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
(www.shell.com) 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
PRINCE CHARLES: PRESENTING THE HUMAN FACE OF THE PALACE
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 (www.princeofwales.gov.uk) 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: DEFENDING ITS POLICIES ON-LINE
McDonald’s has been suffering recently at the hands of cyber-activists
who run the McSpotlight web site (www.mcspotlight.org), 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
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
(www.mcdonalds.com), 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
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.