COMMENT: FOCUS: INFORMATION SERVICES; Winning the race for the news

ELECTRONIC CONNECTION: As news spreads ever faster, info service companies move into real-time distribution CUTTINGs: Paper-based services on the threshold of an electronic revolution await copyright agreements INTELLIGENT AGENTS: Now you can buy a software package that will surf the Internet for you and report back

ELECTRONIC CONNECTION: As news spreads ever faster, info service

companies move into real-time distribution

CUTTINGs: Paper-based services on the threshold of an electronic

revolution await copyright agreements

INTELLIGENT AGENTS: Now you can buy a software package that will surf

the Internet for you and report back

With an electronic news service that is faster than a speeding bulletin

and able to leap across the world in a single bound, PR people need to

cope with events almost as they happen. Nick Purdom reports

Last Christmas Internet services provider CompuServe was faced with a

potential crisis when the German prosecutor forced the company to close

access to a number of newsgroups which it believed were illegal under

German law.

‘Using traditional methods we would have found out about this on the

Nine O’Clock News, but using new techniques and monitoring newswires and

news groups we were able to respond within an hour of the news emerging

and meet the massive interest from the world media, and CompuServe

emerged with its reputation enhanced,’ explains Andrew Smith, group

account director at CompuServe’s UK PR agency, A Plus.

The case illustrates both the danger and the opportunity new

communications technology presents to PR agencies - on the one hand it

enables them to see a crisis coming and respond much more quickly to it;

on the other, because news spreads much faster there is far more

pressure to keep up with developments.

Nowadays news and information services aim to get news out very fast.

‘On the newswires you’re talking about news appearing within 15-20

minutes of it breaking,’ says Larry Rees, director of strategy and

marketing at electronic information group Maid. The company provides a

news digest service as part of its Internet-based Profound service that

is updated every hour.

Reuters Business Briefing provides near-time (within minutes) news from

the Reuters and London Stock Exchange newswires.

Financial Times Information offers a real-time business newswire,

publishes the first summaries of UK newspapers at 2am on its Internet

site, and alerts customers within seconds of news being broadcast

through The Broadcast Monitoring Company.

While information services have been working on getting news on to their

wires fast, one weakness has been the speed with which they get this

information to customers. News alerting systems have relied on customers

dialling up for news at pre-set intervals, which could be hourly, daily,

weekly or as required.

But things are set to change. ‘We will build up the news alerting side

of our business because we anticipate this will become a large part of

the market,’ says Donal Smith, managing director of FT Information. ‘We

have just acquired software that will be available with our Discovery

service that will enable us to notify customers as news breaks.’

Rees agrees that alerting is increasingly a mainstay of business

intelligence services. ‘We probably conduct 50-60,000 alerting schedules

a year, and we’re testing a customer alerting system at the moment,’ he


Reuters Business Information is also looking at ways that Reuters

Business Alert can alert customers by flashing messages up on the screen

says marketing director Tony Easton. But he adds that the company is not

getting a lot of demand for this kind of service outside the dealing


Speedy delivery is one thing, but the main issue taxing news services is

how best to get that news to customers. Direct link, on-line

subscription services have been the method of choice, but now the

Internet is providing a genuine alternative.

‘At the moment the public Internet can’t guarantee the speed of response

and security of on-line services. When line speeds increase and some of

the security issues are tackled it will become more attractive,’ says


‘It’s more efficient at the moment to deliver information over the

network we own,’ believes Donal Smith. ‘We have the technology to make

information secure over the public Internet, and over the next two or

three months we will make our service available via a Web browser

interface. However, we anticipate less business over the Internet than

using Internet technology. I think we’ll deliver more into Intranets

rather than through the public Internet.’

According to Smith, all the bigger companies and even larger agencies

have Intranets, internal networks which they use to distribute and share

information in a secure environment.

While many still have reservations about the Internet, particularly

regarding speed of access and security, Maid has gone ahead and launched

its Profound information service on the Net. ‘It’s not important if the

Internet is the best solution technically,’ thinks Rees. ‘Looking at

performance, delivery, interface and consistency across a number of

different standards customers see it as the answer.’

The sheer number of corporates using the Internet convinced Maid that it

was the right platform for its own service. The decision of computer

industry giants like Microsoft, IBM and Compuserve to switch their

emphasis away from proprietary systems to the Internet gave further

backing to this belief.

‘So many companies worldwide see the Internet as the opportunity to have

an open platform for communication,’ says Rees. Already 20 per cent of

Maid’s customers are accessing the service through the Net, and by the

end of the year Rees expects that figure will be 50 per cent.

The growing availability and ease of use of information services is also

forcing PR companies to consider their role as information providers.

Information services can just as easily be accessed by clients, so the

onus is on consultancies to add something extra.

‘We don’t see on-line services as a threat at all, we see this as a huge

opportunity,’ says Mark Mellor, a director at hi-tech agency Firefly.

‘But PR companies have to understand these services, otherwise they will

be a threat. A lot of PR companies aren’t even on-line, which is a

dangerous situation if you’re in the communications business and there’s

a big community which is on-line,’ he says.

Mellor believes the role of PR agencies is to act as content creators,

putting the right angle and emphasis on information as journalists do.

‘Our added value is supposed to be our knowledge about a particular

market, but this can be gleaned from anywhere - our true added value is

to edit and analyse information and present it in a clear,

understandable format,’ he says.

Hill and Knowlton has its own Information Centre which serves all its

European offices, and subscribes to no less than nine information

services. Information manager Colin Bennett says the centre is

continually providing information to account handlers for use in their


‘It’s no good simply producing reams of paper. We do analysis ourselves

or guide account handlers how to work through information. Our added

value is the skill of our searching in the first place, and then getting

information into a document that’s well-tailored and explains in a clear

format what the data is and where it’s from. To add value you’ve got to

put information in context, and show people what they should be seeing

from the data you’re giving them,’ says Bennett.

Julian Hanson-Smith, managing director of Financial Dynamics, has no

problem with clients subscribing to information services, but says: ‘The

advantage we have is familiarity with all the options and we can usually

provide discounts.’ The agency has a full-time researcher who does

background research for account handlers and clients.

‘We collate information for clients, so you could say we act as an

information broker in that sense,’ says Hanson-Smith. But he has no

doubt about the most important role of the PR consultancy in relation to

information services. ‘We all suffer from information overload and it’s

incumbent on us as advisers to ensure clients see what is valuable and

relevant,’ he says.

Pippa Sands, managing director of Sandpiper Communications, does not

believe in PR consultancies acting as information brokers, but has a

clear view about the value they can add. ‘We scrutinise more media day-

by-day than clients, and anything we pick up we pass on. Our added value

is how we interpret information and how it can add strategic relevance

to our ideas.’

With the proliferation of information services and the hunger for news

there is now the potential for PR agencies to extend their role and

become information providers themselves. ‘Alliances are one way of going

about things,’ says Infopress account director, Ian Groves. ‘We’re

currently talking to a newswire about an IT specific service.’

Groves is heading a new division at the agency called Infopress

Interactive, which aims to give an electronic dimension to clients’

communications programmes, and is offering an Intranet/Web design


Skilfully used, information services may be a boon to the work of PR

consultancies, but they are not a panacea.

A Plus managing director Mike Copland says: ‘They’re not suddenly going

to make everyone’s job easier. They up the ante, and put even more of a

premium on information handling skills, and certainly don’t replace


Costs: Why it’s worth paying for on-line information

With so much information available for free on the Internet, it may be

assumed that on-line information services are having a hard time

justifying their charges to users.

Not surprisingly on-line providers argue they offer value for money. ‘We

offer a one-stop shop, with all information marked and speedily

available,’ says Tony Easton, marketing director of Reuters Business

Information. ‘You can trawl through over 2,000 publications in about

three seconds, and at the moment you can’t do that on the Internet’.

FT Information lists a whole range of reasons why its costs are

justified, including data capture and editing costs, the royalties it

pays to data providers, sourcing 5,000 data providers, and set-up costs,

administration, documentation and training.

Information service providers also pride themselves on the quality of

information they provide. ‘A lot of free information on the Internet is

of low quality. We offer the full list of Reuters newswires, which is

something no one else can provide,’ says Easton.

Where service providers claim to add value is in the way they structure

and present information, making it easily accessible to users. ‘We have

about 70 people coding data and in some cases translating from foreign

languages,’ says Easton.

Although most information on the Internet is free, a new development is

closed, subscription based sites. ‘The majority of information is still

free, but that situation will change as the Web develops,’ says A Plus

group account director Andrew Smith.

Information provider Maid has already launched its service on the

Internet, charging organisations pounds 6,000 per annum, regardless of

the number of users and searches, for access to over 100 million pages

of business information.

FT Information is available via the Internet as a communications

protocol, and over the next few months will be accessible through a Web

browser. ‘There will be a variety of pricing models, either pay as you

go for irregular users, or fixed fee for larger users,’ explains

managing director, Donal Smith.

It’s hard to put a price on information, but the cost of information

services is not exorbitant for most medium or large organisations. ‘We

use Reuters, FT Profile and Maid and find them very useful,’ says Mark

Mellor, director of hi-tech agency Firefly. ‘An information service can

pay for itself if you use it once a year, but we use it daily.’

‘Reuters Business Alert is around the cost of a newspaper per person per

day,’ says Easton. Viewed like that, information services, which also

offer the advantages that users can tailor them to their own needs, do

look like good value for money.

Cuttings services: Have they got news for you

Developments in electronic information services are questioning the

validity and future of traditional paper-based services. ‘Put side-by-

side with the speed of information of the Net, traditional cuttings

services are like a dog cart against a Ferrari,’ suggests Mike Copland,

md of hi-tech agency, A Plus.

This is a problem the cuttings services are acutely aware of. Overnight

services, such as Press Express operated by Romeike and Curtice, aim to

read around 300 key titles and get cuttings to people’s desks by 8am,

but electronic delivery would enable a much faster service.

The big issue in cuttings is electronic scanning and distribution over

the Internet. The problem is that newspapers, represented by the

Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), have not yet decided what royalty they

will charge for scanned cuttings. Paper cuttings are charged at 2p, but

the word is that newspapers are asking for much more for electronic


The cuttings agencies are keen to start delivering electronically.

‘We’re optimistic the NLA will come up with an outline agreement within

months,’ says Hugh O’Neill, development manager at Financial Times

Information, which incorporates The Broadcast Monitoring Company.

‘Clients are already saying to us they’ve got an Intranet and would like

us to provide electronic cuttings, but we’re having to say we can’t

because the copyright issue has not been solved.’

Broadcast monitoring services are still largely reliant on phone and fax

to get urgent information to clients. ‘We’re extremely flexible to

clients’ requirements and can notify them by phone within a few minutes

of news being broadcast,’ says Charles Huxley, managing director of

Tellex Monitors. ‘Sometimes with government departments we need to

inform them very quickly on the phone so they can go and brief a


BBC Monitoring, which monitors news from over 3,000 sources in 140

countries, is already posting its daily Summary of World Broadcasts and

World Media publications on the Internet at 1800 GMT the evening prior

to publication. The newswire service, Newsfile, which provides early

reports of news stories, can be supplied by e-mail and direct line.

‘We have just launched the e-mail service and it’s proving very popular.

If people have specific needs we’re finding they prefer e-mail,’ reports

BBC Monitoring marketing executive, Marian Martin.

Press release distribution is also still largely paper-based. Speed of

turnaround is, however, speeding up. ‘Clients can send their press

releases to PiMS via a dedicated ISDN line or modem and from here the

release can be fed direct on to our network served digital print system.

Our multi-fax facility can then send up to 5,000 A4 sheets an hour,’

explains Colin Taylor, PiMS marketing manager.

Two-Ten operates a similar system and runs the UNS newswire which feeds

releases direct to over 5,000 newsdesks worldwide. In January the

company also started posting releases on the Internet, making them

accessible to hundreds of freelance journalists. This July the Internet

service was improved with search facilities that allow users to search

an archive by date, company name and specialist subject area.

PiMS already undertakes a weekly e-mail distribution for one client and

is researching e-mail addresses in anticipation of further client demand

for electronic press release distribution.

The signs are that the world’s depleted forests will be able to heave a

collective sigh of relief as paper is used less and electronic

distribution far more.

Case study: The Wall Street Journal goes electronic

The Bible of US stockbrokers, The Wall Street Journal, is one of a

growing number of newspapers and magazines to launch on the Net.

The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (WSJIE) went on-line on 29

April this year, adding continuous coverage of breaking news from 1,000

Dow Jones reporters around the world to the stories from the print


A team of 35 editors work exclusively on WSJIE, updating market news at

least once an hour and breaking stories as often as every 15 minutes, 24

hours a day, seven days a week.

Users can access information from four sections: Front Page, which

includes Asian and European news sections; Marketplace (covering

technology, law, marketing and small business); money and investing; and


But if you only want to receive news relevant to your specific

interests, you can enter your choices using a feature called Personal

Journal which will download pertinent items direct to your PC.

Dow Jones believes WSJIE gives readers the best of all worlds - the

immediacy of broadcast, the depth of print, and the unique ability of

the Web to provide links to a rich source of background information. The

Web was chosen as the delivery medium because it provides an open,

transparent infrastructure and can be accessed easily from all corners

of the globe.

Making the electronic newspaper attractive to read was a prime

consideration. ‘One of our objectives was to make it as simple and easy

to read as possible,’ says Diana Lee, international sales director at

Dow Jones in London. Clicking on a tablet enables readers to get more

details on headline stories they are interested in. Another very useful

feature is Briefing Books, which provides detailed background

information including one-year stock performance graphs on companies

highlighted in news stories.

Besides the editorial, WSJIE also contains another feature common to

print papers - advertising. Reaching a high quality business audience -

85 per cent male, average age 40 - is proving popular to a large volume

of advertisers, including big names like American Airlines, Lexus,

Toshiba, and Barclays Bank.

In the few months since its launch, WSJIE has proved a roaring success.

By the end of July there were almost 600,000 registered readers, and,

significantly, 60 per cent of these were not subscribers to the print

edition. WSJIE was available free until the end of August, but now Dow

Jones has become one of the first publishers in the world to charge for

an electronic newspaper.

Subscriptions are not expensive - dollars 49 per year (or dollars 29 for

subscribers to the print edition) - and Lee is confident that the

charges are justified. ‘There’s so much unedited information on the Web

- we’re charging for a service providing essential business and

financial information that helps people succeed in their business.’

Lee anticipates a fall in subscribers after charges are introduced, but

a deal signed in mid-August with software giant Microsoft should ensure

reader numbers remain high. As part of its marketing push for its new

Web browser, Internet Explorer 3.0, Microsoft is offering free

subscriptions to WSJIE until the end of the year.

In the process, WSJIE has received the endorsement of no less than Bill

Gates, Microsoft’s chairman and ceo, who proclaims: ‘We think the

outstanding editorial and design quality of WSJIE will propel an even

larger audience of business people to the Web’.

Intelligent agents: Licensed to look

The explosive development of the Web and the sheer volume of information

on it has created a major problem for those anxious to make sure they

don’t miss anything of importance to their business.

But help is at hand in the shape of the intelligent agent. Rather less

glamorous than James Bond, but also much cheaper to run, intelligent

agents are software programs that will do your surfing for you and then

report back with what they’ve found.

AutoNomy Systems, based in Cambridge, is the first company to offer a

personal surfing assistant with its Agentware agent, which can be

instructed using plain English and apparently learns about your

interests by using a neural network to spot patterns in information.

The Broadcast Monitoring Company is currently working with a software

company to develop its own intelligent agent technology. ‘You will be

able to train and retrain your own agent so it refines its searches and

learns from its own mistakes. Intelligent agents will be able to

interrogate far more effectively than the search engines currently

available for the Web,’ says development manager, Hugh O’Neill.

BMC will charge an initial flat fee to set up Web search parameters with

clients, identifying sites of interest and discussing what’s relevant.

‘You may want the agent to spend about half an hour a day doing the

search, or, if it’s not a very hot topic, about an hour a week. The

great thing about agents is that repetition is removed and the agent

becomes better at its job,’ says O’Neill.

Another monitoring company aiming to introduce a Web search service is

Romeike and Curtice. ‘We’re in test mode with half a dozen clients and

hope to launch in the autumn,’ reports managing director, Simon Lanyon.

Lanyon believes the service, called net.cut, will save clients a lot of

time. ‘Rather than clients having to log on to the Net, which tends to

be slow, and then being presented with a list of options from search

engines, we’ll do the searching for them. Clients will be presented with

‘cuttings’ - a snapshot of what’s on a Web site - and if they’re

interested in that site there will be a hot link so they can go straight

to it,’ he says.

Cuttings will be delivered via e-mail, and software will enable clients

to download material off-line. There will be a ‘slight premium’ for the

new service compared to Romeike’s traditional service, but the range of

sources scanned and speed of delivery is likely to ensure interest.

A Plus managing director Mike Copland is excited about the potential of

intelligent agents. ‘They will enable us to start being more discerning

about how we get information and what we do with it. We will be able to

come in in the morning and have information on our PCs relevant to our


But Copland and A Plus account director Andrew Smith are confident that

agents won’t diminish the value of PR consultancies. ‘Intelligent agent

software will improve, but will still only be retrieving the kind of

information we need to make value judgments and act accordingly,’ says


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in