There's no denying that the Internet has been one of the most overly hyped technologies in human history. Newspapers, TV shows, magazines, and yes, even a few books promised us a revolutionary new business world in which hard-charging dot-coms stole markets away from established brick-and-mortar companies that were supposedly too stupid and slow moving to realize what was happening around them. All Americans would soon have personal Web pages and spend countless hours in online "communities" swapping advice with like-minded peers. Of course, that's only if they weren't running to the front door to accept deliveries of the books, toys, pet food, and sofas they bought online at low, low prices. Anyone who didn't recognize the magnitude of this Internet revolution and invest a few bucks in skyrocketing Internet stocks just didn't get it.
Today we know that the Internet mania of the late 1990s was as much about greed as it was about innovation. Investors, sold on the notion of a worldwide network of billions of consumers, bet on startups and pushed them to run hard despite poorly formed business plans, faulty technology, and total ignorance about the difficulty of cost-effectively delivering things like groceries or bedroom sets across wide geographic regions.
All has not been lost in the dot-com bust, however. The world has embraced this new medium of communication and it is not going to let go. The Internet might not be the megamarket previously advertised, but it has very quickly changed the way that business is done in nearly every industry—from finance to manufacturing, from real estate to retail, and most certainly in public relations.
Indeed, itis not hyperbole to argue that the field of public relations has been revolutionized. PR professionals schooled in the old world of pretty press kits and faxed press releases have had to adapt quickly. Overnight mail is no longer fast enough. Reporters, feeling the Internet's demands for immediacy, want instant access to press releases and updated versions of corporate fact sheets, executive backgrounders, and every kind of data that PR people can make available. They expect to find the information in online newsrooms, where all these items are located in one place.
Even more revolutionary, perhaps, is the fact that public relations people are increasingly finding themselves interacting with the public. Reporters and analysts are only one part of the job. The Internet has given customers, stockholders, prospective business partners, and others access to the materials developed by PR people. It is both a marvelous opportunity to get a client's message out to the public without the interference of reporters and a dangerously out-of-control situation in which facts, rumor, and innuendo can be circulated about a company in seriously damaging ways often under the radar of clipping and monitoring services employed to report on what's being said about a company in the press. The infamous Internet grapevine has already created big headaches for some of the country's most popular brands. From Heinz ketchup to Coors beer and even talk show hosts, such as Oprah Winfrey, no one can escape the Internet's ability to spread rumors like wildfire.
PR people obviously have not been hiding with their heads in the sand. Most are getting press releases out quickly via broadcast e-mail and many have invested countless hours in developing online pressrooms. But who is using these tools to greatest effect? What have they learned that others in PR should emulate? What have they learned that the rest of us should avoid? What potentially helpful new tools are on the horizon? How do companies keep their online PR strategies in line with what they're doing in the offline arena?
Our goal for this book is to answer these key questions for public relations professionals—regardless of whether their clients are new Internet companies or old manufacturers. Deirdre Breakenridge's first book, Cyberbranding (Prentice Hall, 2001), told marketers how to use the Internet to build their brands. Strong public relations was an element to that story, but The New PR Toolkit focuses intently on public relations to offer solid advice to practitioners. Despite this focus, we believe that marketing professionals, senior level decision makers, and entrepreneurs are sure to find value in the tips and case studies presented here.
We understand that the Internet fundamentally has changed PR; however, we also counsel a strong back-to-basics approach to avoid many of the pitfalls of unsuccessful strategies of recent years. Business is still business, even if there's an e hung on the front of it. Research and planning were often the enemies of dot-com executives living on souped-up "Internet time," but both functions are actually more important than ever as PR people struggle to determine who is interacting with their brands online and offline and how can they be presented with the best possible image of the company.
The New PR Toolkit is full of solid examples of companies that have used the Internet to improve their public relations efforts and of lessons that can be learned by some high-profile failures. Our "Odd Couple" authoring partnership (we won't identify who's Felix and who's Oscar) guarantees that readers get not only the perspectives of a PR professional who's represented clients such as JVC, GMAI, and Derek Jeter's Turn 2 Foundation, but also the views of an experienced editor who has fielded thousands of pitches and written hundreds of articles in his 15 years with respected publications such as Internet World and The Chronicle of Higher Education. PR people and reporters, whether they want to admit it or not, are partners in bringing information to readers and viewers. Our intent with this book is to point out successful strategies and tactics as seen through the eyes of the PR people who orchestrated them and the journalists who responded to them and gave the stories ink, airtime, or online play.
The first part of The New PR Toolkit helps you to lay the groundwork for your online PR efforts, explaining the importance of identifying your target audience and understanding its needs and wants. The short lives of several dot-coms help us point up the dangers of overlooking the importance of such research. Research results, we argue, must not be derived from secondary sources, but should come from primary, qualitative, and quantitative studies focused on the perceptions and well-being of a brand.
We tell you, the readers, about the tools available to you, running the gamut from online databases, tracking software, monitoring and clipping services, and so on, and use case studies to explain how they've been employed successfully.
The middle part of The New PR Toolkit is devoted to explaining how the news media have evolved in the Internet era and the tools that can be used to reach them. Journalists of the 21st Century are more deadline conscious than ever, as weekly publications produce nightly electronic newsletters, and daily newspapers publish twice-daily Web updates. The historically hard-charging wire services now get their stories to the online public within minutes of their writing. The demands on their time and the power of the Internet means that many journalists consider faxes and overnight mail to be akin to the Pony Express. They want instant access to information through your Web site or via e-mail, but the details they want are the same as what they've been seeking for years. They want exclusives. They want to know in a timely fashion about big-money deals and industry-altering product announcements. They still love colorful personalities, preferably in conflict with equally colorful rivals. Getting personal access to such bigwigs is still tremendously important to most journalists and a task still best handled by PR professionals in the flesh, rather than their Internet-based tools.
We offer specific advice and case studies to illustrate exactly how to construct effective pitches in e-mail, complete with compelling subject lines. We discuss the use of permission-based e-mail that can keep reporters updated on your company while protecting you from being branded with the odious and possibly debilitating label of spammer. We discuss the essential elements of an online newsroom and offer our advice on how to produce an effective and accessible Webcast to get your executives out in front of the worldwide press.
In the final part of The New PR Toolkit, we focus on the pieces of a solid online public relations strategy that extend beyond day-to-day interactions with reporters or the public. We note, for example, the incredible speed of Internet communications and the importance of protecting your company from the damaging effects of message boards and rogue Web sites that spread less-than-pleasant words about your brand. As dissatisfied online users bad-mouth brands (you know the rule: have a good experience and you're likely to tell three people, have a bad experience and you tell 50 people), reporters often stumble across these postings and some might receive wider press coverage unless the affected company has a way of monitoring and intervening to protect its name.
Another important element of an online strategy must be a crisis management capability that lets a company get information out quickly on any number of newsmaking events from plane crashes to oil spills to product recalls. The Internet audience expects to be able to go to a company's site for the latest news, which means that PR professionals need to have a ghost template ready to go live, one that is developed before a crisis occurs and can be quickly updated with the latest details and posted to the Web site. A quick online response of the type employed on September 11, 2001, by companies such as United Airlines and Sandler O'Neill & Partners can make a company appear proactive rather than defensive and can be supplemented later with materials such as written statements, legal documents, or video of the CEO's remarks that give the company's story in full.
Another important facet of an online PR strategy, we note, is the need for integration with offline strategies. Implementing a public relations program or communication without integrating the online forum is a disservice to the brand. It's critical for the brand that is portrayed in traditional advertising in print and broadcast to be in line with what's being communicated online. Offline PR programs that increase awareness need to appear in the online forum as well. Even though brands find that they might reach different demographics online, the overall brand message needs to be consistent. Audiences who encounter offline PR receive a reinforced message when the Web site focuses on similar information. This crossover is being facilitated by the spread of high-speed Internet access, which will bring a convergence with TV and the ability to strengthen brand identity by using the same video on TV and on the Internet.
Finally, no aspect of Internet business can be discussed without proper attention to customer privacy. No one, from the technical personnel tracking site statistics to the marketing professionals eager to create customized features to the PR people responding to e-mailed queries, should overlook the tremendous importance that many people place on their personal privacy. A law governing information gathering from children is already on the books in the United States and more laws could be on the way. The European Community, meanwhile, has promulgated tough privacy regulations that affect U.S. companies operating overseas. PR people need to acknowledge the privacy of people's e-mail addresses, for example, by not sending mass mailings in which all the recipients' addresses are visible. Even more important, however, PR catastrophes can be averted if PR people assure that privacy policies are posted online and are being followed by employees and contractors. Customer data can be used for innovations like personalization that promise to improve online experiences, but companies must be sure to have consumers' permission before rolling out such innovations.
As we bring The New PR Toolkit to a close, we reflect on the tremendous change the Internet has made in the abilities of PR professionals to serve their constituents at any time, day or night. Although some might pine for the day when they had more control over how their clients were being discussed and perceived, there's no going back. A new communications channel has been born and we are all left to change with the times and ensure that we're doing all that we can to see that our clients are portrayed in as positive a way as merited. Some resistance to change is natural, but the new toolkit must be embraced as a means to move forward aggressively, thereby redefining the P in PR to mean "proactive."With the end of the Internet frenzy and the onset of tough economic times, no one, not even deep-pocketed brands like Procter & Gamble or General Electric, is going to throw unlimited dollars at their online efforts. PR professionals need to ensure that what's spent is spent correctly by being proactive, doing accurate research, developing the appropriate strategies, staying on top of their execution, and managing a brand's reputation to guarantee the best possible outcomes for their clients.