Ever since the advent of the printing press, more people have had
more access to more information. One medium has been piled on top of
another, with radio added to print and television added to radio.
The Internet, though, represents a shift. Radio added immediacy and
sound, while television added pictures and cable added niche interests
and greater diversity of choice. In each case there was a clear division
between the ’tellers’ and the ’told’.
With the Internet, that boundary has blurred considerably, with everyone
now able to assume either role. Thought-leaders (and the thoughtless)
have an equal voice, mimicking a return to the days of the soapbox in
the park where all citizens could express their views. The big
difference is that now there is the potential for a world-wide audience
for those views.
For public relations, the shift brings challenges and opportunities.
What happens to third party credibility? Do the tools and outlets of
classic PR disappear and become replaced with a different toolbox?
Here is our utterly biased opinion: if the Internet had not come along
on its own (with the help of government and academia), the PR industry
would have invented it.
Public relations is a discipline that specialises in communication; more
specifically it is the art of developing well-crafted messages,
packaging those messages and conveying that information to a variety of
audiences, including consumers, media and opinion leaders.
Never before in the history of communications has there been a vehicle
more well-suited to this process than the World Wide Web. The ability to
customise information for a wide range of niche audiences, the immediacy
and currency of the Net and, most importantly, the democracy of the
information on the Net (remember, now everyone can be a publisher as
well as a subscriber) demands that it be embraced by the public
relations industry as perhaps the most efficient tool we have ever had
to get the job done.
Frankly, public relations professionals should be better at
communication on the Internet than anyone else - after all, we are used
to communicating complex, layered messages to different audiences. This
is not a medium that lends itself to the quick fix, the 30-second spot,
the half-page ad - no matter how compelling that ad may be. This is a
medium that is fuelled by information and the public relations business
is, quite simply, the information business.
At the same time, the Internet has dramatically altered the playing
field in terms of how information is disseminated. Among the trends that
have emerged is an increasingly chaotic news and media environment. With
the proliferation of ’off-line’ media (24-hour broadcasting, more
magazines, more television channels), audiences are becoming more and
more segmented which is leading to the rise of media grazing. Consumers
seek specific pieces of information in the pastures of their own special
For PR the challenge is to identify the new influencers and the new ways
of reaching those influencers in a ’Net society’ as well as to integrate
ourselves more forcefully into the ongoing Internet dialogue. And, we
contend that people will eventually gravitate towards the organised
sites like Microsoft’s Slate e-zine, Hot Wired and others.
That is where the influencers, and the ongoing Internet dialogue, will
manifest themselves and that is where we need to be on behalf of
Another emerging trend is the impact of the Internet on ’traditional’
media. With customers now able to gather exactly the information they
want when they want it, there are certainly potential problems for
general interest magazines and newspapers, since each consumer can now
be his or her own editor and choose only the pieces of information that
are of particular relevance. But remember that, historically, new media
does not replace old, it simply adds another layer. So we believe that
these traditional information sources will remain but that people will
draw on the information in different ways. For public relations
practitioners, the challenge is to create information that is highly
desirable or to integrate our information with other desirable
The PR business will similarly need to address the ’unreachable’
If the consumer is able to structure his media diet, how does public
relations ’force feed’ the information to a public that does not care
enough to seek out the information, or who does not know enough to
actively search for something that might be of interest?
Our challenge is to create opportunities and environments that stimulate
interest, enthusiasm and relevance, propelling a consumer to seek out
more information either on or off the Net. Just as we learned in recent
years, companies and their products need to be where their consumers
are, rather than expecting the consumer to come to them.
Where does all of this leave the role of public relations? Clearly, the
way we do our business is changing but we believe that the role of PR is
becoming more rather than less important. Just as we changed the way we
did business when television came along, the Internet offers PR another
realm - a more exciting realm, potentially - to interact with and to
convince consumers. The hunger for information on the Internet and for
rich content and dialogue makes it the ideal medium for public
relations, with our role expanding from that of ’intermediary messenger’
(with the message ultimately filtered and delivered by the media) to the
The first role is to become the content creators for our clients.
Developing marketing-driven Web sites for clients is the logical next
step in the communications continuum. In the 1980s, the solution to a
client marketing challenge might have been the production and
distribution of a value-added consumer brochure, one that not only
showcased the product in a positive light but provided a wealth of
related tips and techniques that a consumer would need and want.
We can take that solution to the next level on the Internet by creating
brand-specific Web sites that engage the consumer and offer the
opportunity to interact with the brand, while obtaining value-added
There is a saying that is especially relevant here: ’Tell me and I’ll
forget. Show me and I may not remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.’
That, in essence, is the beauty of the Internet: like no medium that has
come before it, the Internet has the ablility to truly involve the user
and to help the user reach new heights of understanding that simply is
not possible with a brochure or a television advertisement.
Smart marketers recognise this fact and know that the World Wide Web is
the ultimate platform for engaging consumers and involving them directly
with a brand or a product or a corporate service. Because it facilitates
two-way dialogue and one-to-one communication between a consumer and a
corporation, the Internet can truly be relationship marketing and brand
image building at its best.
The second role that PR practitioners should be carving out for
themselves is simply to do public relations and promotion for client Web
sites that already exist. A favourite saying in the Internet industry
is: ’If we build it, will they come?’ meaning, does creating a
compelling Web site ensure that consumers will visit it? And the answer
is a resounding no.
A Web site cannot succeed without an ongoing aggressive marketing and
promotion campaign behind it and PR is the discipline that is ideally
suited to do just that.
After all, it is also easy to find a product in the supermarket but
would you leave it the the consumer to seek out a product on their own,
or would you market and promote that product aggressively through every
medium at your disposal so that the consumers are compelled to seek out
your product at retail? Web sites are no different and should be
marketed in much the same fashion.