As Burson-Marsteller launches its European first in-house video
conferencing service to its clients, the PR industry examines the
implications for face-to-face public relations
This Tuesday, staff across Burson-Marsteller’s European network were
gathered together to hear chairman Ferry de Bakker talk about the
company’s plans for next year.
Nothing strange in that, of course. But what was unusual was that the
announcement - and questioning of the agency’s top executives by staff -
took place over a private satellite TV network just installed at B-M
Using a satellite TV network as a corporate communication network is
nothing new. Ford has been using its FCN global network installed across
its offices and plants to handle major corporate announcements for over
Likewise, TSB also invested in a similar system some years ago. Indeed,
hundreds of US companies and dozens in Europe use some form of satellite
TV link to help get their message across to internal audiences.
But what is new is that B-M Europe has become the first PR agency in the
world to set up such a facility in-house - and offer it to outside
Stephen Watson, managing director of CTN, B-M’s joint venture with ITN
in business television services, says the network’s prime use in the
short-term will be internal. Longer term, however, the agency is keen to
expand the use of video press-conferencing by clients.
According to Watson, ‘B-M TV is an internal resource for the agency. We
have more offices than any other agency and a lot more work is being
done on a pan-European basis. It makes sense to offer the ability to
make pan-European announcements across our office network.’
Apart from internal announcements and management conferencing, Burson-
Marsteller says the facility will also offer clients the ability to run
real-time, interactive press conferences with journalists or analysts
gathered at up to 16 Burson-Marsteller offices across Europe. The days
of the three-day, six-city pan-European press conference tour may be
coming to an end.
‘The concept is simple,’ says Watson. ‘If you are targeting specialist
media or analysts, we can get a dozen key people and bring them into the
main B-M boardrooms. Everyone sees what’s going on in the main studio
and gets a chance to question the participants.’
He accepts that such video conferencing techniques may remain a minor
weapon in the armoury of many press campaigns, and that it may even
undermine the ability - valued by many journalists - to put tough
questions to interviewees in person.
‘There’s an important question of whether a client is able to meet
people face to face, and B-M TV won’t replace that,’ he says. ‘But
people making an announcement can be accessible to key audiences across
Europe rather than spending three days visiting Madrid, Frankfurt and
Paris for individual press conferences.’
CTN has already been involved in setting up interactive press conference
facilities for bodies such as the European Commission, which last year
installed the system at Commission offices across Europe.
In its first video press conference, journalists were invited in to
question Commissioner Pinheiro who was, appropriately enough, outlining
changes in EU rules surrounding broadcasting.
So the technology is there; B-M has a new corporate toy - and it is
going to let its clients play with it too. It is a big outfit, and it
may even help them save some money. But even if it is a first for a PR
agency, should it be of interest to others in the industry?
A qualified yes, says Steve Garvey, manager of corporate TV at Reuters
Television. His company competes in the market of providing interactive
video press conference links and he says demand for such services
‘We do a certain amount of satellite conferencing already,’ he says.
‘But we find it doesn’t get used a huge amount.’
However, he certainly does not dismiss what is a growing market, and
praises B-M for getting in on it early, even if the installation of
facilities has been driven by internal needs.
‘Burson-Marsteller deserves full credit and I think others may follow
suit.’ he says. ‘I can certainly see the rationale for the launch of a
major new product or for gathering together the press for a person who
is normally hard to get hold of.’ But, he cautions: ‘Simply sticking
people in front of a camera is useless - unless they are Michael
Stuart Maister, managing director of VNR and TV strategy agency The
London Bureau, agrees that the agency has made a good move - though it
may be some time before other agencies enter the field.
Meanwhile, technology continues to develop in favour of the video
conferencing concept. The cost of satellite feed time, which has been a
serious constraint, is being addressed by new compression techniques
while other telecommunications companies are providing alternative
routes. This will make interactive video conferencing through PR office
networks more feasible for more clients.
But if technology is moving in the right direction, says Garvey, why
invite journalists into PR offices at all? Why not let journalists
access press conferences through their own office hook-ups?
‘The real value of video press conferencing may come when you can get
the links into the media offices themselves,’ he says. ‘Technology is
getting so advanced that soon, with compression technology, it may well
be possible to link up with a press conference site, get decent visual
quality and ask questions. Now that would be something. And by the
beginning of next century we might be seeing that quite regularly.’