The State of Online PR: Web Takes Its Place Among Mature Media


The naysayers are eating crow ... but so are a few of the evangelists. The Web has grown up, and while the medium is every bit as powerful as some predicted it would be, many PR pros have found that its most compelling applications are a little different than originally envisioned. In this special issue of PR NEWS, we examine best practices in online PR. We spoke to the experts at corporations, agencies and nonprofits nationwide to find out how online PR has changed over the past few years and where the latest trends lie. And we found that while there are still many practitioners, especially at agencies, who focus specifically on online PR, interactive tools have established themselves as a necessity in every PR practitioner's communications arsenal. Media Relations Many of the online media outlets that sprang up during the dotcom boom are long gone. But most of the sites left standing are highly influential. The golden rule, "Know thy reporter," is as true for a journalist operating on the Web as for a reporter writing for a major print daily or a producer working the morning shows. "Understand the person as an individual," advises Jason Teitler, EVP of Porter Novelli's global interactive practice. "Don't assume an individual working in the digital domain should receive email pitches," Teitler says. The Web is also another reason to get to know the print reporters. Reid Walker, director of global marketing communications for GE Global eXchange Services, says he is seeing increasing crossover between print reporters for major publications and their Web sites. "There is a gradual recognition of the importance of the online edition. They'll break news there now that they might have held [until the next edition of the print pub] before." That real-time element of Web reporting means that many news items are picked up by wire services and posted on various Web sites verbatim. Shane Larrabee, head of Hoffman Agency online comms practice, cautions, however, that that means changing the way you treat the average press release. "PR professionals have to change the way they write. We have to write releases as a reporter would [write a story]." Other Web-based tools have also become a critical element of any savvy communications plan. Webcasts have drawn audiences up to 10 times larger than in-person news conferences for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. Joe Lilly, VP of New West, Brown & Williamson's PR agency, recalls a recent news conference in Chicago that drew six or seven reporters and compares it to a news briefing online that drew 60 to 70 journalists. "They overwhelmingly appreciated that they didn't have to spend time on travel." The Corporate Site "Corporations really need to consider the Web site as a place to open a dialogue," says Porter Novelli's Teitler. Stakeholders from reporters to customers to investors expect your site to be their first line of communication with your organization. Brown & Williamson has leveraged its site to control its media message and reach a variety of stakeholders in a controversial industry. "When we first launched the site in 1997, it was more of an informational site like most corporate sites," says Steve Kottak, manager of external affairs for the corporation. "Since then, it has become a very important piece of our communications." E-chats with the chairman and CEO are regularly posted on the site, as are the company's positions on smoking and health, and even links to court cases and anti-smoking organizations. Lilly says the company recognizes that it is in a controversial industry and that the site clearly communicates that. The Red Cross also used its site to diffuse controversy in the wake of Sept. 11, when the organization fell under scrutiny for alleged misuse of funds. "We had a section called 'Myths & Misconceptions,'" says Phil Zepeda, senior director, media communication, for the Red Cross national headquarters. The section listed each issue or "myth" and briefly debunked it. "We looked at our traffic, and when there was a hot issue, traffic to that section would peak," Zepeda says. The Trends: From Mini-Sites to Measurement Zepeda and his team also made frequent use of the nonprofit's intranet to ensure that Red Cross communicators around the world had access to the most up-to-date messaging. A "Hot Topics" section includes hot-button issues along with a few simple statements for communicators to use. The intranet has become a staple of employee communications, and communications teams at agencies and corporations are beginning to leverage it as a tool for managing communications, whether through password-protected areas where an account team can manage all the collateral on a single project or through simple comms guides like the Red Cross' "Hot Topics." Mini-sites have emerged as another growing tool for managing the glut of information online. Mini-sites, interactive press kits, and sites that can be switched on and off for a campaign can draw attention to specific programs and issues - whether campaigns or crises - without requiring audiences to dig deep into a corporate site. Whatever the application, the Web is no longer a separate and mysterious medium. It should be treated as a part of any integrated PR strategy - and that means accountability. Measuring results is key. Janice Miller, e-marketing and e-media director for GCI Group, advises clients to come to a consensus before launching the campaign about what is important: unique users? Average traffic per month? Or how many people are being driven to the site by a particular PR vehicle? Measurement of online initiatives can have more impact than for any other vehicle given the real-time flexibility the Web offers. "A lot of times it's just as effective to find something's not working," says Larrabee. "If you see it's not," you can make changes quickly. Overall, experts say online PR has truly come of age. "You have to use it strategically," Miller says. "The Web is grown up now, and it has caught up with the other outlets." The Invasion of the Blogs Another pronounced trend online is the "blogs" (short for Web logs). Blogs can be anything from one individual's ongoing rant about a particular issue to a sophisticated compilation of media coverage of a topic along with commentary from the blogger. "These are more or less chatrooms on steroids," says Porter Novelli's Teitler. "They influence a lot of people." Some blogs are drawing thousands of people interested in the blogger's topic. So most PR pros are cautioning that they're one more Web channel to watch. Most choose not to participate directly but to monitor them as they would a chatroom that covers issues impacting their industries. (Contacts: Teitler, jason.teitler@porternovelli.com; Walker, reid.walker@gxs.ge.com; Larrabee, slarrabee@hoffman.com; Lilly, jlilly@newwestagency.com; Kottak, stephen_kottak@bat.com; Zepeda, zepedap@usa.redcross.org; Miller, jmiller@gcigroup.com)

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