a laborious project." Internal solutions Some agencies have responded to this worrisome aspect of implementing PR software systems across global lines by developing their own internal solutions. Weber Shandwick's version is called WeberWorks, a web-based system that is currently being used by 50% of WS' clients. Ketchum has a comparable internal application, MediaFocus, as does Edelman. Steve O'Keeffe, president of O'Keeffe & Company, even went so far as to start his own PR automation company, PRSourceCode. Andrew Eberle, SVP of advanced applications for WS, says the agency developed WeberWorks in large part because of the challenges involved in getting professionals to change their habits in the workplace. Rather than viewing the tools as foreign products that are going to take a long time to get accustomed to, clients are more receptive to the idea when "our entire account team is already comfortable using it," according to Eberle. He adds, "A lot of times, clients look to us to find them a solution because they don't want to go through the extensive evaluation process" involved in selecting an application. Despite the apparent slow pace at which PR automation tools seem to be crossing borders, the commonly held belief is that things are moving in that direction. The increasingly prevalent need for consistent worldwide messages, combined with more technologically savvy professionals moving into senior management roles, will demand that the solutions for executing strategically sound communications programs keep up.

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