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Online activist groups are outflanking public relations agencies

Madanmohan Rao interviews Shel Holtz, author of "Public Relations on the Net" 

Based in Chicago, Shel Holtz is a public relations consultant and the author of the bestseller "Public Relations on the Net" (Amacom books), as well as "Writing for the Wired World" and "Intranets: The Communicator's Guide to Content, Design, and Management."

Shel has over 20 years of organizational communications experience in both corporate and consulting environments. He is a frequent speaker on the international conference circuit, and is also a five-time winner of the Gold Quill award of the International Association of Business Communicators.

Shel's clients have included AT&T, IBM Global Services, Sears, the Alzheimer's Association, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Aetna, Autozone, BellSouth, John Deere,  Deloitte & Touché, Kellogg's, Prudential, Allstate Insurance, and Monsanto. He is experienced in employee communications, compensation and benefits communications, corporate public relations, media relations, financial communications, investor relations, and marketing communications. In addition to integrating technology into communications strategies, his expertise includes strategic communications planning, change management, organizational culture, communicating business initiatives, and communications research.

Shel graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge, in 1976. He was formerly the director of corporate communications for Allergan, a Fortune 400 pharmaceutical company.

Q: What are some of the more visible impacts that the Net has had on the public relations (PR) profession?

A: The Internet has created new and dramatically different models of communication. Public relations practitioners are challenged to adapt to these models; it is also these models that create the opportunities. In this new many-to-many communication environment, practitioners have the opportunity to influence audiences that come looking for information and community.

Success, however, rests on the ability of communicators to understand how these new models work. Further, new types of audiences are forming online the likes of which practitioners have never seen before. "Net warriors" are activist groups that come together through online networks. They form quickly and are very focused on very targeted issues. The first highly visible example of this kind of audience -- one that traditional public relations failed to identify or address -- was the protest at the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington.

Q: What are the Top Five lessons you have learned about online PR since you wrote your bestselling book?

A: 1. Public relations are significantly behind the curve. Little online innovation is taking place in public relations agencies.

2. The growth of the Internet and high-tech sector has created a talent drain in public relations. Startups are hiring small agencies that have not attracted top-flight talent. As a result, visibly bad public relations is being practiced everywhere.

3. Many of the tools of our profession have been co-opted by individuals and ad hoc activist groups online. A recent example: A labor union bought an ad on Yahoo that appears whenever somebody does a search on the company against which it is engaged in a labor action. The ad links to a site that urges people not to do business with the targeted company.

4. Technology is driving the way we communicate. We should be taking control of the development of technology so that it can be employed effectively. Instead we are force-fitting into our strategies technologies that have been developed for the sake of the technology.

5. The Internet population is a predictor of larger audience behaviors. What the online community learns, how it reacts, the rumors it starts - all transcend the Net and find their way into the greater consciousness.

Q: How have you seen online PR evolve over the years?

A: During the latter part of the 1990s, the trend was heightened awareness among the practitioners of the profession. There was a higher priority placed upon monitoring the Internet for references to organizations, along with an increased use of the Internet to conduct client-based research. Many public relations agencies undertook to learn the principles of Web development and management. And many organizations learned how to deliver information to audiences (notably media and investors) online.

This year, with luck, we will see a more strategic approach to the Internet taken by the profession. The focus on the tactics should give way to a view of the Net as a resource to be integrated into larger communication strategies based on those characteristics that allow the Net to perform specific useful communication functions. I doubt that we will see much focus on "Net warriors" and the many-to-many audience -- I fear that the profession is still considerably behind their marketing and sales colleagues when it comes to these areas, along with customization / personalization, permission-based (opt-in) communication, and one-to-one communication.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions you notice in the way agencies are approaching online PR?

A: 1. They believe that the Internet and the Web represent a means of replicating existing public relations techniques for much less money.

2. They produce media relations Websites populated only with press releases.

3. They believe they can still function in a top-down communication environment.

Q: How well was your book received? Do you plan a related or follow-up book?

A: The book has received uniformly positive reviews, and sales are continuing strongly into the next quarter. I am working on an update of an older book, "The Intranet advantage." It's about how company Intranets are revolutionizing corporate communication worldwide, and tips on how to harness the Net for intra-organizational communication and human resource organization.

Q: What are the some of the best success stories you have come across of companies who have tried to harness online PR?

A: I would rate the following as successes:

1. Beverage group Odwalla's use of the Web to address an e.coli bacterial contamination of its fruit juice products.

2. Pharmaceutical company Warner Lambert's use of the Web to address claims of safety hazards associated with the use of its drug, Rezulin.

3. Nutrasweet's use of its Website to contradict activist claims of the risks associated with its Nutrasweet product.

Q: And how about failures?

A: 1. Tommy Hilfiger's failure to identify false derogatory postings on Usenet newsgroups that subsequently spread and led to boycotts that continue to this day.

2. Any company (e.g. Mattel, Paramount Studios, and others) that exerts legal pressure to force individuals to remove trademark-protected images and words from their fan-based Websites (such as Barbie, Star Trek and the Simpsons).

3. Intel's failure to recognize the significance of the protest against its flawed Pentium chip taking place in a Usenet newsgroup.

Q: If you had a chance to go back in time and start everything again from scratch, what would you do differently the second time around?

A: Without question, I would start an Internet company way back in the early 1990s, when I originally thought I should. If I could go back even farther, I would have started paying attention to computers earlier, and gotten involved in the BBS phenomenon about five years ahead of my first introduction to bulletin board systems.

Q: Any parting words of advice/suggestions for Internet professionals and PR agencies?

A: The only way to understand the medium is to immerse yourself in it. Spend time online. Follow issues. Start getting your news online - for instance, from Web sites and online news clipping services -- and shop there. Participate in an online community.

Historically, public relations practitioners have been part of the audience to which they communicate -- they read newspapers, watch TV, get mail. All this has been in traditional media -- but only few are actively involved in this new medium.


The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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