While the nation's leading ad agencies have plunged into a king-of-the-hill battle with a legion of start-up specialists for Web supremacy, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide has quietly emerged as a leading Web site creator.
Edelman has developed more than 20 sites for marketers in the past two years. Its interactive unit, dubbed Edelman Interactive Solutions, accounted for nearly $1 million of the agency's estimated $100 million total revenue last year and is on track to double this year.
'AN IDEAL PR MEDIUM'
The company's work, which ranges from simple text-dominant sites to snazzy feature-laden ones, underscores the Web's accessibility and versatility. While critics have complained that marketer sites contain little more than PR, Edelman says that's the point.
"This is, in many ways, an ideal PR medium," said Adam Cooper, creative manager of Edelman Interactive Solutions, New York, who this month moves to Brussels to expand the unit into Europe.
Mark Golby, Edelman's chief information officer, has been the driver. Hired three years ago to upgrade the firm's technological capabilities, he quickly recognized the opportunity on the Internet. Since then he has invested $5 million in software, equipment and infrastructure for the interactive unit, which now employs 12 people in Chicago and New York.
"We're strict about remembering who we are. We're a PR firm, not a technology firm," Mr. Golby said. "But our abilities in new media are a big help" in being a better PR firm.
The best examples of the medium's PR advantages lie in sites Edelman has produced in crisis situations.
In November, several bottles of Odwalla apple juice sold on the West Coast were found to contain E coli bacteria. As the company initiated a massive product recall, Edelman's San Francisco office recommended a Web site be created immediately. The agency keeps an empty site available on a server for such emergency use.
With no frills, Edelman hammered out a site laden with information about the crisis and Odwalla's response, loading it on the Web within three hours.
"It wasn't fancy, but I don't think a Web site in this situation needs a whole lot of bells and whistles," said Amy Oseland, Internet project manager in Edelman's Chicago headquarters.
Edelman staffers then traversed the Internet, looking for newsgroups discussing Odwalla, and posted links to the new site.
"The Internet lets people go as deeply into something as they want to," said John Kessling, senior VP-director of strategic services at Ketchum Public Relations, New York, which has its own dedicated Web unit. "You can tailor messages, and you can get out a lot of information in a structured way."
Edelman created another crisis site for American Home Products in 1995, after a model died reportedly after inhaling Primatene Mist. Primatene's site, up less than 12 hours after that crisis broke, remains in place today.
Edelman's most elaborate sites could just as easily have come from an ad agency or Web specialist shop. Club Bacardi features colorful, party-themed graphics and a "casino" that can teach users how to play games like blackjack.
Butterball's site, featuring cooking and carving tips, received 550,000 hits in one day during Thanksgiving week last year.
Aside from creating sites, Edelman and other PR firms are constantly monitoring newsgroups and the Web for discussions or reports that might concern their clients. The Web is the world's fastest rumor mill, and this practice can help prevent PR crises from breaking out in the mainstream press, said Peter Himler, a spokesman for Burson Marsteller, New York.
All of this begins to make the Web look like a Big Brother tool for spin masters. But Edelman's Ms. Oseland said the aim is to inform the press, not go around it. Many of the first visitors to Odwalla's site were reporters, she said.
Copyright January 1997, Crain Communications Inc.