Best Practices in Corporate Communications on the Internet
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
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Best Practices in Corporate Communications on the Internet

In the Internet, corporate public relations professionals have been presented with the most powerful new tool for communicating with their organization’s stakeholders since the printing press.

Paul Holmes

In the Internet, corporate public relations professionals have been presented with the most powerful new tool for communicating with their organization’s stakeholders since the printing press. But only a handful are using more than a fraction of the Internet’s power to establish dialogue with reporters, investors, and other interested parties.
 
A survey of the corporate websites of the Fortune 100, conducted by The Holmes Report, finds that while almost all websites now features basic elements including news releases, annual reports, and some careers information, surprisingly few provide other information that stakeholders might be seeking, and even fewer offer tools through which they might request such information.
 
For example, 99 percent of the Fortune 100 sites included press releases, but only 66 percent included even a brief corporate history, only 57 percent provided executive biographies, and only 35 percent provided information on the company’s mission, vision, or values. Photographs of company executives or products were available on just 30 percent of sites, company logos were available on just 24 percent, and only 11 percent provided any kind of multimedia content with their newsrooms.
 
Specific information was often hard to find—only 30 percent of Fortune 100 sites offered a search function that we specific to the newsroom or the press release archive—and if information was not easily located, most sites offered no easy way to ask for it: only 43 percent of sites provided contact information for PR professionals.
 
And just 26 percent offered reporters the ability to sign up to receive future press release.
 
Yet the use of the Internet by the media is multifaceted and close to universal. Last year, the seventh annual Media in Cyberspace study, conducted by New York public relations firm Middleberg Euro RSCG  in conjunction with Steven Ross of Columbia University, found that 92 percent of reporters research articles on the Internet, and that print reporters view company websites as their first source of information about an organization if a live source is not available.
 
Another study, by public relations software company Vocus found that 60 percent of reporters said the information found on corporate websites influenced their decision to include a company in a story. But respondents said only 33 percent of corporate websites offered the information they were looking for. More than 90 percent said they felt they wasted half their time sifting through websites looking for information that either isn’t there or isn’t easy to find.
 
Says Vocus vice president of communications Kay Bransford, “How many companies get passed over for a story because a reported can only find brochure-ware on their website?”
 
Reporters who wanted to find out more about a company’s position on significant business issues were certainly out of luck. While 72 percent of Fortune 100 cites offered some information on a company’s community initiatives, only 30 percent included speeches by senior executives, only 28 percent included any kind of material related to public policy issues, and only 26 percent contained an annual environmental or social report.
 
On the investor front, a recent  survey of public companies by international public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard found almost universal (84 percent) agreement that the Internet has become a more influential source of investor information. But the company warns: “Beyond providing basic corporate and financial information, few public companies have implemented a proactive and strategic online investor relations program.”
 
That’s reflected in the attitude of analysts. A study by the Association for Investment Management & Research found just 34 percent of analysts rated corporate websites as very valuable sources of information. Among their frustrations with corporate websites: out of date information (54 percent); difficulty of finding what I am looking for (50 percent), insufficient historical information (46 percent); and incomplete information (42 percent).
 
According to AIMR president Thomas Bowman, “The survey results show that the investment community has accepted online communications as a means of distributing and gathering financial information. But they also show that many companies clearly could do a better job of providing financial information on their websites.”
 
While 95 percent of the Fortune 100 included a copy of their most recent annual report at their sites, just 66 percent provided copies of recent presentations to analyst meetings and just 45 percent offered access to webcasts. And only about 11 percent provided the names of independent analysts who followed the company.
 
On the employment front, 94 percent of websites included careers information, but just 24 percent provided information about their company’s diversity policies.

Media relations  
Exxon Mobil
 
Exxon Mobil’s website includes one of the most comprehensive newsrooms of any Fortune 100 company, packed with great information that’s incredibly easy to find. First, there’s a searchable archive of news releases that goes back to 1995. The archive of op-ed articles is equally extensive, and organized by topic—energy policy, climate change, social responsibility, and more—that provides information on the company’s evolving policy positions. If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, you can also access speeches and interviews by key executives on a wide range of issues, and company publications, including an environmental annual report and an update on the Valdez situation.
 
The site is also incredibly rich in multimedia content, including videos that explain the company’s position on the Kyoto agreement and clips of chairman Lee Raymond being interviewed by CNBC and Bloomberg. There are photos of key executives, and of oilrigs, filling stations, and other facilities, as well as logos in a variety of formats. There are media contact numbers for corporate communications and divisional public relations people, and a simple mechanism for reporters to sign up to receive future press releases.
 
Coca-Cola Company
 
Few companies have the heritage and history of Coca-Cola, which communicates the full flavor of its fabled past at its corporate website, which offers an interactive timeline complete with the advertising campaigns from eras past. There’s also a wealth of multimedia materials, including a virtual plant tour and video of global citizenship activities. But all of that is simple sizzle to go with considerable substance: intuitively indexed press release, press kits on corporate issues and sponsorships, speeches by senior company executives, and the ability to sign up for e-mail press releases.
 
Boeing
 
Want to get a pilot’s view of what it’s like to fly an F-15? Want to watch the Blue Angels fly over Seattle? Want to see video of John Glenn’s return to space? Boeing’s newsroom has perhaps the most extensive archive of streaming media content of any Fortune 100 company, along with almost anything else a reporter on deadline might want to access or download. The image gallery includes photographs of about 25 top Boeing executives, all of the company’s planes, its corporate headquarters, and even historical photos of planes long out of service. Many of the news releases include video too.
 

Social responsibility  
General Motors
 
Looking to establish itself as a leader in social and environmental responsibility, General Motors has created a site dedicated to its activities in that arena. GMAbility covers the company’s environmental commitment (one features allows visitors to compare the fuel economy of GM and other major manufacturers), its safety initiatives (everything from tire safety to driver distractions—including some cool multimedia features), its philanthropic programs, and its positions on various public policy issues.
 
Home Depot
 
Home Depot was one of the first major U.S. companies to produce a social responsibility report, and it is one of the few to publish its report online. The report includes a letter from president and CEO Robert Nardelli, explaining the company’s philosophy, and sections dealing with environmental issues (sourcing of forest products), health and safety, and community involvement, including one of the most impressive employee volunteerism programs in the country. The site also includes archived reports dating back to 1998.
 
UPS
 
The role of employees is front and center at the UPS community website, and the approach is anecdotal rather than strictly factual, which humanizes the stories. You can read about the UPS driver who rescued a man from a burning truck, or UPS employees who delivered food and water in Wichita after last year’s tornadoes. Another employee provides a diary of a community service internship—a UPS tradition for workers at all levels of the company. The site also provides details of UPS grant-giving, environmental initiatives, and awards and recognition, as well as information on how people can get involved in the company’s efforts.
 
 

Investor relations  
SBC Communications
 
Almost all Fortune 100 companies offer annual reports and other filings online, but surprisingly few offer any more detailed explanation of their strategy. SBC is an exception, with a section devoted to the company’s growth drivers—data, wireless and long-distance—and investor briefings that provide quarterly updates on how the company is performing against those growth drivers. The firm also offers financial summaries, income statements, and more on each of its lines of business, downloadable in either PDF or Excel spreadsheet formats, and a variety of charting tools.
 
Microsoft
 
In addition to a first-rate pressroom, Microsoft offers one of the best investor centers of any Fortune 100 company. All the obvious things are present, from the annual report and other filings to executive speeches, and information on the company’s deals (including a review of the company’s investment philosophy). Then there are the analysis tools (almost all in Excel format, naturally) that allow shareholders to analyze the company’s revenues by sales channel and/or product group, examine historical data, even make projections for 2002 based on various assumptions. Finally, the company offers income statements in several languages and local currencies.
 
Hewlett-Packard
 
Facing opposition from members of the Hewlett and Packard families, and some of its largest shareholders, Hewlett-Packard has set up a website (www.votethehpway.com) dedicated specifically to the issues surrounding its proposed merger with Compaq. In addition to copies of letters to shareholders and SEC filings, the site includes a merger FAQ, financial analysis, and streaming video of board members explaining why they support the deal. The newsroom includes press releases—many of them pointing out “inconsistencies” on the part of the company’s opponents—speeches, and copies of ads. Visitors can sign up to receive updates, and they can forward information from the site to friends.
 

Public Affairs  
Pfizer
 
In addition to addressing public policy issues in comprehensive fashion through its corporate site—where the company outlines its positions on hot-button healthcare issues such as Medicare, intellectual property rights, access and cost, and direct-to-consumer promotion—Pfizer has also created two separate sites dedicated to public affairs. The first, Pfizer Forum, is an extension of the firm’s advertorial program, with articles covering everything from AIDS and animal health to tax reform and trade, most of them written by third parties ranging from Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations to—in the current issue—the co-chairman of the Academic Alliance for AIDS Care and Prevention in Africa. The second site, Views Making News, is designed to help voluntary health associations to get involved in policy debates, providing advice on legislative advocacy and tools to help people identify and influence their representatives.
 
DuPont
 
As a chemical company, DuPont has always has always had to deal with controversial issues, the latest of which is biotechnology. The company has a special section of its site dedicated to the issue, with an impressively broad array of resources, including an introduction to biotech, an explanation of the regulatory system governing the use of biotech products, and a newsroom. But the most impressive aspects of the site is its inclusivity: the links section includes URLs for opponents of genetic engineering such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as well as for supprters, and there is a section for feedback that allows visitors to ask questions.
 
International Paper
 
International Paper comes up with an innovative and thought provoking way to examine the sustainable forestry issue, asking visitors to its site to examine a variety of options, from banning clear cutting to leaving it up to states to develop their own policies to relying on education or relying on industry to develop its own policies. The site suggests, realistically enough, that relying on education alone leaves a lot to chance, but it’s surprisingly objective about allowing the industry to police itself, asking, “Can we really trust industry to police itself?”
 

 

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