It seems like only yesterday that this newsletter was profiling the first few PR pioneers to establish a presence on the Internet. Then we looked at the development of agency Intranets, enabling PR firms to share documents and information across offices and practice areas. Now a handful of corporate PR departments are developing Extranets, web-based systems that allow them to communicate and work with their agencies.
One of the first Extranets—certainly one of the most complex and sophisticated—has been developed at Philips North America. Shortly after Terry Fassburg joined to head U.S. public relations earlier this year, he asked one of its several public relations firms, Brodeur Porter Novelli, to develop a system that would allow it to share data among its various divisions and its external counsel.
“When I got here, we were getting ready for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas,” Fassburg recalls. “My boss, Ed Volkwein [senior vice president of global brand management] had told us that he wanted Philips to have a single corporate presence at CES. That meant all of our divisions had to work together. Just getting copy cleared to go into a corporate press kit was the longest nightmare. Every division had its own style. Every division had its own approval system.”
The company had always been decentralized, with the semiconductor division, which markets to technology buyers, rarely communicating with the more consumer focused lighting division. Philips has 16 divisions and six agencies: Brodeur has the largest part of the business; Ketchum handles lighting and crisis communications; Manning Selvage & Lee works on domestic appliances; SSA of Los Angeles has some video and broadcast business; Spector & Associates has handled the now defunct Philips Consumer Communications group; and Miller/Shandwick has the semiconductor business, currently in review.
“We have 32 people in house,” says Fassburg. “If you include the agencies there are literally hundreds of people handling PR for this company.”
That’s not unusual. Nor are the problems that Philips’ PR people have communicating with one another. But the company’s solution is unusual: a web-based communications system that combines a media contact database, an events calendar, a directory of PR staff, and a Lotus Notes-style document exchange program.
“We could have done a lot of what we have done with Lotus Notes,” says Brodeur’s Amos Kermish, who was charged with developing the Extranet. “Unfortunately, everyone at Philips was on a different system. They were all using different E-mail programs. The communications problems were awful. By putting all of the information on the Web, people could access the information wherever they were and whatever software they were using.”
Fassburg had four major objectives for the Extranet.
“First, I wanted a system to create and clear copy expeditiously,” he says. “Second, I wanted a system that would manage E-mail. Third, I wanted to create a directory of who within the organization is working on what. And fourth, I wanted something to act as an early warning system so that everyone can be informed when something major is happening.”
Kermish had recently completed a similar Extranet development assignment for technology industry client Platinum, although on a much smaller scale. Working with a team of programmers at BPN, he was able to come up with a solution within a matter of weeks. “The only complicated thing was the document exchange system,” he says.
The opening page of the Extranet site provides the company’s U.S. PR people with access to the latest news from the Philips headquarters in Amsterdam. The site takes Philips Today, the company’s daily newsletter, and puts key stories online. Special bulletins are added, as relevant, throughout the day.
The document exchange posts press releases, speeches and other documents under one of three headings—corporate, product, and cross-team—and enables any member of the team working on a project to edit the documents, using a simple word processing program. Every version of the document is stored, so team members can go back through previous versions and track the changes that have been made, and every member of each team is notified via E-mail whenever documents are edited.
The directory, meanwhile, lists about 175 people, and is searchable by keyword. So if someone wants to know who at Philips or at its agencies is responsible for a specific product, they can find out quickly and easily. The directory works in conjunction with the company’s 800 number, enabling whoever answers a media inquiry to pass the call on to the appropriate person.
“If you look up Philips in your local telephone directory you’ll find about 100 listings, so a lot of reporters don’t know where to start,” Fassburg says. “We created an 800 number for the media, and now using the directory we are much more efficient at forwarding calls to the right people and getting back to reporters quickly.”
Information from those media calls are also entered into a database, so all the company’s PR people know which reporters at which publications have expressed an interest in various products. A PR exec on the lighting business, for example, can learn that a reporter from Better Homes & Gardens had been working with the video group for an article on home theater.
The calendar, meanwhile, tracks events—Comdex is top of the list right now—and helps to avoid scheduling conflicts. Says Fassburg, “We don’t want two divisions holding separate events on the same day. In the past, if you wanted to know what other divisions were doing, you had to make 15 different telephone calls. Now all of that information is available on the Extranet.”
It's’s helped us operate much more efficiently,” says Fassburg. “We are much more responsive, to the media and to each other.”