Public relations professionals ought to own the Internet. It’s an interactive medium, one that rewards dialogue rather than monologue, and it’s a medium that demands an understanding of all stakeholder groups. Advertising people produce one-way communications. Marketing people focus exclusively on consumers. Public relations people, on the other hand, are required to engage in dialogue every day—journalists, after all, ask lots of questions—and they are expected to understand the information needs of employees, communities, consumers, and shareholders.
Yet many public relations professionals fail to integrate the Internet into their thinking on a consistent basis. In some cases, it’s because they just don’t understand the medium; in some cases it’s because they understand it all too well, and fear the lack of control that is integral to a medium where conversations take place in an unregulated environment, a world without gatekeepers.
A new report from Internet communications specialist Mainsail Interactive Services, which offers web development and other interactive services and which recently formed an alliance with international public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, provides a roadmap for PR firms looking to take advantage of the medium’s potential. The report, Interactive PR: The Party Starts Now, suggests at least six activities that ought to be part of any significant agency-of-record relationship.
“After seven years, we know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to public relations agencies and the Internet,” said Mainsail CEO Mark White. “This white paper demonstrates our open-source approach to delivering best-practices strategies and tactics to PR professionals. Our goal is to help agencies build and implement the necessary infrastructure to deliver critical services like newsgroup monitoring and managing online pressrooms. If PR agencies don’t start offering these programs to their clients, another marketing communications vendor will.”
Mainsail points to some significant changes in the media environment: every Internet user has access to a global broadcast channel; breaking news stories are posted on thousands of websites in real time; real-time newswire services are now available to employees, customers, and competitors as well as reporters; and anyone can post opinions about a company and its products on countless Internet forums.
“Despite these tectonic changes,” says Chris Clark, a veteran of GCI Group and Alexander Ogilvy, who authored the report, “many public relations agencies continue to run their businesses the way they have since the dawn of the mass market in the 1950s and the concurrent rise of national TV networks and magazines: It’s about placements, stupid.” Such firms, he says, are “fiddling while Rome burns, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
In the Internet era, getting good ink is no longer enough. Clients will increasingly demand that their PR agencies help them take understand how to communication in an age in which “markets are conversations,” in the words of Christopher Locke and the other authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, last year’s best-selling business tome.
Mainsail’s white paper takes off from a study conducted earlier this year by IMT Strategies on behalf of the Council of Public Relations Firms. That study, The Impact of the Internet on Public Relations and Business Communications, revealed that companies are anxious to address the challenges of the new media landscape and suggested that traditional marketing and communications firms were not providing the range of services their clients need.
“Interactive public relations means maximizing the Internet as a two-way communications channel between a company and its key audiences,” says Clark. “It does not mean building a flashy web site, nor using email to send press releases to journalists, although those tactics are certainly part of the mix.” While those things rely on traditional skills—and imply a one-way model of communications—the report suggests the new era will demand that PR people develop four new skills:

        Online constituent intelligence: extracting strategic value out of the glut of information by and about key constituencies, including online media coverage; newsgroup, forum, chat room and website postings; and online reviews of a company’s products and services.

        Communications architecture: helping large organizations to map a comprehensive plan for effective coverage, collaboration and analysis of networked marketing communications, particularly international resources, since the Internet does not respect traditional geography or language borders.

        Dialogue facilitation and community building: helping companies engage, participate in, host and foster dialogue and community with its various online constituents. 

        Mastery of new communications tools: assembling and commanding a new set of tools and strategies to enhance credibility, awareness, discussion, media engagement, site traffic and online reputation.
But there are obstacles to realizing the potential of these opportunities, Clark says: senior agency managers are not always Internet savvy; too many firms continue to define Internet services primarily in terms of website design; PR firms have failed to promote their interactive capabilities; and some in-house Internet managers are reluctant to share management responsibility with external consultants.
Those obstacles have to be overcome, and PR firms have to learn to deliver communications solutions in at least six key areas.

The Online Press Room
Every corporate website includes a “press room,” a section dedicated to news releases, background information and related data that was formerly relegated to the official “press kit” distributed only to accredited journalists.
But according to Clark, “As with so many sections on a typical corporate web site, these press rooms are usually interchangeable in their layout and content. Press releases are listed in chronological order. Contact information for the media is limited to an anonymous “[email protected]” In many cases, the section is decorated with images that are supposed to represent the media—a camera, a pencil, a typewriter—yet there are no photographs of a company’s executives or products, or even a print quality version of the corporate logo.”
In March 2001, the Nielsen Norman Group published a study called Designing Websites to Maximize Press Relations, based on interviews with journalists, which concluded that “corporations spend millions on PR, and yet the press sections of their websites often fail to meet journalists’ most basic information needs.”
In the Mainsail study, 20 journalists attempted to use the press areas of 10 corporate websites to gather information for typical story assignments. The journalists tried to find basic information about each company’s financials, management, and commitment to social responsibility, along with a PR telephone number. They were able to find what they were looking for only 60 percent of the time.
Clark’s suspicion is that too often, the press section of a corporate website is developed by the IT department, with input from a myriad sources: sales, advertising, customer service. “If management of a corporate web site, including the press section, is delegated to a company’s IT staff, which has to respond to hundreds of service requests every day, repeated pleas to post a press release are often buried at the bottom of a to-do pile, meaning a company’s own web site often doesn’t include the most current news.”
Corporate communications managers and public relations agencies are hesitant to post the real name, telephone number and email address of a press contact on a web site, says Clark, and even on the press releases themselves. Security reasons are cited, as well as the desire to avoid queries from site visitors other than journalists. Indeed, many companies don’t like to present too much press information that’s accessible by any audience, including customers and competitors.
In the early days of the Internet, companies would even password-protect their online pressrooms, and asked accredited media representatives register to gain access, a system that not surprisingly proved too burdensome for most journalists and excluded many freelancers.
Says Clark, “Given that corporations often pay their public relations agencies millions of dollars annually to manage the media on their behalf, it makes sense that these agencies would assume responsibility for the management of their clients’ online press rooms, often the first point of contact with journalists. But it’s not always easy to convince IT to hand over control of a specific section of the website.  What if other departments find out and demand control of their sections, too?”
For that reason, he says, the PR department must make its case airtight. Most of all, the agency’s representatives must demonstrate that they have Internet knowledge and skills equal to those of the people in charge of the site.
Once the PR department has control, it must address journalists’ needs, providing at the minimum press releases posted at the same time they are distributed on newswires; a search engine covering all media information, including archived news releases; high-quality photographs of the company’s products and senior executives; high-quality digital renditions of the company’s brands and logos; executive biographies, including recent speeches and presentations; investor information including analyst presentations, quarterly earnings releases, 10-K filings and annual reports; a corporate history; information about a company’s civic and charitable activities; the mailing address and general telephone number (not the toll-free customer service line) of the company’s headquarters; and contact information for a public relations representative for every country where the company does significant business
Says Clark, “The key to designing a functional online press room is to think like a journalist who doesn’t know anything about a company, not like a representative of the company itself.

Disseminating Corporate News
Many companies have thousands, if not millions, of people with a keen interest in their daily activities: employees, investors, analysts, customers, partners, suppliers, prospective employees, students, researchers, even competitors. There’s no need to rely on the the media when the technology exists for companies to broadcast their news on their own terms, to become content providers themselves.
“In the near future, the news will be delivered by the companies making the news, while the media will serve as a third-party analyst,” Clark predicts. “Even today, companies no longer have to rely on placing a story with a media outlet to make sure the news reaches its key audiences. Their press release headlines are listed on thousands of portals and other compilers of Internet content right next to the ones from major news organizations.”
There are three specific tactics a company can use to further decrease its reliance on traditional media placements.
First, it can offer opt-in press release distribution, enabling visitors to its online press room to provide a company with their email address and receive copies of the company’s press releases at the same time they are distributed on the wire services.
Newsletters are another overlooked communications medim. Says Clark, “Ssales and marketing is probably already sending a CRM newsletter to existing customers and prospects. This newsletter can also be made available to journalists and other interested parties through a simple opt-in box where subscribers provide their email address.”
Finally, a company can offer interested parties access to webcasts. The technology for streaming audio and video through the Internet is improving, and soon, full-screen, full-motion video will be as common as MP3 music files, says Clark. Companies can begin to prepare by developing and implementing an online video strategy today.
The first step can be as simple as including the company’s most current television advertisements in the online press room, instead of forcing journalists to go to third-party aggregators of this content. Companies can also videotape and post press and analyst conferences for viewing online, as well as speeches by company executives at industry events.
As for the future: “Within a few years, it will be common for companies to run their own news department in the same manner as a network TV channel, with morning and evening broadcasts by anchors sitting behind a desk reporting on the day’s events within a company. PR agencies will miss an enormous opportunity if they are not the ones who develop the skills necessary to produce these shows. If PR firms don’t, another marketing communications vendor will.”

Reg FD
The implementation by the Securities & Exchange Commission of Reg FD, which provides for equal disclosure of material corporate information, has already created quite a stir in the public relations business, but it presents an opportunity for Internet-based communications.
The biggest change wrought by Reg FD is the prohibition of invitation-only quarterly earnings teleconferences with a company’s favorite Wall Street analysts. This has led to an explosion of Internet-enabled conferencing strategies that allow anyone with a browser to at least listen in and participate in these sessions by posing questions directly to senior management.
Says Clark, “In order to avoid having a client become the SEC’s first test case, PR agencies have to be more involved than ever before in the way company news is disseminated, especially through the Internet. Some companies have trouble getting press releases posted to the corporate web site in a timely fashion. This simply cannot occur under Reg FD.”
Likewise, some non-agency vendors have already taken the lead in offering specialized services for streaming quarterly analyst teleconferences on the web. Clark believes this strategy could easily become a Trojan horse to get their people in front of the CFO and ultimately secure the entire investor relations business.

Viral Marketing
Turbocharged by the instantaneous global communications capability of the Internet, what used be known as “buzz” has been transformed into viral marketing.
According to e-commerce consultant Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, “viral marketing describes any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message's exposure and influence. Like viruses, such strategies take advantage of rapid multiplication to explode the message to thousands, to millions.”
Great viral marketing campaigns, Clark says, are the ones where users proactively pass along a company’s marketing message, thus inferring a positive endorsement of the product or service.
Many examples of viral marketing are already Internet staples. Sending free postcards from a website. Funny animations and video clips. Trial versions of software applications, often referred to as baitware, a definition that also includes free content such as the first chapter of an e-book. Online coupons.  “E-mail this article to a friend” links on media sites.
“Viral campaigns have become as ubiquitous as URLs on the Internet, and a very important weapon for companies that want to expand their online marketing efforts without resorting to costly and mostly ineffective banner advertising,” says Clark. “Sort of like how public relations works.  Which is why viral marketing has to be included in every agency’s arsenal of interactive PR skills.”

Monitoring News and Newsgroups
Every public company is the subject of dozens of online newsgroups, forums, bulletin boards, investment clubs, chat rooms and other messaging services that allow anyone to anonymously post their opinions about any aspect of the corporation’s operations, including its products, its employees, its social responsibility record, its future prospects and its overall viability as an investment. There are message forums that cover entire industries, including private companies, and websites for prospective employees where existing employees can post their opinions about what it’s like to work for a company. 
In addition to the millions of messages posted to these online forums every hour, the last five years have witnessed an explosion in the number of online media sources posting news about companies.  Every newspaper, magazine and television network has its own website, many of them staffed separately from their paper and broadcast equivalents, and many of them updated continuously rather than once or twice a day.
In some cases, the unofficial news sources have superceded mainstream media in terms of being the first to report exclusive stories. Others don’t play by the rules established in the offline world—sites where moviegoers who attend an advance screening of an unreleased movie can post a review months before the official premiere, for example.
Says Clark, “Trying to stop anonymous newsgroup posters and unofficial media sites with lawsuits usually only serves to draw more attention to the forum, thus increasing readership and the site’s influence and importance. At the other extreme, companies that actively participate in these forums and media sites often gain enormous credibility in the eyes of investors.
“Love them or hate them, it is critical for a company’s public relations agency to track and monitor each and every one of these messaging and online media sites in real time. You never know when a posting on any one of these sites will become noteworthy, if not an international incident that causes a company’s stock to crash precipitously.”
In the immediate future, he says, news and newsgroup monitoring software will improve to the level where the stories and messages can be reviewed by intelligent agents to help sort the messages by topic, subject, content, relevance, importance, message delivery and even emotional levels.

Intranets—password-protected web sites maintained for the private use of a predefined network of people—continue to thrive as collaboration tools, information resources and communications networks. And forward-thinking companies have decided to extend their intranets to their customers, partners and suppliers, creating extranets, some of which have expanded into online marketplaces and business-to-business exchanges where constantly fluctuating prices are compared, orders are placed, and supply chains are managed.
Says Clark, “For public relations agencies, extranets offer an outstanding value proposition in terms of more effectively managing the day-to-day communications and document distribution needs of the agency-client relationship, as well as multi-office accounts. There are no barriers to implementation beyond the technical skills required to develop and maintain a web site built around a robust database requiring the highest levels of security and ease of access.”
Although some agencies still balk at sharing too much information with their clients, that attitude cannot continue in the Internet age.
Public relations extranets include three core components: A database of documents such as press release drafts, executive biographies and product spec sheets; a calendar of account activities; and a contact list for all account team members.
These features can be supplemented by dozens of other function, including:

  • Real-time news feeds
  • Real-time newsgroup monitoring results
  • Links to media placement results
  • Message boards, online conferencing and instant messaging applications
  • Conference collaboration tools such as virtual whiteboards
  • Scrolling message alerts
  • Media lists
  • Editorial calendars
  • PR program measurement and account activity reports
  • Links to relevant online resources, including media sites, industry associations and competitors
  • Lists of approved outside vendors for specialized projects
  • Private web casts of client meetings and announcements
“Extranets provide both the agency’s account teams and their client contacts with real-time access to everything they need to successfully implement a public relations campaign, both traditional and interactive,” says Clark. “And the cost savings can be tremendous. Instead of faxing versions of a press release for approval, or sending it as an attachment to an email, clients can simply download the most current version from the extranet, then upload a revised or approved version as soon as it’s ready. Team members can get everything they need to run an account while traveling or working at home.’
The Internet represents a vast opportunity, but other service providers have been more aggressive than PR firms in marketing their expertise.

Says Clark, “Public relations agencies are standing at the doorway of a new era where they can literally double their monthly billings from existing clients by adding interactive PR services, while providing a quantifiable differentiator in their new-business proposals. The biggest hurdle is knowledge. PR professionals at all levels must learn everything they can about using the Internet as an effective marketing communications tool.”