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