10th anniversary: digital analysis

In their nascent phase only 10 years ago, online tactics now shape the future of the PR industry

When PRWeek first began publishing in 1998, the digital environment was still in its nascent phase. Only a core group of PR pros truly understood how online communications would revolutionize the industry. In 2008, even the most traditional firm is touting its digital guru, in-house departments are racing to understand the environment, and the industry has an expectation that social media will be its greatest shot to increase the stature of the PR function. What a difference a decade makes.

Today, we think about digital communications as blogging, viral videos, social networks, and virtual worlds. But the movement began in the early 1990s, using less sophisticated tools.

“[Enthusiasts] were populating Yahoo groups, as well as creating their own Web sites and really using homegrown tools like Fusion,” says Brian Solis, principal at FutureWorks and PR 2.0 blogger, who had used the platform to market some of the first mainstream digital cameras.

Larry Weber, founder and chairman of W2 Group, was, at the time, chairman and CEO of The Weber Group (which eventually merged with Shandwick and BSMG). In the late '90s, he started allocating budget to teach employees about things like e-communities and organic search. Agencies and companies had started to use the Web to reach core consumers and media.

He tells PRWeek, “I didn't understand the interactivity part of that until probably the late '90s, when I started to see search engines rise, started to see eBay and Amazon, and [I began to] understand this is also going to be a conversation.”

Much of digital communications today revolves around blogging, which gave consumers a powerful voice through simply set-up, easy-to-use publishing software. While blogging's history has many unofficial start dates, the launch of LiveJournal and Blogger in 1999 accelerated the number of bloggers.

Donna Sokolsky, founder and senior MD at Spark PR, attributes the rise of digital's importance to the post-9/11 economic downturn. Ad spending was down and influential reporters who were laid off turned to blogging, she says, lending it greater credibility. Until then, she adds, “most companies or business sectors were not forced to react.”

In 2004, one person claimed, in chatroom bikeforums.net, that he could pick Ingersoll Rand's Kryptonite bicycle lock with a pen. Soon a video of that very action surfaced. The video spread through the Internet via blogs much faster than anyone could have anticipated. It went from a chatroom post to a New York Times story in one week, astonishing the PR industry.

Donna Tocci, director of Web and new media at Ingersoll Rand and former manager of media and external relations for Kryptonite, says that five months after the forum posting, the company began a year-long, brand-rebuilding process by building relationships with – and correcting misinterpretations of– influential bloggers.

“When the mainstream media was looking at these particular cases so closely, I think a lot of big businesses... implemented some form of social media strategy within their communications,” Tocci says.

Soon, blogs seemed to affect everything: a Delta stewardess was fired for posting pictures of herself posing in her uniform; Plaxo hired someone who was fired from Google for blogging about sales meetings; and corporations like Dell, TiVo, Verizon, and Kodak started publishing their own blogs.

Blogs were also seen as a way to communicate directly with consumers without having to go through the media. GM launched the Fast Lane blog in 2005 to communicate with customers directly. Len Marsico, staff director of communications at GM, says his team also added video to its media site and developed a new media group within its PR department.

In 2006, Edelman had launched a blog for client Wal-Mart without disclosing its origins or funding. Missteps are now fewer and far between as the industry has learned from case studies and PR pros have improved their digital media techniques.

“This [communications] economy is growing... mostly because of digital capabilities,” says Weber. “Our skill sets [are] around crisis... content... and persuasion. In a world where you are going to have a crisis a minute, [PR] should be all over this.”

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