Too Fast to Win?

Earlier this month, the Sixth Annual Tenagra Awards for Internet Marketing Excellence were presented in five categories to individuals and to organizations “whose achievements have a fundamental impact on the way marketing, public relations and advertising are done on the Internet.”

When the applause had died away, it was observed that winners had been recognized in only four categories, and that no award had been presented for Online Public Relations Success.

The reason? Cliff Kurtzman, president and CEO of Tenagra, pointed out that the award is not for PR firms, but rather for PR strategies. He said that the judges could not come up with anything that stood out as an exceptionally innovative success in using the Internet to communicate with the public.

With one exception: The distinguished panel of judges noted that handling of the Y2K issue stood out as an exemplary instance of the Internet’s being used as a medium to educate and communicate to the public. But since Tenagra had hosted the Year 2000 web site, it felt it could not award itself.

So what’s a cyber PR practitioner to think of this situation? Sure, if you work with an agency, you can enter the various PR industry awards competitions, but the answer lies within the new digital medium itself. Perhaps the Internet’s (and email’s) ability to speed up the communications process is putting a premium on the communications side of the equation at the expense of strategic planning functions that are inherent in good PR campaigns.

Some hints at an answer emerged last month during a seminar in Toronto, sponsored by PR News and Canada Newswire, where web speed was the undercurrent of the day’s proceedings. According to Jenny Sullivan, editor of PR News, “Speaker after speaker stressed the need for quicker PR reflexes.”

While the former standard response time in a crisis situation (i.e., Tylenol) was one day, in today’s digital world, the acceptable response period has been reduced to one hour (i.e., Intel’s flawed Pentium chip). To wait too long invites attack by online activists. But to act too precipitously has its own repercussions as well.

A recent example of PR fingers moving faster than the mind was reported in The New York Times, when an Everypath.com publicist inadvertently attached a list of launch party invitees to a “Partner Launch Status” memo. With the errant message afoot, the publicist, within an hour, sent out a chase email calling attention to the error and telling reporters not to reply. However, it seems that many journalists could not resist a little fun at Everypath’s expense and, within an hour, the replies had produced thousands of messages labeled, “Re: Partner Launch Status” and “Re: We apologize…” And so it goes.

Taking a more thoughtful approach to a dubious project, PR Newswire (the paid news release distribution service) recently ruffled some journalistic feathers by sending out hundreds of emails telling them it “sought to strengthen the link between companies posting news releases to the site and journalists like yourself who will use it.”

The rub came in adding that starting in April, PR Newswire would track journalists’ usage and report back to the sending company. Many reporters failed to see how this tactic would benefit them and told PR Newswire so. The reply (within an hour?) from the Wire’s publicist: “We are getting into the measuring and monitoring business. We just purchased eWatch, an Internet monitoring service.” While the Wire claims journalists’ names will not be included in client reports, the strategy, to me, seems ill-conceived, especially in light of DoubleClick’s recent privacy problems.

Competition today is quickly shifting from products to business models and processes, with Internet time being the ruling force for success in any online endeavor. As a result, the web has forever changed the practice of public relations. Hopefully, although the 1999 Tenagra Awards dispute the claim, a new crop of cyber-savvy PR counselors is arising, even now, to harness the power of the Internet.

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