For some parts of the PR industry, witnessing the dotcom crash was a bit like watching a money tree being consumed by flames. Yet when the ashes settled, communications professionals began to find that although the web has ceased to provide a stream of worthy clients it has now become a valuable communications tool, particularly in the ensuing marketing downturn.
Online PR, or e-PR, has become an important addition to the PROs armoury. Originally consisting of little more than website construction, it now encompasses everything from the infiltration of chatrooms to viral marketing as a means of raising brand awareness.
Its proponents are unanimous that the slowdown in the marketing sectors has failed to hit business. Some would go further and say that because e-PR can provide cost-effective solutions to businesses far outside the hi-tech enterprises traditionally associated with the internet, operating in a bear market can actually be advantageous.
Web conferencing for example, can offer savings over the better known video conferencing when it comes to replacing traditional elements of PR, such as product launches or press conferences.
Mireia Fontbernat, marketing manager of web conferencing specialist PlaceWare, points out the only hardware required for web conferencing is a telephone and computer as opposed to expensive video equipment. Fontbernat claims her company has increased revenues by 40 per cent in the first half of 2002 compared to the first half of 2001.
'The need for PR hasn't stopped just because marketing budgets have been cut, and people are more keen than ever to look at new, cheaper solutions,' she says.
Cantos, a company specialising in providing online information for the investment community, has also benefited from a cost-conscious business climate.
Marketing director Rosie Catherwood points out that as nearly 30 per cent of UK equity is now held overseas, investors are keen for a service that helps avoid the need for trips abroad to check on their portfolios in person.
Cantos's core business is e-mailing interviews (carried out by ex-journalists) with CEOs of its 70-plus clients to 18,000 members of the investment community in text, audio or audio-video format according to preference.
The idea illustrates the marriage between "techies" and PROs which has proved fruitful since the beginning of the dotcom boom.
The early response by the PR industry to the growing prominence of the internet was an emphasis on constructing websites.
However, it then became clear that it was not enough to build, for example, chocolatebar.com, then ladle games and news onto the site and expect surfers to start devouring the content eagerly. New techniques have since been developed and explored.
The next trend was infiltrating chat rooms, to be followed by search engine optimisation (making sure your product came out near the top of relevant terms in searches). Now the technique e-PR specialists are excited about is viral marketing - e-mail attachments such as games, pictures, questionnaires or videos that are sufficiently entertaining for recipients to forward them onto friends and colleagues.
But Russell Goldsmith, new media director of online and radio PR specialist marketer 4DC, who has written a book on the subject, warns that an indiscriminate approach to the technique can be counter-productive.
'If you simply want to increase brand awareness then getting your attachment seen by as many people as possible is no bad thing. If you're collecting data or targeting a select audience it might require a lot more thought,' says Goldsmith.
One such campaign by 4DC was for Friends of the Earth in the run-up to the Johannesburg Earth Summit this summer. Called Mean or Green it featured an animated tongue-in-cheek questionnaire which gave readers the chance to discover their green credentials but it had the more serious dual purpose of asking them to click on a link to indicate support for the charity at the summit.
An advantage of viral marketing and much of the techniques used by e-PR is the ability to track the progress of the attachments across the web and therefore evaluate success.
The same goes for the streaming technology which frequently contains sophisticated evaluation tools and is becoming more frequently used as production costs fall and broadband access (among UK businesses, if not hard-pressed consumers) takes off.
Video streaming specialist Groovy Gecko, a company which specialises in creating video streaming technology, cites figures from research company Analysys which show the market for corporate video streaming in Western Europe is set to grow almost tenfold in the next five years, from £17.5m in 2001 to £140m in 2006.
Clients using the technology include Churchill Insurance, which has streamed ads from its recent nodding dog campaign onto its website (as well as extra clips) as a means of enticing surfers towards it website. Clothing store Uniqlo, which was faced with creating a brand from scratch at its September 2001 launch, also turned to streaming as a mainstay of its brand-building campaign.
'Streaming enables us to gain further mileage out of a TV ad campaign.
It allows users to view communication from us at anytime night or day,' says Uniqlo PR manager Christine Morgan.
Yet while newer web technology is constantly leading to new PR solutions, some of the old favourites remain valuable.
Goldsmith believes online chats can be extremely effective if they are used intelligently and seen as an opportunity for gaining wider exposure - he cites an example where an interview with Kate Moss, representing The Tea Council (PRWeek, 27 September, Campaign), was circulated among wider media such as the electronic Telegraph under the banner 'have a cup of tea and a chat with Kate'.
Ross Cathcart, an account director at Weber Shandwick's consumer division, points out that despite the technological slowdown internet usage continues to rise, particularly among young people, providing an audience that cannot be ignored. Yet he believes a majority of company websites fail to realise their full potential.
'A majority of companies tend to see their websites as cheap advertising without realising they are increasingly becoming the first port of call for journalists wanting to find out about them,' he says. 'When a company is in crisis there's often a huge disparity between what's on its website and what's happening in reality.'
Among the sectors that have turned out to be the most enthusiastic users of e-PR are FMCG brands, dynamic industries such as film, music and fashion, and computer and console games have all turned to using the net, in particular as a way of building up pre-launch expectations of products.
And naturally, the tech sector is among the most heavily converted. Narda Shirley, founder of Gnash Communications, which represents several tech companies, comments further: 'Depending on which industry you work in, it's common to find people who only get their news and information online.
For this reason the online news services and headline aggregators are incredibly influential.'
She cites a story that appeared on a German website about a client specialising in images for mobile phone messaging that resulted in 20,000 hits to the web site and numerous telephone calls from the target audience - handset manufacturers. A national newspaper story wouldn't have had the same impact, she argues.
With such power the web can also present the occasional headache for PROs - the endless discussions in chatrooms may well dissect products with little regard for accuracy, fairness or the laws of libel. But few practitioners of e-PR believe there is much point in losing sleep over what happens in the wilder reaches of the web.
Guru PR managing director Simi Belo says: 'You're never going to be able to control everything. If the criticism is happening in an important chat room being frequented by your core audience, then the best way is to deal with the situation is to take part in the discussion and be part of the debate.'
The real strength of e-PR as a tool has been its ability to launch products and build awareness, rather than to manage issues. Marketers are increasingly looking to the internet as a powerful tool.
THE COST OF E-PR
Web conferencing: For a one-off conference PlaceWare say the cost is around £27 per person taking part per hour
Video streaming: A campaign to deliver a two-minute message at mid-band bit rate to 10,000 people costs around £1,000. That cost is scalable so for 50,000 views the cost would be £2,000. The more you stream the less you pay.
E-mailing interviews: Cantos offer an annual results package, where it streams and e-mails interviews with company chief executives to investors, for £15,000
Viral marketing: A campaign similar to the Friends of the Earth Mean or Green effort, including production of viral and marketing cost, is understood to be under £15,000.
Online chat: According toThe Tea Council a campaign, such as the Kate Moss-fronted drive, across ten websites costs £4,500- £5,000.