"The Web has added significantly to the tool kit that public relations people have," said Maria P. Russell, a professor of public relations at Syracuse University. "But along with its enormous potential, it poses a challenge for the P.R. business."
The Web enables public relations firms and corporate public relations departments to take their messages directly to people in an increasingly popular public space. Thousands of companies are already doing just that by putting out press releases and corporate profiles on line.
But one challenge is that critics of a particular company can just as easily put out derogatory information on the Web if they have the right equipment, thus creating a public relations nightmare.
There are sites on the Web that take aim at companies from Ford to Microsoft to Nynex, complaining about their products and services. In the last week, for example, the fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger had to respond to rumors on the Web that he had made racist remarks about blacks and Asians.
For the most part, however, parts of the Web have become a big public relations machine, both for companies and for public relations professionals seeking clients and news media contacts.
A good starting point for information about the public relations industry itself is a directory of agencies and resources run by the Impulse Research Corporation, a marketing company in Los Angeles. Another resource is PR Central's Agency Report Card, a useful annual reckoning of about 100 of the biggest agencies.
The largest firms pour huge resources into their sites.
Burson-Marsteller's site focuses on "perception management" and has a page that takes a quick survey of visitors' impressions of various industries, while Edelman Public Relations Worldwide's "interactive solutions" site highlights the firm's client case histories and Web services. But most public relations agencies have done no more than produce fancy brochures describing their services.
The Web also allows even the smallest firms to maintain a presence. Kurt Williams, who runs a one-man agency, has a site with an interesting address (www.flack.com), and Susan Ritholz has a one-woman shop, No Flack PR, which promises "stellar results, with no flack."
The site of the main trade group, the Public Relations Society of America, mostly serves as a recruiting tool and sales catalogue for its publications, along with a detailed code of professional standards and a link to the Public Relations Student Society of America.
Two sites that have detailed reading material and on-line resources are products of the large number of companies that cover the public relations industry. Ragan Communications, which covers the business through newsletters like Interactive Public Relations and Media Relations Report has articles as well as exhaustive links. And Dan Janal's Online Marketing Magazine has resources for public relations executives.
PR Newswire is a leading distribution mechanism for company news and its site maintains a data base of information on nearly 1,000 companies.
The Web also makes it easier for public relations executives to reach out to the news media.
Mediasource, an extensive site run by Middleberg & Associates, a New York-based public relations firm, includes a detailed study about the use of the Internet by journalists, as well as links to sources that journalists can contact.
Among the public relations sites aimed at journalists are Profnet, an on-line service that sends out queries on behalf of reporters to more than 2,700 public relations officers, and Yearbook News, a cyberversion of the Yearbook of Experts, Authorities and Spokespersons directory and its 1,500 sources.
Moreover, the Web and electronic mail offer ways to cross the barriers between public relations people and the news media. For example, the Editpros Business News Media Directory provides direct E-mail addresses of a number of business journalists. And the Gebbie Press site provides free newspaper, magazine and broadcast station listings.
Public relations on the Web is also aimed at government.
The Public Affairs Council, for example, provides useful information for public affairs and lobbying. And Merck & Company uses the Merck Action Network to help employees of the drug company lobby Congress. The site promises "Congress @ your fingertips" through links to Capitol Hill and details on the legislative process.
But the Web still presents some other challenges that Professor Russell sees for the public relations industry. The site of the Center for Media and Democracy is dedicated to "investigative reporting on the public relations industry." It has articles and reports from its "PR Watch" newsletter as well as this invitation: "We welcome whistle-blowers and guarantee confidentiality!"
Corporate Watch, another site that monitors the industry, offers the Greenwash Awards on its site. These awards, given in conjunction with the environmental group Greenpeace, expose "environmentally destructive corporations posing as friends of the environment."
At least one firm has a sense of humor. The site of Copithorne & Bellows, based in San Francisco, has a series of cartoons drawn by an employee, offering a lighthearted look at a serious industry.
WHERE TO GO
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company