ANALYSIS: Video link brings PR face-to-face

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

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

a decade.

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

remains limited.

‘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.’

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