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Book Review: Winning PR in the Wired World: Powerful Communication Strategies for the Noisy Digital Space

Book Review: “Winning PR in the Wired World: Powerful Communication Strategies for the Noisy Digital Space” by Don Middleberg
(2001 McGraw-Hill, New York; 235 pages)
Review by Madanmohan Rao

“No industry has been affected more permanently and positively by the digital revolution than public relations,” according to Don Middleberg, CEO of PR agency Middleberg Euro.

“Winning PR in the Wired World” is a concise guide to the science and art of online PR, targeted at PR students, practitioners and business executives. It is an informative read for those in the news industry as well. The material is divided into twelve chapters, covering topics like new styles of reporting, investor relations, CEO image, crisis control, viral publicity, and online market research.

The speed, reach, archival depth and interactivity of the Internet have forever transformed the PR industry’s relations with media and the public. Faxes and bulletin board systems transformed the PR industry in the 1980s, but the Internet has ushered in the “Golden Age” of PR.

But in the early 1990s, very few communications professionals could have anticipated how the Internet would revolutionize PR. In 1994, Intel learned the hard way about the power of online PR when it initially ignored a professor’s Usenet posting that its Pentium chip had a flaw during high-precision computing. The post became a major news item in days, and Intel had to take a 3 per cent hit in its stock price in a day as well as spend US$500 million in recalling the chip!

Ford also ignored initial complaints about self-ignition problems in some of its trucks, which led to some customers creating a site called FlamingFord.com — a grassroots campaign flared up and it finally cost Ford about US$300 million to recall the models.

“Remember: bad news travels faster than good news,” warns Middleberg.

The earlyyears of the dotcom boom ushered in numerous new content sites and innovative ways of interactive advertising and online PR. In the early days of online PR, many PR agencies would use email to spam reporters and mass audiences, triggeringoff a backlash to online PR.

“Today, large-scale PR departments have reinvented themselves to truly meld wireless and wired communication into the way they do business,” according to Middleberg.

“We now live in a global information age, with Internet news outlets, worldwide broadcasting and instant analysis. Essentially, PR has been impacted by five important business communication trends catalysed by the growth of the Internet: speed, access, new rules of interaction, brand redefinition, and business partners as currency,” Middleberg explains.

The Internet has also created, empowered and emboldened entirely new categories of opinion influencers and shapers: fans, critics, hobbyists, consumers, business partners, freelancers, experts, activists and even disgruntled employees who all may post information and unfiltered opinions about companies and products online. Web sites, chat rooms, listservs, and discussion boards all need to be factored in for business intelligence and reputation management.

“PR used to stand for public relations. Now the Net has transformed PR into power relationships,” according to former Apple CEO John Sculley.

PR is becoming an integral part of the marketing mix, along with advertising, sales promotion and brand building. Research from the author’s “Media in Cyberspace” studies shows that the Net is increasingly being used by reporters for article research, development of story ideas and sources, and communicatingwith readers.

“Journalists are playing by new rules — developing story ideas online, reporting online rumours, and going to corporate and association Web sites for information, especially when a story breaks,” according to Middleberg.

Reporters are also increasingly turning to a whole crop of analyst and market research agencies for statistics and trends in various industry segments, such as the Web sites of Gartner, Jupiter or Forrester.

Less constraints of space on Web sites mean that news media can now publish larger stories online than in print; some even have additional content only on the Web. Several break stories on their Web sites even before their print edition. Journalists who write for the print edition now also write for the online edition of a news organisation. Some journalists have multiple email ids, for receiving press releases and for regular mail.

A challenge for PR agencies is that at times reporters may be misled by unsubstantiated rumours on the Net. “Faster and looser” seems to be the trend in reporting. Credibility of online content is a key concern for reporters and PR professionals alike. Thus, PR professionals must also be prepared to help journalists locate the most authoritative in-house and third-party sources who can address misconceptions which may arise.

At times fake press releases have been posted on behalf of a company; Lucent Technologies was one such victim of a fake news release posted on Yahoo. Too many such instances warrant notification of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Particularly nasty rumours should be handled by the legal department. Other risk areas include the possibility of a site being hacked and damaging information being posted instead, and email spoofing.

Companies need to address PR strategies via in-house departments, outsourced agencies, or even both; these need to dovetail with market positioning and legal departments as well. Some of today’s successful practitioners of adaptive and aspirational branding via online PR are Amazon.com, eBay, Boeing, and leading IT companies like IBM, Sony, Oracle and Intel. In addition

to the high-tech approach, PR agencies must focus on the high-touch aspects of interpersonal relationships with key journalists, Middleberg advises.

The archival aspect of the Internet lends itself as a research pool for investors and analysts tracking company history, and thus some press releases may have more of archival and investor value than immediate news value.

“There are times when press releases are released solely to become archived in news release databases maintained by services like PR Newswire or BusinessWire, and serviced to online news sites like Yahoo, Lycos, and other Internet portals, with no expectations of the content of the release being picked up by the media,” according to Middleberg.

Media planners choosing between advertising and PR options need to remember that mass media are good for advertising messages, but the Net is good for niche communication like PR. Online PR can also be more cost effective. Ad messages appeal to emotion, work on subliminal influence, are strongly visually oriented, and work well with scale and frequency. PR messages, on the other hand, are more informational, more targeted, and must convey a story, according to Middleberg. “It is recommended that investor relations and public relations be separated,”

he add. The online newsroom of a company site should have multimedia content, contact information, quick response services to email queries, optional registration for news media, access to online press conferences, videos of past conferences, archived press releases, multimedia content, speech transcripts, product details, management biographies, and a search engine.

Press releases and updates should also be sent directly to reporters’ PDAs or cellphones if they so opt. “Make a reporter’s life easier, and it will translate to a much better experience for both sides,” according to Middleberg. Surveys should also be conducted to assess how useful the content, functionality and design of the site are.

At times of a crisis, Middleberg has several useful recommendations for damage control via online PR. Acknowledge shortcomings, show empathy for those affected by the crisis, create a victim resource centre, provide news and statements online, update these statements regularly, have a crisis management plan in place, designate at least one person to manage online communication during the crisis, offer a toll-free number, use separate microsites and servers if necessary, optimise the site for downloads, have a multilingual translation plan to handle the global audience, address the needs of government and regulators, involve legal, technical and Web design teams, and set up an Intranet/Extranet plan to distribute newsto employees and partners.

“The Internet has quickly become an essential component to a well-executed crisis management plan. Journalists, customers and victims’ families often look to the Internet as the first source of information about a company in crisis,” according to Middleberg.

Good examples in this regard are Swissair’s handling of a flight crash in Nova Scotia, where tons of information were posted on the Web site in the hours following the crash; diet pill manufacturer Metabolife posted an uncut video of a CEO interview on its Web site during a controversy and advertised the site in newspapers. In stark contrast was TWA’s handling of the Long Island Sound crash; its site had no mention of it for a very long time.

“We’ve reached a point in the nature of the Internet as a mass communications medium where an instantaneous, global response to important news is an absolute necessity. It’s almost a given that journalists, in times of crisis, will go to a company’s Web site for information,” Middleberg argues.

PR professionals must regularly track relevant Web forums and sites like eComplaints, Deja.com, Epinions, Vault.com, and BoycottNews.com. Posting promotional material directly or in a deceptive manner are to be avoided. “Companies like PRNewswire’s eWatch, Net Currents, Web Clipping, Company Sleuth, and CyberAlert provide varying levels of virtual clipping services to alert clients to negative discussion and commentary that can avert potential communication disasters,” says Middleberg.

“Online intelligence allows an unprecedented direct glimpse at public opinion and sentiment – globally, cost effectively, and without the bias caused by a researcher asking questions in a well-lit room,” according to Middleberg. Secondary and primary research can be conducted online. NFO, Find/SVP and Greenfield Online provide direct consumer research via interactive panels.

Good examples of viral publicity are Bertelsmann’s BugJuice.com and TwangThis.com music sites, Greenpeace’s environmental activism, and Sesame Street.

All in all, companies must be prepared to simultaneously carry out research, strategy and implementation of online PR. “The future belongs to those who understand this wired world,” Middleberg concludes.

Madanmohan Rao is the author of “The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook” and can be reached at madan@inomy.com