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Go online young man! Well, if you want PR

Online PR is crucial claims Simon Wharton of online marketing specialists PushON and Rob Baker of PR agency Artisan. The following article explores why this much-underestimated resource needs to be mastered for real competitive advantage for all businesses.

The worlds of the Internet and PR are inexorably converging; any comprehensive PR campaign must take this fact to heart. All too often PR practitioners give the right sound bite, yet very few actively pursue online PR with no more than a glib reference or a chance to add another revenue stream without actually delivering on their commitment.

It is not entirely the PR professional’s fault. It is undoubtedly a field that does not embrace technology as well as it might. Yet, businesses in the main have failed to recognise or understand the potential opportunities available. Without pressure from clients, there is no impetus for the PR world to no more than dawdle towards offering online and offline PR in combination.

But why is online PR so important?

The answer is technology and reader behaviour.

If key audiences are receiving their information from an online source, they are not going to know about a business’ new service or product innovation if the PR output is restricted to hard copy. That is not to say newspaper and magazines are not important: they are and always will be. After all, computers are essential business tools, but the paperless office did not materialise as predicted some 30 years ago just because computers began to arrive on the scene.

I am sure many readers accept this as fact. But even if they have any doubts, a few statistics will force the point beyond any reticence or opposition there might be:

Let’s start with UK Internet users: there are 37,800,000; Internet penetration is 62% of the population; user growth is 145% on 2005 (www.internetworldstats.com)

Blogs – a key element of online PR – are going up at a worldwide rate of 80,000 a day according to leading authority Technorati.

And if the product or service is geared towards consumers, such businesses will be pleased to hear that the latest report (June 2006) states that 72.6% of Internet households enjoy broadband, up from 54.4% in June 2005 and 32.7% in June 2004: that’s 14 million households. What is more, many business people work from home or surf the net after work – an audience approaching TV proportions.

How online and offline PR differ, but remain close allies

The demarcation between online and offline activities in terms of channels that can be utilised is quite straightforward.

Offline PR is mainly associated with print (newspapers and magazines), radio and television.

Online PR focuses on influencing the readership that gains its information through the Internet: blogs, forums, discussion threads and Internet (including RSS feeds). A newsletter, sent via e-mail, is another potent weapon in any online PR armoury.

There is a strong correlation between online and offline PR. Both require newsworthy material expressed well in the written word.

Yet, online PR has many special characteristics that must be recognised: the speed of delivery, the worldwide reach and the interaction. Online PR is about links; it is about building communities and sharing information. The very nature of the online world means that traditional media outlets are often taken out of the PR equation. Users can receive information and comment without interpretation, direct from the source.

Respected commentator James L Horton sums it up perfectly: “Online is an individual medium.”

If you have read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or remember The Sun’s triumphant and vainglorious take on a 1992 election: “It’s the Sun wot won it.” You might think the media is all-powerful. But traditional media can no longer dominate the online world; they cannot dictate a view because they constitute the few sources of news available. Even though the traditional media is still highly influential, a great deal of information bypasses them.

The implication, much more so than offline PR, is that reputation is key. A business can be discussed at length in blogs, discussion threads and forums. Consequently an online PR agency has the much more pressing responsibility to constantly monitor key protagonists; it can be likened to grassroots PR rather than centralised PR.

US marketing guru Seth Godin gives an illustrative example: the Sripraphai restaurant in Queens New York. This tiny unassuming Thai restaurant is packed every night and achieved an amazing review in the New York Times. How? The restaurant does not advertise nor engages in promotion. A blog called Chowhound. Chowhound has over 350,000 visitors monthly that review restaurants and leave comments. Readers analyse comments from a trusted source – one that is not manipulated. That is an awfully powerful medium.

The worlds of PR and the Internet converge

New, innovative PR campaigns are going to work closely with Internet suppliers: their work compliments each other, almost perfectly. (The real power of marketing is using complimentary disciplines together).

Indeed, a gifted and passionate online professional working hand in hand with a talented PR man in the online world can enable clients to punch well above their weight.

But it can have dire consequences if not taken seriously enough:

Take this lesson from Dell’s experience to illustrate the power of the up and coming online media and its importance for all PR and online search marketing professionals and all companies that take their marketing seriously.

Dell, the computer manufacturers, had earned a fantastic reputation for their products and customer service. Last year, however, all those years of carefully building a brand image took a major set back. It was not a rival. It was not a loose word in the Ratner style. It was a blogger: just one individual named Jeff Jarvis.

Jarvis had bought a Dell laptop, which had technical problems. Dell’s customer support did not rectify the issue to the satisfaction of Jarvis. Through his blog – Buzzmachine – he detailed his complaints. Those entries were met with hundreds of responses and comments. The result, as analysed by three market research companies found the whole affair had a detrimental effect on Dell: “ it had sustained long-term damage to its brand image.” (Source: www.bbc.co.uk)

This obviously illustrates the power of online PR. It also highlights the need for online PR. Of course, it easy to see why monitoring reputation online is crucial (as mentioned above) and how Internet specialists and PR professionals need to work in collaboration. But it shows something else. If the online world can damage a brand like Dell through one individual on one PC, think what it can do positively. Consider what one PR and one Internet professional can do to gain positive coverage amongst customers that might never read a paper or watch television.

The future: online PR and online search marketing

One thing is certain: online PR will become a more purposeful, organised and valued pursuit.

In fact, online PR is lagging behind the opportunity and capabilities afforded to it by not only the progression of technology, but also its adoption of online information sources by so many in business and indeed outside that categorisation. That is not so surprising: the opportunities for online search marketing are also far from fully being exploited.

Indeed, the world of online PR is in flux before many PR professionals have even begun to really think about the potential of this opportunity.

How many PRs have heard of Social Media Optimisation? Very few I should think. How many communications professionals have considered using You Tube for a viral marketing campaign? Only the most forward thinking. And yet this is where the future lies.

Even the humble RSS feed is revolutionising how we receive information; from source to desktop is all instigated by one show of interest in the form of a subscription on the source website. But how many PRs have realised how incredible this innovation is?

The consumer cannot be supplied information just from a single source as Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi would like. Information sources are becoming more diverse. Those companies and PR professionals that recognise that fact now will have a big advantage over their rivals.

The forthcoming and almost universal take up of broadband, growing popularity of blogging and discussion threads, greater use of RSS feeds and changes in online reading habits will ensure online PR is an integral part of any comprehensive PR or marketing campaign. Go online young man!

Glossary

Blogs – are diaries, journals or comment pieces that usually focus on a particular subject or theme, such as politics, business or media. They can be well patronised and can have a profound influence that has no relation to the size of the organisation behind them; blogs are often the work of an individual, which can potentially make certain individuals powerful voices in a particular sector or industry.

For further insight look up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blogs

Discussion threads – individuals that are connected via an electronic network; typical examples include Yahoo and MSN groups.

RSS feeds- simply web feeds; a data format that supplies users frequently updated content. Subscribers, including journalists, can receive new stories instantly and not have to look for the latest updates online. Users can browse a multitude of headlines on their own desktop and select the stories they are particularly interested in without going from site to site; there is no spam or unsolicited mail as with e-mail.

Search engine optimisation – techniques used to gain higher ranking in a search engine; if sites are not listed in the first few pages of a search, many users will not explore results further

PR wires – press releases distributed online by a specialist agency for the benefit of journalists

Search online marketing – using a blend of online marketing techniques – including blogs, pay per click, search engine optimisation, e-mail marketing – to gain profile and traffic for Internet sites

Social Media Optimisation – this broad ranging technique engages with increasingly popular social networking sites, which are a growing influence as makers and breakers of reputation

Notes:

Many thanks to Craig McGinty of Connect Media and This French Life for discussing his online PR ideas with such enthusiasm and clarity: a true blogger.

Simon and Robert are available for feedback and comment on simon@pushon.co.uk and rob@artisanmc.co.uk