In March 2000, iCAST and Tribal Voice, two majority-owned operating companies of CMGI, Inc., embarked on a campaign aimed at educating consumers about the importance of open access in instant messaging (IM) software programs. The Edelman team devised a plan to leverage the government review of the America Online (AOL) -Time Warner merger to gain wider visibility for the notion of IM interoperability. Hopes for the IM campaign were high, but the resulting tornado of media and policymaker attention and support from others in the tech community surpassed all expectations of success. The tech community, policy-makers, press and consumers were ready for this issue to surface and the media coverage, influencer response and consumer support reflected that willingness.
Instant messaging technology had been and is today proprietary; consumers can only “talk” over the Internet to other users of the same software program. Without an open standard, IM technology could never reach its full market potential. In the summer of 1999, Microsoft and other high-tech companies attempted to interoperate with AOL and were blocked. The resulting media coverage focused almost entirely on Microsoft versus AOL, rather than the underlying issues – the barriers to interoperability.
Furthermore, the IM industry had begun working with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a standards setting body to create an open IM standard. However, the work was much slower than anticipated, and in an attempt to hasten a solution, a number of IM industry players forged an agreement to create temporary interoperability until the IETF could agree upon an official standard. America Online (AOL), the largest player in the IM market with more than 90 percent market share, resisted industry efforts to create interoperability.
It was clear that while the technical community knew the IM market lacked interoperability most consumers were unaware. In order to gain widespread acceptance for interoperability, the campaign needed to shift focus from the combatant behemoths to the technology. The challenge became how to position the IM issue on policymaker’s radar screens and motivate consumers to act in support of our case. To this end, the AOL-Time Warner merger offered an attractive and leverageable platform for developing our public relations strategy. Therefore, the Edelman team devised a plan to leverage the government review of the AOL-Time Warner merger to gain wider visibility for the notion of IM interoperability.
To reach our goal of increased visibility and media coverage for IM interoperability, the team used the following three strategies throughout the 9-month campaign:
- Influence the merger review process,
- Develop a platform for iCAST and Tribal Voice to become thought-leaders on the IM issue, and
Forge industry partnerships to create the impression of the world versus AOL on the IM issue.
Before we began the program, the team held a message workshop to identify and define the best campaign messages. During this workshop, the team devised a visually evocative slogan of “Tear down the Wall,” to capture the current nature of AOL’s instant messaging “walled garden.” This was the most effective way of characterizing AOL in a way to make IM relevant in the merger review process. Throughout the campaign, this slogan was used everywhere: in interviews, regulatory and congressional hearing testimony, statements, speeches, advertisements, and on buttons and stickers.
Once our messaging had been determined, a website was set up to be a source of campaign information and feedback. The website contained a petition that visitors could virtually “sign” to demonstrate support for our cause. Later, these petitions would be sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and publicized widely.
Following this, Edelman launched a media outreach campaign including:
- Targeting elite, regulatory beat and consumer media targets and speaking opportunities that would further the public visibility of the IM issue, as well as iCAST and Tribal Voice.
- Filing comments/statements with regulatory agencies on average of once per week and publicized activities via press releases, white papers, press conferences, media calls, and email alerts.
- Executing a media strategy around testimony from hearings in Congress and at the FCC and European Commission on AOL-Time Warner merger. Edelman’s activities included pre-briefing media, leaking testimony, providing comment during and after events, and distributing supporting documents.
In addition, Edelman facilitated the formation and leverage of two industry coalitions to create a unified voice for IM interoperability – Free IM and IMUnified – that became keys to the success of the campaign. Free IM was designed to discuss IM in the context of the AOL-Time Warner merger. IMUnified involved 7 other Founding Members (Prodigy, MSN, Odigo, AT&T, [email protected], Yahoo!, and Phone.com) dedicated to finding a technological solution to interoperability.
Finally, we developed and leveraged third party relationships. Support from other organizations affected by this issue – including the Consumers Union and the National Association for the Deaf – allowed us to gain legitimacy among news media, consumers, and stakeholder groups.
Although we expected coverage in the trades and smaller dailies, continual coverage in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post was unpredicted. A one-page piece in the October issue of Newsweek using our “Tear Down the Wall” message clearly established the IM issue in the consumer conscious. The FCC’s ruling in mid-January 2001, which put instant messaging conditions on the final AOL-Time Warner approval, was a great testament to the media storm we started.
Below is a summary of Edelman’s accomplishments:
- The campaign produced an astonishing 1400 mentions of instant messaging in the popular and trade press since March 2000.
- In June, The Wall Street Journal and other major publications reported that the federal agencies were looking into instant messaging as part of their review of the AOL-Time Warner merger.
- 200+ IM-focused articles mentioning iCAST or Tribal Voice.
- 370 stories on the AOL-Time Warner merger that mention instant messaging.
- 990 hits for Free IM, IMUnified, and partners: Odigo, Prodigy, AT&T, Microsoft, Phone.com, [email protected], and Yahoo!. (Not including the 200+ mentions of iCAST and Tribal Voice.)
- Approximately 60 hits in pieces surrounding the hearings held on the AOL-Time Warner merger including Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, and NPR.
- Received support from 47 high technology, Internet and instant messaging companies, and numerous third parties, including major consumer advocates and groups for the deaf.
- Media coverage mentioned above spurred invitations for meetings with – and testimony before – Congress, FCC, European Union, and Federal Trade Commission.
- On January 12, 2001, the FCC approved the AOL-Time Warner merger with instant messaging conditions.