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PR JOINS THE INTERACTIVE PARADE FEAR OF BEING LEFT BEHIND PROMPTS PUBLICITY PROS TO EXPLORE CYBERSPACE

By Published on .

Some marketers are just now recognizing the public relations power of the Internet. Joe Boxer Corp. is sitting in the driver's seat.

The underwear marketer, one of the first to use the Internet to solicit feedback from its customers, is going a step further. To publicize its upcoming World Wide Web site (http://www.joeboxer.com), it's tagging all of its products with the address printed in bold block letters.

Joe Boxer is a vivid example of how new media are changing the face of public relations.

No longer are marketers content to rely on traditional media to get the news out. More and more, they're leapfrogging over the media to deliver their message directly to consumers, and consumers are responding.

Says Dick Martin, AT&T VP-corporate advertising: "Anyone doing PR today who ignores the Internet is as shortsighted as the PR person in the late 1940s who ignored TV."

He added: "It's not only a terrific channel for telling a story; it can have a terrific impact on business. All you have to do is read the clippings to see what it did to Intel."

What happened to Intel Corp. is a textbook example-if there can be such a thing in these early days of interactive PR-of the power of the Internet to nearly destroy a company's credibility. Word of a flaw in the Pentium processor chip spread like wildfire throughout the 'net earlier this year, but instead of confronting the problem, Intel at first kept quiet. By the time the company issued an Internetwide message addressing computer users' concerns, the damage was done and Intel was left mopping up its image.

The Internet is also helping break down the boundaries between public relations and advertising. Traditionally, PR was the information provider; image building was the domain of advertising. But "with the new media, the line between public relations and advertising is blurring," said Mr. Martin.

"PR agencies understand how to use Internet communication better than advertising agencies," contended David Drobis, chairman-CEO of Ketchum Public Rela-tions Worldwide. "The advertising agency is accustomed to a `slam' approach.... while PR is accustomed to an educational, long-form message."

Indeed, several commercial World Wide Web sites are products not of advertising agencies but of PR agencies and in-house PR departments.

Miller Brewing Co.'s MGD Tap Room, for example, is coordinated by Ketchum Public Relations and Miller's in-house communications staff. The site (http://www.mgdtaproom.com) features information on beer and topics of interest to twentysomethings.

"While the Internet and online services may not be proving to be overly successful yet in generating sales, they are exceptional in their ability to, first, deliver information, [and], second, to deliver it to highly targeted audiences," said John R. Kessling, senior VP-director of strategic services at Ketchum Public Relations, New York.

Following the lead of advertising agencies, PR shops are forming new-media units and opening their own home pages on the Web.

"PR agencies are the last to get technology, period. It's an industry of intellectual property, not that of technology," said Mayer G. Backer, VP-new media communications at Golin/Harris Communications, Chicago.

Edelman Public Relations Worldwide was the first major PR agency to go on the Web, opening its site at http://www.edelman.com last month. Fleishman Hillard, meanwhile, opened its home page on April 1 (http://www.fleish.com).

As with ad agencies, the fear factor-of being left behind or bypassed-is a strong influence in PR agencies' decision to embrace the Web.

"As much as I believe in the digital vision of marketing, that's not really as motivating as the threat of not participating. And your competitors and customers are already there," said Brian Johnson, VP of Alexander Communications, a San Francisco-based public relations agency with a concentration in high-tech companies.

In fact, a new industry is springing up to monitor what is said about a company in cyberspace. eWorks!, an electronic media advisor and producer based in White Plains, N.Y., and Woodbury, Minn., recently launched eWatch, which tracks the comments made about a company on thousands of electronic forums and discussions groups. And as a testament to the PR power of new media, eWatch is being sold by PR Newswire, a leading distributor of corporate, association and government news releases.

Joe Boxer, meanwhile, said it has received some 15,000 e-mail responses to outdoor boards posted in San Francisco and Los Angeles inviting customers to "contact us in underwear cyberspace" at the company's e-mail address, joeboxer@joeboxer.com.

"We got a huge positive response, everyone from Jesuit priests to teen-agers. People we never realized were in our demographics wrote us," said Denise Slattery, Joe Boxer's VP-marketing.

The company said its Internet efforts are designed to foster customer relations, not sell merchandise.

"This is so much more immediate contact," Ms. Slattery said. "This catapulted us into a [new] level of goodwill."

Despite the fascination with new media, no one is predicting the demise of traditional public relations. In fact, some say new media impose a new set of problems. In bypassing traditional media, a company loses the implied endorsement of a third party and bears the full responsibility for accurate and clear reporting.

Still, if Joe Boxer's "underwear cyberspace" is any indication of the future direction of public relations, it won't be dullsville.

Jennifer DeCoursey contributed to this story.

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