FOCUS: CYBERMARKETING - Calling for a lightning reaction/The internet and related technological advances can create almost as many problems for PR practitioners as they solve. Tom Dawn reports

Everyone has a theory about how the internet is changing the role of public relations. Many believe that the growing sea of information is enabling PR practitioners to become better filters or editors of the messages they wish to present.

Everyone has a theory about how the internet is changing the role

of public relations. Many believe that the growing sea of information is

enabling PR practitioners to become better filters or editors of the

messages they wish to present.



The internet offers new ways for PR people to access user groups

directly, which is a new and significant benefit for on-line PR.

However, everyone on the internet holds the same privilege, which can

heighten the dangers of the on-line world.



There is a lack of referees on the internet - web sites are mostly

un-monitored, and everyone can participate as a reader or as publisher

or as conversationalist. Most of all, it is the speed with which

information can travel that is astonishing.



’We are in a unique situation where freelancers are free of editorial

control and can put any information they like on-line,’ says Robert

Grupe, Text 100’s associate director of on-line communications.



He believes that this assures the future of arbiters of trust, such as

media analysts, in their role as informers to both the public and

journalists.



This is also a niche that PR practitioners can occupy. Grupe believes

the key is to create a consistent message, which they and their clients

can support internationally.



’Many people still don’t understand on-line relations,’ he says.

’Traditional media relations are still important. The new component is

on-line relations, which means going directly to your audience.’



Grupe points out there is more to the internet than just the web - there

are a range of other media, including special interest discussion groups

and mailing lists. Users include journalists, but now more PR people are

accessing these special interest groups with increasing ease.



These groups, or news groups as they are often called, are composed of a

diverse, international group of users with a common interest, such as

specific medical conditions. Many of these online groups do not include

the internet as such, but are located on proprietary networks such as

CompuServe, America OnLine (AOL), Compulink Information eXchange (CIX)

or Microsoft Network (MSN).



Keeping in touch with all of these areas is a challenging task but it is

not enough merely to know about these groups, or to receive information

about the issues discussed in them. Grupe stresses that on-line PR means

actively participating in the discussions, being there to safeguard the

interests of your client, and simply to know what goes on.



It is a mistake to suppose that PR can control or filter information, or

misinformation, on the internet. But the conversational aspect of the

internet does provide valuable feedback about public or press

perceptions, and provide a channel for PR consultants to make a quick

correction or polite reply.



This view is strongly supported by Martin Forrest, account director at

Banner PR, who sees outstanding benefits: ’The internet allows you

closer contacts with journalists and other third parties. It also brings

out those interested parties such as user groups, which discuss

companies’ products and services. It is harder to control your message,

and you have a lot more sources to monitor as well.’



Distributing news releases over the internet also engenders special

problems.



’Global PR news distribution has to be more tightly synchronised to

maximise the impact of news. The further the story escapes from the PR

point of origination, the lesser the impact,’ says Forrest.



’You’ve got to be really close to your client and do everything

necessary to reach key people in the company. So when your information

goes out, it goes out in a synchronised way,’ he adds.



Forrest illustrates this point with the all-too-common example of

product releases in the US in which UK journalists pick up the story

from the web and write it up. This then detracts from the story’s news

value when the press launch happens some time later in the UK.



Gareth Zundel, group PR director at Harvard Public Relations, believes

this problem will make product launches much more difficult.



’Five years ago, it was easy to phase launches. If launches in different

countries were months apart, you might see some leaks in the printed

media. But we were quite comfortable doing one country a week, even in

Europe,’ he says.



’These days, you have really got to cover London, Paris, Madrid,

Stockholm and Munich in one week. It is exchausting, especially if

you’re wheeling around one spokesperson from your client.



’We used to have the venue facility for two days, to cater for overflow

interviews if there was unexpected press interest. Working faster makes

the stage management problem much more difficult, and choreography is a

very significant part of what PR companies do,’ he adds.



Ironically, most PR consultants agree over which aspects of the internet

make their work more difficult, rather than how helps them. At the basic

level of distribution, the complication lies in knowing journalists’

preferred channel of communication. Some journalists will ony accept

information on paper, others refuse to accept information unless it is

sent via e-mail.



PR media services specialists PiMs UK recently estimated the number of

journalists who prefer press releases to come by e-mail is below five

per cent, while another survey showed that around 60 per cent of hi-tech

journalists actually preferred press releases sent on paper.



Equally, it is important not to ignore the fact that people respond

differently to news, depending on the medium on which it arrives. ’It’s

true, because there’s a behavioural issue - people read in a different

way, often in less detail, possibly because it (the internet) doesn’t

have the comfort of the printed word,’ says Zundel.



But while the speed of internet communications exposes problems with

synchronisation and consistency of stories, it also provides the

solution.



The universal availability of the internet makes tools such as the web

invaluable within PR networks, for co-ordinating campaigns at an

international level. Companies such as Banner PR find that they can use

it as their primary tool for delivering press information across

Northern Europe.



Many PR companies also use internal versions of the common internet

tools such as the web, to help share information (see case study).



Understanding the internet means swimming within the sea of information

as well as trying to channel it. A good example came with last year’s

launch of the Nintendo 64 games console, by Harvard Public Relations in

the UK. For production reasons, the launch had to be staggered between

Japan, the US and Europe. By the time it came to launching the product

in the UK, Harvard only needed to announce its availability. The games

console’s functions and benefits were already common knowledge.



It is clear that PR is never going to be the sole source of information

available to the public and journalists alike, yet it does have a useful

role in providing consistent and accurate information in the anarchistic

world of the internet. And while the internet is not, and never will be,

the universal medium for information, but it is essential that PR

consultants understand it and work within the new environment that it

creates.



COMPANY BENEFITS: INTRANETS AND EXTRANETS MAKE A MARK



The universal availability of the internet makes it invaluable for

co-ordinating offices at a national and international level, and sharing

information between agencies and clients.



Most of the large PR companies, which have been selling internet

services to clients for some years, also have some kind of intranet

facility themselves.



Intranets are identical to the internet, are primarily web-based, but

operate on the internal company network. Many companies have also begun

to use extranets, which are accessible from the outside world like an

internet site, but have access restricted to people with a password.



This trend looks likely to expand, according to Dick Lumsden, managing

director of Charles Barker Publishing. ’Most company systems have the

ability to sustain an intranet,’ he says. ’The day is not far off when

most companies of more than 20 employees will have some kind of intranet

on their network.’



Text 100 has a comprehensive extranet. Its first function is to share

internal company information between different Text 100 offices in

India, South Africa, France, US, Spain, Netherlands and the UK. Parts of

the site are available to clients, so that they can retrieve

information.



Extranet resources are also available to favoured analysts and

journalists who have signed non-disclosure agreements. These resources

are shared between the Text 100 web site and clients’ sites.



Banner PR is another extranet enthusiast. Martin Forrest says: ’It’s an

excellent tool for communication with clients, it helps bring you

closer. We paste cuttings, reports, and so on, so clients can see work

in progress.’



As one of the most successful UK PR companies at selling internet

services, Charles Barker Publishing is finding that intranets are now

growing relatively more quickly.



A recent success was the synergy between an electronic staff newsletter

for AT&T and a long-established paper-based newsletter. ’We were trying

to make a seamless transition between paper and the electronic medium,’

explains Lumsden.



The relative strengths of the publications were exploited. The 2,500

circulation newsletter continues to appear bi-monthly, while its

electronic sister, upd@e, is monthly. The news is more up-to-date and

features and e-mails to the editor are included.



LBS: ANALYSING BUSINESS COMMUNICATION BEHAVIOUR



The London Business School (LBS) has launched a new cybermedia research

laboratory, i:Lab, which it hopes will raise the school’s kudos as an

innovator among the business community.



i:Lab, which has a sister site at the New York Information Technology

Centre, has been developed in partnership with 25 global corporate

sponsors, including CNN, Swissair, Apple Computer, Reuters and Turner

Broadcast Systems.



The aim of i:Lab is to master the complex interaction between new

technology, creativity and emerging markets.



The London i:Lab contains a production studio, based in creative arts,

design and new media. It also houses a research group of faculty staff

and students who represent business fields of strategy,

entrepreneurship, marketing, ethics and organisation studies.



LBS’ PR consultancy, Hill and Knowlton’s own area of interest within the

project is developing and maintaining relationships with ’virtual

communities’, such as special interest user groups.



’We are not looking for an electronic bullet,’ explains Tony

Burgess-Webb, H&K executive vice-president.



’The purpose of this work will be knowledge gained and then to put that

knowledge at the disposal of clients.’



H&K was also keen to participate as a sponsor, according to

Burgess-Webb.



’Our perspective is that the new means of communication are changing the

environment in which our clients and the public operate,’ he says.



’Our thinking about communications has to change.’



Founding director of i:Lab, Dr James Short says: ’We are witnessing

accelerating changes in traditional markets, fuelled by new firms, new

on-line business models, and new technology resources. i:Lab is focused

on understanding and participating in these changes.’



Professor Michael Earl, deputy principal at LBS and professor of

information management, says: ’i:Lab is a prototype research, technology

and educational endeavour, unique in the business school world. It

represents a new and important partnership between the school and

i:Lab’s founding sponsors in seeking to chart and define new thinking

for the digital environment.’



Each of i:Lab’s 25 sponsors has an area of special interest to follow,

and it is interesting to note that several companies, which are clearly

competitors, are working together in this commercially oriented

environment.



BRANDING: GREAT GRAPHICS AND ’PUSH’ TECHNOLOGY



Good branding has long been acknowledged as an essential component in

marketing, so it comes as something of a surprise that many companies

are scoring own goals on their web sites with poorly designed

graphics.



According to Ewen Sturgeon, director of new media specialist The

Presentation Company, this stems partly from inexperience and partly

from confusion over whether the site should have an ’above-the-line’

glossy and highly visual image, or have the ’below-the-line’ image of

direct mail.



But this is only part of the picture. Sturgeon adds that Internet ’push’

technology, such as the e-mail, is on the increase and will threaten the

market share that direct mail and telemarketing companies currently

enjoy.



Push technology involves little or no effort on the part of the user,

e-mails are automatically posted in their mail boxes. Pull technology,

on the other hand, involves the user actively seeking information.



Food company Kellogg’s recently used Internet ’push’ technology on its

highly branded website Kellogg’s UK Better Breakfast Briefing

(http://www.kelloggs.co.uk).



After one ’pull’ visit to the webiste, the user is sent a Kellogg’s

e-mail every morning, delivering a round-up of news and headlines. The

association with starting the day with Kellogg’s works neatly.



Strong visual branding, which complements its ITV weather bulletin

sponsorship, marks out the PowerGen website (http://www.powergen.co.uk).

The website was created for the electricity company by The Presentation

Company last year.



The site is of particular interest because 1998 will see electricity

deregulation, when customers will be able to choose their electricity

supplier. The site therefore offers a unique opportunity for PowerGen to

provide information on what deregulation means and flag up its product

values.



The PowerGen site offers three areas of information for different users

- company information for investors, deregulation information for

customers and educational information for the community. According to

Sturgeon, segmentation is one of the key decisions for a website.



Shell’s various websites illustrate how powerful good branding and

design can be. This is true both of the Shell International site

(http:// www.shell.com/c/c.html ), designed with Shandwick, and the

Shell UK site (http:// www.shell.co.uk), designed with Hill and

Knowlton. Shell International also includes a model searchable press

release archive at

(http://195.12.3.201/shellbase/press/current/summary.cfm).



Similarly, the RAC web site (http://www.rac.co.uk ), created by Curtis,

Hoy, Beeston Interactive (CHBi), is a key component of the

organisation’s re-branding. It helps to put the RAC’s mobility strategy

into action and reposition the company as ’an open and advanced

organisation,’ according to Neil Crofts, head of New Business at CHBi.



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