TECHNIQUE: PUBLIC RELATIONS; Untangling the web

The rapid growth of the Internet offers enormous potential if handled carefully. Robert Grey reports on the key role that PR expertise can play

The rapid growth of the Internet offers enormous potential if handled

carefully. Robert Grey reports on the key role that PR expertise can

play



Despite unresolved problems about access speed and security, use of the

Internet continues to grow at an astounding rate. There are now well

over 20 million people who surf the Net and it’s odds on this number

will snowball in the coming years. Last year, the number of Web sites

grew by 600%. Current estimates are at least 3000 new sites per day and,

if anything, the rate of increase is accelerating



But it’s not just the number of travellers on the international

infobahn. The choice of destinations on the World Wide Web (WWW) - the

user-friendly multimedia part of the Net that can accommodate graphics

and audio - has surged exponentially.



Many of these sites have been set up by companies that see the Net as a

potentially powerful marketing medium and have already identified a

place for it in their communications strategies (others, undoubtedly,

are born of companies’ fear about being left behind as rivals plug into

the digital revolution). Whatever the rationale, the image of the Net as

the preserve of sad, anoraked ‘techies’ has lost currency in the

realisation of the commercial possibilities.



But how best to use it as a marketing medium? Though brand-owners like

Guinness have pioneered ads on the Net - using their Web addresses as

the equivalent of cyber poster sites to catch the eye of those passing

through - it has become clear that there’s consumer resistance to this

approach.



This is due to the slightly anarchic and subversive culture of the Net,

an upshot of its haphazard and unregulated development. Many consumers

and even business users are happy to find out more about products and

services as they trawl through this colossal electronic information

resource but are less than comfortable with the idea of being overtly

urged to buy on their cyberspace travels. The hard sell is a breach of

Netiquette.



So to derive commercial benefits from a presence on the Net, one needs

to harness a more subtle form of marketing than advertising. This is

where public relations comes in.



‘People are savvy,’ says Graham Goodkind, a director at PR agency Lynne

Franks. ‘If you treat your site as an excuse for an ad, people may well

visit you but they won’t try and understand what you’re about because

they’re being sold to.’



Lynne Franks has had its own Web site up and running since late last

year. It includes sections on food and drink, health and beauty and

style and fashion containing useful information on, and for, its

clients.



Goodkind argues PR agencies are well suited to working with clients on

setting up and running sites because their communications and

consultancy skills enable them both to publicise its existence and give

advice on content. Dominic Hawes, Web developer at Key Communications,

agrees. ‘I see the Web developing as a commercial tool and the PR person

is well placed to make the most of it because we are used to writing

pages and targeting audiences.’



Quite a few consultancies (particularly those with clients in the IT

sector) already operate their own Web sites. In many cases, these have a

dual function: to act as an electronic marketing brochure for the agency

itself and to provide PR data on clients. A Plus, Edelman, Firefly,

Fleishman-Hillard, Ketchum, Key and Lynne Franks - inter alia - are all

in the vanguard of the two-way sell.



‘The nice thing is that with a Web site you can constantly update it,

while with a printed brochure when things change you have to throw the

baby out with the bathwater and start again from scratch,’ says A Plus

account director Andrew Smith.



Fleishman-Hillard has been advising clients on both the technical

aspects of starting up a Web site and its PR content. It’s putting

together a home page for the Cable Communications Association that’ll

offer ‘hotlinks’ (access to other sites by clicking on an icon or some

hypertext on the page) to information - schedules for example - on local

cable franchises.



Last year, Lynne Franks assisted Absolut Vodka establish Absolut Access

to tie in with its sponsorship of the interactive Take Me I’m Yours

exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. Now Lloyds Bank and SmithKline

Beecham are working on Net projects with the agency too.



With the former, it has developed the soon-to-be-live Lloyds Bank BAFTA

Awards Web site which will include information on last year’s films and

television programmes. Members of the public will be able to vote for

their favourites on the Net as an alternative to filling out a leaflet

or calling an 0345 number.



SmithKline Beecham has commissioned a Lemsip site to include a ‘home

doctor element’ offering treatment advice for ailments like colds and

flu.



It would be wrong, of course, to suggest all such activity is driven by

consultancies. Many clients have spotted the benefits of using PR

techniques to market themselves on this burgeoning new medium.



The Body Shop already carries product information on its Body Language

Web site and this week launched an environmental home page. It’ll be

unbranded - www.think.act.change.com - the PR benefit deriving from its

construction as a forum of discussion about the company’s Values Report.

This is very much in keeping with the Body Shop’s communications

philosophy of using PR to promote conservation, thereby positioning

itself as a caring ‘green’ company.



A corporation with a drastically different image to Body Shop, Philip

Morris, has been using the Net to lobby government for less punitive

taxation on cigarettes. The tobacco giant set up the site in December

1995 in response to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s decision to take

another 15p a packet in his November budget. Under the guise of its Fair

Cigarette Tax Campaign, PM offers smokers the opportunity to send an e-

mail direct to the Chancellor, urging him to rethink his policy.



The Britvic soft drinks brand Tango, which first appeared on the Net

back in November 1994, has just spent nine months and pounds 250,000

revamping its wacky site to offer greater interactivity. The new format

builds on the brand’s irreverent advertising by offering visitors a

fizzy selection of jokes, prank ideas, spoof electronic ‘postcards’,

games and more.



Meanwhile, TSB claimed to be the first bank to target students directly

on the Net when it launched the Digital Trip last September. The site

offers students advice on bank accounts, benefits, grants, budgeting,

health etc, as well as listing events across the country.



And computer manufacturer Compaq extended PR activities around its

sponsorship of the Grand Slam Cup tennis tournament by putting scores,

statistics and player biographies and photographs on its BaseLine for

tennis fans.



Compaq, IBM and many other hi-tech companies now put press releases on

their Web sites enabling computer journalists to access information

whenever they need it - particularly handy for reporters up against a

deadline and working outside office hours. It shouldn’t be too long

before this practice becomes established outside the sector.



And as more and more media owners move into electronic publishing, as

News International did at the start of the year, PR practitioners are

also having to keep abreast of what’s being published in cyberspace and

make sure their clients don’t miss out on any promotion opportunities.



Lynne Franks, for instance, recently ran a promotion for SupaSnaps with

the TCC24Seven, the Web site of children’s cable channel TCC, involving

giveaway Smile! cameras.



There is already an almost inconceivable amount of information on the

WWW and it’s growing all the time. It has been said the Web is like the

world’s biggest library with the lights turned off. But, as technology

improves and more comprehensive Net address directories begin to appear,

navigation will become far easier.



Improved technology will eventually allow sites to be updated in real

time. In the coming months, the term Webmaster, for someone employed

specifically to run and edit a Web site, will start to make its way into

common usage. It is against this background that the Internet will

become an extremely powerful PR medium.



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