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Public Relations: Knowing What Your Public Wants

The needs of the audience you're communicating with were frequently overlooked during the height of the dot-com mania. Learn how to move back to the fundamentals of public relations and speak directly to the audience your site has in mind.
This chapter is from the book
  • Understanding customers' needs is still important.

  • Thorough research is needed to meet customers' expectations.

  • Continued research helps you refine your online approach.

Once you've digested all that secondary research from NetRatings, Gartner, and their competitors, you'll probably be feeling ready to take the Internet by storm. We're sure you'll have ideas about how to communicate with reporters and consumers online given your knowledge about overall demographics of the online population, projections of high-speed access, and other factors. So, you're ready to get cracking, right?

Not so fast.

We think you've only just begun to lay the groundwork for effectively using the Internet for representing your client. What do you really know about what these Internet users want from your client? Understanding the needs of the audience you're communicating with is still a fundamental tenet of sound public relations regardless of whether you're reaching people online or offline. Unfortunately, it was one principle that was frequently overlooked during the height of dot-com mania. We can recall at least one uncomfortable situation at a PR industry meeting where we cited the need for continuing research into the needs of a client's constituents, only to have our suggestion met with blank stares and impatient sighs from other PR professionals in the room. Many of them were operating on Internet time, after all, and couldn't be bothered with too much research. "Deploy, deploy, deploy!" was their mantra. However, as we've noted previously, the end to Internet time is a good thing. We all need to take the time to understand more clearly what people are expecting from our clients online. Failing to meet their expectations amounts to a recipe for tarnishing a client's reputation—which is the ultimate sign of a PR person's failure.

Understanding What People Expect of Your Client Online

The different constituents of PR professionals should be considered separately in evaluating their needs. We should all have experience in trying to keep up with what reporters and analysts need. Knowing what a publication covers and how it approaches stories has always been important to PR people. However, the rise of the Internet should cause us to re-evaluate what we think we know about the interests of all those names in our media databases. Is this particular magazine still interested in the same type of stories now that it has a Web site that is updated daily with breaking news? Is there a separate staff responsible for the Web site? If there is only one editorial staff for Web and print products, is it possible that reporters might be more open to pitches for short, focused stories that could be developed quickly for the Web site? Is this reporter now also more willing to book press tour visits in his or her office given his or her increased deadline pressures and the tightness of travel budgets in lean times?

It's also worthwhile to keep up with how your media sources are feeling about Internet technology. Are the old-fashioned fax lovers now more willing to accept pitches via e-mail? What types of things do journalists and analysts expect to find on your client's Web site? Do they want a searchable database of old press releases? If so, how many years are sufficient? Are the journalists on your press list now willing and able to log on for Webcasts? Would they be interested in receiving a periodic e-mail newsletter that would update them on your client's notable achievements?

Keeping up with journalists' preferences is probably old hat for a lot of PR professionals and we'll talk more in Chapter 4 about new Internet tools that can help you get the job done. However, the new task brought on by the rise of the Internet is identifying the needs of potential customers and business partners who are interacting with your client's Web site or your company's Web site in the case of an in-house PR professional. As we noted in previous chapters, public relations is now more public than ever and it is important to protecting your client's reputation that you become aware of exactly what individuals are seeking from the client online so that you can satisfy those expectations.

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