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
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
’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
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
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
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
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
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
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,’
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
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
’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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.