FOCUS: CYBER MARKETING - PR rises to the on-line challenge - The internet offers PR agencies the chance to gain instant, international coverage for their clients, but it also leaves brands open to unchecked criticism

These days every television programme, shopping bag, and even the box of cereal you look at every morning, seems to come with its own web site.

These days every television programme, shopping bag, and even the

box of cereal you look at every morning, seems to come with its own web


Share prices for internet service providers (ISPs) are soaring and

companies are scrambling to get on-line to take advantage of the newly

emerging global marketplace. But how effective is the PR industry at

developing brands in cyberspace?

Many commentators believe that the role of off-line PR can be equally

important in raising a site’s profile.

If anyone doubts the power of the internet to create a brand, they need

look no further than on-line booksellers Amazon. The internet-only brand

was launched in the UK by Joe Public Relations, which used traditional

PR techniques to build awareness of the web-based company. Amazon

managing director Simon Murdoch, for example, was offered for press

interviews to raise his profile as a spokesperson for the industry, as

well as to win coverage for the company.

’We also brought over the founder Jeff Bezos and set up several profile

pieces in the nationals,’ adds Joe PR managing director Matthew


’We positioned Amazon as a consumer brand, but we had to reinforce the

message that it is easy to buy books over the net.’

Amazon’s sales for the fourth quarter of 1998 were pounds 158 million, a

staggering 283 per cent increase on sales in the fourth quarter of 1997,

and Joe PR continues to promote Amazon’s core brand messages and

values - customer service, quality and innovation - to the public.

Design remains crucial and a brand name is a significant bonus, but one

practical task PR companies can carry out is to ensure clients’ sites

feature highly in an internet search engine’s index.

PR and design consultancy MDA works with companies to help move them up

a search engine’s directory.

MDA IT manager, Daniel Wood explains: ’We don’t re-design the pages, we

re-tag them with key words which automatically take your site to a

higher position on a search engine’s list.’

While it may get you to the top of some ISPs’ search engines it does not

work with Yahoo!, which individually assesses a web site before deciding

on its position.

Yahoo! UK brand manager Kate Rider says: ’We have a team of people who

check submitted web sites. We will find the best position for it within

the web directory.’

’Yahoo! was traditionally a list of the coolest sites on the web and we

always want to take account of our users’ interests. You can always

re-submit your site,’ she adds.

Not all companies want to be found on the internet.

Like most of the media, the internet is a double-edged sword. While it

offers excellent international opportunities for publicity, it is also

proving to be a fertile ground for on-line activists whose negative

messages can spread around the world in a matter of seconds.

Wood points out that more things can go wrong on the internet than in

traditional media. ’There is far more scope for negative things to

happen more quickly than normal,’ he says. Cyber-activists have been

exceptionally pro-active on the internet and have targeted the likes of

McDonald’s, Shell and Nestle. But what can organisations do to protect

themselves against this form of criticism?

Lisa Hulme, PR manager of Virgin Net, is acutely aware of the internet’s

ability to make or break brand reputations. ’But you can find out where

the negative comments are coming from and jump in to respond

immediately,’ she says. Accordingly, Virgin Net staff have immersed

themselves in the on-line world, targeting chat groups and joining

discussion forums to put forward the company’s views.

Chairman of Hill and Knowlton’s Netcoms Tony Burgess-Webb is unsurprised

by on-line criticism of multinationals. ’Most of what has happened on

the internet to companies like Shell and McDonald’s is just an aspect of

being a global company,’ he says. ’But the internet does allow interest

groups to attack brands with far greater ease than before.’

One of the major shifts in power on the web has been from corporations

to the individual. ’The disgruntled employee who posts a story in a chat

room could have greater credibility for some people than the company

statement,’ says Burgess-Webb.

Shandwick Interactive chief executive Simone Barratt claims that Shell

( has undergone a cultural change as an organisation since

it joined the internet brigade, and is now a more open company, which

makes it more effective at dealing with on-line issues. The company

receives a lot of e-mails which it responds to.

’Shell’s web site contains a lot of information about human rights

policies and its approach to environmental sustainability,’ says

Barratt. ’It also deals with the problem some people might have with

understanding others’ beliefs. At one section of the site, for instance,

Shell deals with the question of what constitutes a bribe according to

the cultures of different countries.’

Some PR agencies actually specialise in internet intelligence, arguing

that the issues that can suddenly erupt into the mainstream have usually

been circulating for months on the web.

Orlando Plunket Greene, director of Infonic, whose client list includes

Adidas, Reebok and Levi Strauss and Co, explains: ’The internet tends to

be months ahead of the traditional media because it is so fast and

interactive. Debates are always going on.’

Discussion groups on the internet had been deliberating over genetically

modified food for some time before the issue made the headlines of the

traditional print media. Greene argues that internet intelligence

material can provide a barometer of public opinion and act as an early

crisis warning system.

But how do you deal with an issue when it arises? In worst case

scenarios, companies might consider legal action, but on the whole PR

practitioners advise against a heavy-handed approach to internet issues

as it can fan the flames of negativity and tarnish brand values.

Grant Anderson, legal adviser for Denton Hall’s Media and Technology

Group, explains that although the internet is a new medium, UK libel

laws still apply whether statements are published in printed copy or in

electronic form . ’If someone is making legitimate criticisms and not

indulging in unfounded defamatory statements, there is not a lot you can

do. But clearly, corporations have to watch out for their image on the

internet,’ he says.

As the web is still only at an embryonic stage in its development, the

role of PR agencies will evolve as the new medium matures. With

companies like Yahoo! planning campaigns to bolster the net’s

reputation, mistrust among the UK public will evaporate.

As Yahoo!’s Rider says, the days when the internet was just for

techno-geeks alone are over. ’It is seeping into the public

consciousness and Yahoo! is going to explain the real benefits,’ she


The internet itself still needs more positive PR to gain full mainstream

acceptance, but with key players committed to making the medium more

attractive, it will only be a matter of time before the most successful

PR agencies will be those who can spin best on the complex and rapidly

moving worldwide web. l


Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Royal family was

criticised for being out of touch with the people. Since then, a

concerted effort has been made to improve the PR of the monarchy.

Part of this drive has been the launch of Prince Charles’ official web

site - billed as an opportunity for the prince to communicate directly

with people and presumably to help modernise his appeal.

The site ( lists his itinerary, offers an

archive of his speeches, a photographic gallery and information about

the activities of his Trust and the charities he supports. There is also

an on-line forum, where Charles encourages people around the world to

exchange views on matters which interest him.

The subject of one of the Prince’s recent on-line forums was genetically

modified food, which Charles strongly opposes. The subject drew

responses from as far and wide as New York, Germany and Canada.

Interacting on the internet enables Charles to bypass the traditional

media and speak directly to his supporters, a tactic also being adopted

by other public figures who know their chances of getting a fair hearing

in the tabloids are less likely.

Through the photographic gallery, Charles is carefully presented as a

family man, who enjoys sport, cares deeply about the environment and has

time for the needs of ordinary people.

But internet commentators have criticised the site. The specialist press

has suggested it lacks genuine interactivity: the on-line forum is not

live and the prince’s advisers vet and select e-mail messages which they

then post on the site.

And while efforts are being made to gain public approval for Charles’

relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, the couple’s recent debut

public appearance together - splashed all over the print media and

internet news services such as BBC Online - was notably absent from

Charles’ own web site.

James Closs, creative director of web design agency Syzygy, believes it

was inevitable that Charles would choose to use the internet as a means

of marketing himself. ’But,’ he warns, ’it will be difficult to keep the

site profile high after the initial novelty factor has worn off.’


McDonald’s has been suffering recently at the hands of cyber-activists

who run the McSpotlight web site (, which opposes

the development of the burger chain.

The campaigning web site was set up in 1996 when two London Greenpeace

supporters, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, were sued for publishing a

leaflet called ’What’s wrong with McDonald’s’, which led to the infamous

McLibel trial.

McDonald’s may have won the legal battle, but it did its PR no good at


The site continues to spread negative messages about McDonald’s’

environmental and employment practices and it also lobbies against other

multinationals, including SmithKline Beecham, Procter and Gamble and


The burger chain’s PR department in London will not discuss the

offending site with the media or provide any insights into their

handling of cyber-activists.

Instead, the PR team directs callers to its web site

(, based in the US, where the company strongly refutes

allegations about its employment practices and stoutly defends its

policies towards the environment.

McDonald’s also uses a section on its site to underline the company’s

commitment to the quality of life of its consumers worldwide who, it

recognises, will be affected by McDonald’s ’stewardship of the

environment today’.

But the organisers of the McSpotlight site remain unmoved by McDonald’s

response to their allegations and argue that their campaign on the

internet has been highly effective.

They claim their web site receives more than a million hits each month

from around the world.

’The internet has had a great effect on our campaign against McDonald’s

and has brought the real issues to the attention of people at home and

abroad,’ says a spokesperson for the McSpotlight site.

The activists see no end in sight for their campaign and insist that

McDonald’s should initiate a public discussion about its business

practices and pursue more eco-friendly policies.

So far, McDonald’s has taken no action against the material that has

been published on the internet.

But ever-increasing internet access among the public means that the

medium may well soon present a tricky dilemma to multinationals like

McDonald’s which are the targets of high profile negative web sites.

There is always a risk that grass-roots internet protest movements

against such companies could escalate on-line and damage their

commercially valuable high street reputations.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in