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Communications People Have No Business Running Web Sites

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

"The Internet is about competition.  It's about growth.  It's about reaching out to your people, your suppliers, your business partners, your customers in new and more comprehensive ways.  In this new environment real-time access to information is power."
                Lou Gerstner, president of IBM

For almost anyone reading Public Relations Quarterly the basic premise of this article seems like hierarchy.  After all, you’re the communicators for your companies.  You're the ones who are responsible for interpreting and disseminating information about companies, their management and products to their many target markets. 

We’ve heard the rationale for PR (and marketing communications) Web site "ownership" at so many conferences we were almost beginning to believe it ourselves.

Fortunately we also understand the difference between one-way conduits and one-on-one communications.  We also realize firms live or die based on sales…winning and retaining one customer at a time.


Before we enter the fray over Web site "ownership," let’s make certain we are talking about the same World Wide Web. 

The Web as we know it today is really less than five years old.  It sits on a network of more than 100,000 networks spread around the globe.  There are more than 32 million devices accessing the Web. This number is expected to grow to more than 300 million by the year 2001.  More than 1,000 new Web sites are posted each month. The average document sits on a business Web site for three months.

Internet and Web technologies have spread like nothing the world has seen before.  They have changed forever the way we educate, inform and entertain.  They have flattened organization charts; blurred the lines between customers, staff personnel and suppliers; erased country borders; and changed the work habits, locations and hours of millions of people.

A Tool Born for PR

The Internet and Web would appear to be tools tailor made for public relations and communications people.  But two books we recently read, a client’s site development program and a review of sites that really work make us question the wisdom of management putting something as useful as the Web in the hands of communications "professionals."

The first book by Shel Holtz, Public Relations on the Net…Winning Strategies to Inform and Influence the Media, the Investment Community, the Government, the Public and More!  is well worth reading.   It explains how the Internet and Web can be used to address the informational needs of nearly all of public relations’ audiences.  The author uses all the right words…writing for the screen, targeted messages, press agentry, monitoring/measurement, etc.  However, he doesn’t spend much effort using the two words that measure the success or failure of a company and its management…Sell, Service.

The second book, The Later Years, from H&M Publishers is an accumulation of writings by Edward L. Bernays.  Bernays, often called the dean of modern day public relations, died in 1986.   He never had the opportunity to take full advantage of the communications tools we take for granted today like the fax, computer, Internet or Web.  A strong-willed and practical PR person, he was a strong proponent (some might say antagonist) of having communications people understand and use the behavioral sciences to improve the relationship between an individual, idea or product and the publics rather than simple one-way communications.  Liberally translated, he was talking about one-to-one communications, the true strengths of the Internet, and Web.

Establishing PR/Web Ground Rules

The final event was a “discussion” with a firm’s parent company public relations and communications management.  They had determined they would develop a single Web presence for the corporation.  All divisions and product groups would have their information included but that the site would be run by public relations and marketing communications.  It was a logical publishing opportunity for internal, external, investor, customer, government and communications relations.

Sounds reasonable. 

But let’s examine some of their site guidelines:

  • The site’s single look and feel would be developed and run by communications’ Web group.  While the firm is involved in a wide range of industries and activities, everything had to fit into the same design

  • The site and all pages would have a creamy, seamless background because it was more graphically appealing than color and format changes for various site locations and information areas

  • Technical, how-to, applications, approach-to-problem and similar educational information wouldn’t be posted because this was to be a promotional site 

  • No non-company solutions or partners would be listed because they might detract from the company message.  It would also be too difficult to keep this information current

  • No links to business partners would be authorized because that might take people away from the company’s site

  • No direct access (side doors) to divisional, product or solution areas would be permitted.  Every visitor had to enter the site from the main home page and then work down to his or her area of interest

  • Eivisional and departmental groups could submit information and ideas but only the communications group would add, modify or remove information
While site visitors express their frustration with the Web site, corporate public relations and communications people have said it’s an award-winning site.

Visitor Centric Guidelines

Compare this internally focused Web site with sites that make it fast and easy for people to:

  • get the information they want and need from the firm

  • contact the right person or group to obtain answers, assistance and/or guidance

  • do their job faster and better
Compare the site with Cisco Systems Web site.

The Corporate Policy Site

Cisco’s has been widely publicized because it’s an extraordinarily successful profit center for the company producing more than $5 million in sales every day.  But there are other things that can be learned by studying their site and their approach to the Web:

  • The site, like the Internet, doesn’t have one "owner," it has hundreds of owners.  People from every segment of the company are expected to make contributions with new information and inputs

  • Cisco does more than simply sell off the Web site, it’s strategic to all of the company’s activities including product planning; solution development; service and support, media, investor, community, internal and government relations; vendor, reseller and customer communications; staff, vendor and customer training

  • The site is designed to assist anyone interested in networking and the Internet from the curious novice to the technical expert.  Visitors can bore down into subject areas to find increasingly complex information to solve or resolve questions they might have

  • Every area of the site is continuously evaluated not just by people internally but by outside contract researchers to determine why and how visitors use the site

  • The company has not only built in numerous feedback mechanisms but visitor suggestions and complaints are regularly compiled, analyzed and distributed to the "owners" of various portions of the company’s Web site.  These owners are expected to provide feedback and recommendations on information to be added or materials that should be changed
  • The site is always a work-in-progress making certain that any visitor in any country can obtain the information, assistance and yes even the product he or she wants
Would the public relations and communications department do a better job if they were controlling the site rather than being part of the total team?

Beyond the PR Scope

All of this goes well beyond what one PR person had in mind at a recent meeting we attended when she said it was important for people in the profession to take control of their organization’s Web site.

These organizations are succeeding because they focus on defining, developing and improving the relationship with each person who visits the firm’s Web site.  They don’t focus on motivating the visitor to a specific action.  Instead, they work to develop long term relationships because long-term memory and retention value are more important than short-term motivation.

If PR or communications people get the assignment for their firm’s Web site they should shed every idea of how the communications process works and their target "audience."  In today’s flattened virtual organization a Web site isn’t about ownership and control.  It's about global one-to-one communications that is a corporate issue…not a departmental issue.

They will probably be far more effective behind the scenes rather than struggling to control the new medium.

© Copyright 1999, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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