The World Wide Web As A Communications Tool:
PR Practitioner Perspectives
Laura Newland Hill, M.S.
University of Tennessee
Candace White, Ph.D.
School of Journalism
University of Tennessee
Accepted for presentation to the Public Relations Division of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, annual meeting, August,
1999, New Orleans, La.
Direct inquiries to:
330 Communications Building
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-0330
423/974-5112 [log in to unmask]
The World Wide Web As A Communications Tool: PR Practitioner Perspectives
Interviews with public relations practitioners in organizations with Web sites
were used to explore perceptions about the value the Web as a communications
tool and how it fits into the communications mix. Practitioners believe a Web
site symbolizes an organization's competitiveness, enhances an organization's
image, and increases their personal sense of professionalism. However, they
often have responsibility for a Web site without additional resources to
maintain it, and do not see it as a high priority on their to-do list.
Practitioners must juggle issues such as skepticism about the value of their
site, inefficient evaluation methods, and control of the site.
The World Wide Web is becoming a significant communications tool for
businesses and organizations. Web sites are used to keep stakeholders
up-to-date, provide information to the media, gather information about publics,
strengthen corporate identity, and a host of other public relations functions.
Most Fortune 500 companies use Web sites for external communication, focusing on
promoting the company image and enhancing public relations rather than for
direct sales or other revenue generating activities (Chang, Arnett, Capella, and
The trend to use Web sites for public relations type activities is
noteworthy. White and Raman (1998) contend that the Web is the first public
relations mass medium in that content reaches a mass audience, but is not
filtered through gatekeepers. It is a controlled mass medium since the sender of
the message has control over the content that reaches the receiver.
Traditionally in public relations, controlled messages are sent through
newsletters, annual reports, and other vehicles written by communication
professionals in an organization. Prior to the advent of the World Wide Web,
advertising was the only way to send a controlled message to a mass audience
through a mass medium.
A survey of public relations practitioners in pr reporter found that while
the use of technology is identified as a leading public relations trend, its
impact and value are mixed (Sept. 28, 1998). The Public Relations Strategist
has published three articles about Internet issues to date. One addressed the
need to keep a Web site's content current and offered recommendations to ensure
that it is (Gumpert 1997). Another dealt with the potentially negative
consequencesDcode violations, deceptive advertising, and questionable
promotionsDof surreptitiously using chat rooms to promote the company (Baker
1996). The third discussed some false assumptions about the Web, including who
is using it, the speed at which journalists are adopting it, the advantages of
unfiltered communications, and the skills needed to take advantage of the Web
Articles in the trade press provide practitioners with information on how
to use the Internet, World Wide Web, and other online technologies to improve
the execution of their jobs. Some concentrate on using the Internet to gather
informationDfor example, collect clippings or scanning issues (Alexander 1996;
Jackson and Stoakes 1997; Young 1997). Other articles address how to use the
medium to communicate with clients and other target publics, especially the
media (Cohen 1997; Harden 1996; Kissing 1997; Settles 1996). A small number
discuss creating and maintaining Web sites, primarily focusing on tips to make
the site interesting and useable (Marken 1995; Middleberg 1996). These articles
focus on developing skills and tools for enhancing the technical
responsibilities of a public relations job.
However, despite its importance to public relations, Johnson (1997) notes,
"rigorous public relations research about the use of new technologies has been
limited." Most previous academic research deals mainly with online technology
in general, not the World Wide Web specifically. Johnson's work looked at public
relations professionals' use of interactive or computer-or-satellite-mediated
technologies, including the World Wide Web. Thomsen (1996, 1995) studied the use
of online databases for issues management and forums by public relations
professionals. Ramsey (1993) asked about computerized research techniques used
by issues management professionals. White and Raman (1998) looked at planning
and research in regard to Web sites, but did not specifically address the issue
from the point of view of the public relations practitioner.
Need for Study
This study looks at how public relations practitioners perceive Web sites
as a communications tool and how the World Wide Web fits into their overall
communications strategy. It attempts to fill a gap in public relations research
and professional literature, since as Johnson (1997) noted, there is no
organizing framework that merges new technologies with existing communication
tools used in public relations. In-depth interviews were conducted with 13
public relations practitioners whose organizations had established Web sites.
The study investigates their perceptions of the World Wide Web as a
communications tool to gain a better understanding of how Web sites are actually
incorporated into communication strategies. The research uses a grounded theory
approach that relies on the analysis of the data to guide the theories that
emerge (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). Grounded theory is appropriate for this study
since little research about the topic exists.
Literature to Provide Framework
Literature on how practitioners perceive the Web as a communications tool
does not exist. Even though it is not necessary to find a priori theory to guide
the study, it is helpful to look at existing literature in public relations to
help structure thought about how new communication technologies fit into
existing organizational structure and communication strategies. To develop this
structure, three areas were identified that may be useful to the study:
research about public relations roles, professionalism, and encroachment. The
information found in the literature on the use of technology in public relations
lead to the review of research on public relations roles and professionalism.
The focus on encroachment research stemmed from articles in trade magazines
about the most suitable department within an organization to control a Web site.
The literature review was used to add depth to the researcher's understanding of
the practice of public relations and provided an overall picture of some issues
and concerns that may confront the practitioners who were to be interviewed.
Public Relations Roles
The job responsibilities of a practitioner and his or her role in the
organization may influence how a practitioner perceives a Web site as a
communications tool. Broom (1979) proposed four roles to explain the
responsibilities of public relations practitioners. These descriptions were
based on conceptual models found in a wide range of literature on consulting,
and as described by Broom and Smith (1982), are:
Expert prescriber. The practitioner operates as the authority on both
public relations problems and their solutions. The practitioner researches and
defines the problem, develops the program and takes major responsibility for its
Communication technician. The practitioners provide their organization or
client with the specialized skills needed to carry out public relations
programs. Rather than being part of the management team, they are primarily
concerned with preparing and producing communications materials for the public
Communication facilitator. The practitioner is a sensitive "go-between" or
information broker. He or she serves as a liaison, interpreter and mediator
between the organization and its publics, with an emphasis on maintaining a
continuous flow of two-way communication.
Problem-solving process facilitator. Practitioners operate as members of
the management team, collaborating with others throughout the organization to
define and solve problems. They help guide other managers and the organization
through a rational problem-solving process that may involve all parts of the
organization in the public relations planning and programming process.
Most public relations practitioners do not operate solely in one of these
areas, but adopt all the roles to a varying degree. Dozier (1992), therefore,
collapsed the four roles into that of manager and technician based on the fact
that the same people tend to play the expert prescriber, communication
facilitator, and problem-solving process facilitator roles, while different
people play the technician role. Furthermore, Reagan, Anderson, Sumner, and
Hill (1990) concluded that because Broom and Smith's four roles do not appear in
empirical tests, that at the theoretical level, it is probable that only two
roles exist: manager and technician.
Johnson (1997) considering public relations roles in the use of new
technology suggested that managers may use technology to spot trends, monitor
issues, and note sensitive changes among target publics. White and Raman (1998)
that those responsible for Web sites operated primarily as communication
technicians. Technicians use technology for improving productivity and
enhancing activities like media relations and employee communications. The
predominant role of the public relations practitioners identified in this study
may be useful in understanding how the practitioner views a Web site.
Professionalism and Public Relations
The literature on professionalism introduces the possibility that the use
of a Web site as a communications tool may be influenced by practitioners'
understanding of what it means to be a professional. The issue of
professionalism in public relations branches into two areas. One centers on
discussion of whether or not public relations, as an occupation, is a profession
and on licensing and accreditation issues.
The other branch looks at the presence of professionalism among the people
practicing public relations. The second path has potential relevance to this
The empirical research on professionalism in public relations is based in
McLeod and Hawley's (1964) study of professionalism of Milwaukee journalists.
These researchers identified 24 characteristics associated with professionalism
from a list of characteristics developed from sociological studies on
professionalism in other occupations. McKee, Nayman, and Lattimore (1975)
adopted the list, using only 21 items, in their investigation of how public
relations people see themselves as professionals. Their study found the
following job characteristics were most often rated extremely or quite important
by respondents: opportunity for originality and initiative, improving
professional competency, full use of ability and training, having influence on
important decisions, opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge, enjoyment of
what's involved in doing the job, and earning a good living. A conclusion made
by the researchers reiterated an earlier observation made by McLeod and Hawley,
"A person who sees himself as a professional is more apt to act like a
professional (McKee et al. 1975)."
The 24 characteristics were used again when Wright (1978) looked at the
differences between public relations counselors at various levels of
professional orientation. A major assumption by Wright was that public
relations should be examined in terms of the individual and not the practice
(1978). His findings indicated that practitioners "want to be more professional
than their present position will allow" and they were experiencing frustration
about the lack of latitude in decision making and supervision.
Later research by Wright (1981), Cameron, Sallot, and Lariscy (1996) and
Sallot, Cameron, and Lariscy (1997) began to tie these personal characteristics
with the standards associated with defining an occupation as a profession. The
intent of these studies was to determine if the efforts to establish
professional standards for the occupation were being accomplished. There was
less emphasis on what is considered a professional characteristic and more
emphasis on professional standards.
The potential influence of the concept of professionalism on the use of new
communication technologies was identified in Johnson's (1997) study on public
relations that noted:
[T]he adoption of the new technologies was self-driven by
[practitioners'] own definitions of professionalism. All the
respondents admitted to knowledge gaps about various technologies and
their self-identity as a professional was dependent on reducing the
Public Relations and Encroachment
When one department in an organization is unable to demonstrate that it
performs a substantially different function than another, the department with
the most resources or power usually takes over the less powerful one (Lauzen
1993). According to Lauzen, in public relations encroachment is defined as the
assignment of non-public relations professionals to manage the public relations
function. The study notes that encroachment often is perceived when the
marketing department is involved. Marketing departments generally have more
influence in an organization than public relations, and often the lines between
the responsibilities of the two are blurred. This same trend is also identified
in non-profit organizations, except in these organizations the public relations
department is often encroached upon by the fund-raising department. This
vulnerability is connected to the role enacted by the senior public relations
practitioner, how the public relations department is valued by the organization,
and the financial situation of the organization (Kelly 1993).
The literature about encroachment reveals the existence of threats to
public relations departments from other departments that may be more powerful
(have more resources) or that are believed to be more valuable. In many
organizations, it is possible that another department within the organization is
vying for, or already has, control of the Web site. This encroachment may create
barriers to including the site in the organization's overall communication
strategy. Since other departments like marketing, advertising, customer
service, and information systems (IS) also have a vested interest in the Web
site, public relations' influence with these departments may determine how
communication goals are incorporated (especially if the site is initiated by
Magazine articles with titles like Don't let PR control your Web site
(Seybold 1996) and Bypassed again? IS often left out of Web planning (Booker
1995) indicate some of the competition within an organization for control of a
Web site. Seybold warns no to give the corporate public relations department
control and ownership of the Web site "because they will turn it into a boring
corporate brochure." She recommended that a site concentrate on business
strategy support, with a focus on saving money, improving customer service or
expanding audience reach (1996). This attitude reflects a dichotomous view about
the function of a Web site, a view where public relations goals and business
goals aren't compatible in this medium.
On the other hand, a public relations department may inherit a site because
the department that created it no longer wants it, as this comment indicates:
"The MIS [management information systems] guys did it without bothering to tell
anyone. Then the Web got famous. That home page started getting more visibility,
internally and externally. Someone had to feed the beast. So the MIS guys came
to public relations and said, 'Isn't this really your job?' (Ovaitt 1995)." The
public relations department may have to assume responsibility for the upkeep of
something they may not have the resources in terms of time, personnel, or
funding to maintain.
Qualitative research, in the form of long interviews, was used to gain an
understanding of public relations practitioners' perceptions of the World Wide
Web as a communications tool. Because existing public relations research
literature about the topic is limited, qualitative research and inductive
analysis are appropriate. A grounded theory approach is well-suited to the study
of organizational phenomena in areas where little previous knowledge exists and
the nature of the research questions call for an exploratory or descriptive
focus (Corbin and Strauss, 1990).
Thirteen people, selected through a purposive sample, were interviewed for
this study. The only criterion was that participants practiced public relations
in an organization that had a Web site. One exception to the criterion was made:
a practitioner who worked for a company that was only in the planning stages of
a Web site was included. This was done to provide a contrast to the perceptions
of practitioners with an established site. Several interviewees were identified
by the researchers and asked to participate in the study. In addition, the
Public Relations Tactics 1997-1998 Blue Book was used to identify other
participants. A search on the World Wide Web was conducted to see which
companies listed in the Blue Book had Web sites. Practitioners at organizations
with a Web site were contacted and asked if they would be willing to participate
in the study.
The selected participants worked for organizations located in five large
southeastern cities. They all identified themselves as public relations
practitioners. (See Figure 1). Eight women and five men participated; 12 were
white, one was black. The size of the sample is acceptable for this type of
study where the purpose is to gain access to the categories and assumptions
according to which one culture (public relations practitioners) construe a
phenomenon (McCracken, 1988). The interviews were recorded and transcribed
verbatim for analysis.
An inductive development of conceptualizations grounded in the collected
data was employed to analyze the transcripts. This method is responsive to
changes as additional data are analyzed. This responsiveness creates emergent
categories which, as they are emerging, are continually being developed and
checked for relevance (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Grounded theory, the result of
this analysis, also takes advantage of the fact that the researcher is an
instrument in the qualitative research process. In the analysis process, the
researcher asks if a logical connection exists between each comment and any
other comment or note (Taylor, 1994).
Transcripts of the interviews were first analyzed using open coding, a
process of breaking down, examining, comparing, and categorizing data (Strauss
and Corbin 1990). Each interview was reviewed for comments regarding the
practitioners' perceptions about how the Web site fit with the performance of
their jobs and how it was used as a communications tool. Relevant comments were
marked with codes that indicated their connection to similar bits of information
found in other interviews.
After initial categories, or instances of phenomena, were identified, they
were compared to each other at a second level of analysis using axial coding.
The similarities and differences of the categories identified during the open
coding process were noted and used to create a theme under which related
categories could be grouped. Strauss and Corbin (1990) state that the intent of
axial coding is to see how the open coding categories relate to each other by
making abstract comparisons between them. Finally, the emergent themes were
identified (selective coding).
Three dominant themes emerged from analysis of the data. The most
predominant finding was the Web site's low priority for both the practitioner
and the organization among those interviewed. This theme was called The Web as
a "B list" Task. Another prevalent theme was Anticipated Value, which helped
explain why the organizations in the study maintained Web sites and the benefits
the practitioner gets or anticipates getting from the site. The third theme,
Juggling Act, considered issues that influenced how well a practitioner manages
a Web site as a public relations responsibility.
It's a "B list" Task
For the participants interviewed, working on the Web site was a low
priority taskDa "B list" activity in the lexicon of time management. This
phenomenon was expressed in these comments:
"Obviously it goes to the bottom of the list most of the time,
because I have other programs where I have people at my door."
"It always seems to go back to the back burner after we talk about it."
"It feels like it's one of those priorities that always gets bumped.
When, you know, there's always something else coming in ahead of it and it
tends to get neglected."
The low priority for an organization's Web site came not only from the public
relations practitioners, but also from their superiors as the following comments
"There's not a lot of organizational priority on it. So, it
follows that there's not a lot of priority of my time spent on it."
"_it was on the bottom of the totem pole for my boss and you look
to your boss for your priority. And while we wanted it and we all came to
consensus for, we knew it was on the bottom of the list. So it was not a
A disadvantage of a site remaining on a "B" list too long was illustrated in
"The problem was we didn't have the staff support necessary, in
terms of number of staff or in terms of ability to maintain a Web page on a
daily basis. Particularly in terms of time, we didn't have the time to
maintain a Web page on a daily basis. We knew all this going in and we did
it anyway. We are now paying the price of that I believe. We've had the
same Web site up for over a year. It is out-of-date information. It, it is
not what we need to have on a Web site for [our] image."
Reasons for a Web site becoming a "B" list item were readily apparent. The
facts that the Web content didn't always have critical deadlines and that the
practitioner had a heavy, existing workload were the most conspicuous.
No deadlineDIn many cases, higher priority tasks were usually those that had
deadlines associated with them, whereas maintaining or improving the Web site
did not carry deadline pressure.
"And now that I have the Web site, it's, I guess it's kind of a
secondary priority because it doesn't have to get out in the mail, it
doesn't have to, it doesn't have to go to the printer."
"Because I have an event in September and now is when it has to
be planned for. Period. It's got to be done now. There's nothing else I
can do about it. And I can't take the time away from immediate things to
put to something [the Web site] that, you know, really could wait."
Too much to doDAnother frustration was that the Web site was just one of the
many responsibilities a practitioner had to squeeze it into the workweek. As
one practitioner said, "We've got enough to do now. What are we going to give
up?" Another commented, "Anyway there's just not man-hours in the week to get
everything done, plus do some of the projects that need to be done such as the
Web page." If only one person in the organization was assigned to work on the
Web site, it might never receive attention, as the following comment
"Well it was, it was just me in that position _ and being a
webmaster is kind of a full-time job, really to get everything on there and
keep it up to date. So I didn't really have the time to that. And didn't
even attempt to, to do it because it was too much of a project."
Obviously a solution to the time problem is to add personnel, but even when
there were already two people in the department available to give attention to
the site, it did not seem to be enough. Several comments indicated that
maintaining the Web site could be a full time job.
"I wish, if I got my dream, I wish that we could hire a third
person who was in charge of, of just the Web site. You know, keeping it
changing constantly. Keeping it up-to-date."
"We're realizing more and more it could support its own staff,
you know, especially a part-time staff. Somebody who's updating the site".
When asked about advice for organizations thinking about creating a site, a
participant made these recommendations: "Seriously think, be prepared to allow
the time to do it right. Make it a priority. Don't, don't expect somebody to
just fit it into their day, because it, it won't happen." This admonition summed
up the reasons for a Web site becoming a "B list" task: it addressed priority,
the number of other responsibilities, and lack of time.
In one large organization in the study, the public relations/marketing
department initiated the Web site, and when the site was being established,
hired a full-time person who was "completely dedicated to the Web site." The
public relations practitioner in the organization still had a problem:
remembering to give the Web site coordinator information that needed to be
The low priority phenomenon begs the question, Why do these organizations have
a Web site? Whether the public relations practitioners developed their site or
inherited it from another department, they all had perceptions that it would add
value to their public relations strategies. The following benefits or
anticipated benefits were identified by interviewees: ability to demonstrate
competitiveness, supplementing media relations activities, opportunity to reach
new audiences, relationship building, and developing personal skills. These
attributes of the Web site were reasons the practitioners continued keeping the
site on their agenda.
Demonstrating competitiveness. It would be easier to name this concept
"Shows We're Technological," but doing so would not describe its significance.
There is more to it than mere technological savvy. There was a perceived
relationship between technology and competitiveness for the participants. For
them, having a Web site showed that they had technological skills, a
characteristic they thought was important. As a participant said, "Yeah, I mean
we have to have it because we have to look like we are on top of the
It is difficult to describe exactly how technological savvy and the concept
of being competitive are connected. The notion was described by one participant
"And it's important, in my opinion, that we stay competitive.
And one of the things this (having a Web site) does for us is makes us, at
the very least, appear to be competitive. Now we are competitive, mind
you. But the fact that we're able to put this on our publications (points
to a Web site address on a brochure) helps us. The fact that we're able to
put that on publications sort of says, 'yeah we're up on the times. We're
not lagging behind_"
It may be easier to understand this expectation of a Web site by noting that one
participant believed it was harmful for an organization not to have a Web site.
She thought companies without one are perceived in a negative light. Another
participant said his organization could not demonstrate to the parents of
potential students that it was technologically savvy without a Web site. For
him, a school that does not demonstrate technological proficiency will have
trouble recruiting pupils. The following statement also illustrated how a Web
site is linked to the notion of competitiveness.
"It was something the organization realized it needed to do to
stay current and utilize all the communications resources that were out
there and all the resources that our competitors were using also."
Supplementing media relations. A Web site was seen as enhancing the
performance of other public relations tools used by the participants. It
provided additional information or offered easy access to the organization. Of
particular interest were the comments about news releases, one of the most
essential public relations tools: "So every press release I send out, it goes
on our site as is, you know." This was standard operating procedure for most of
the participants. However, participants had even greater expectations about the
press relations benefits of a Web site. As one participant explained:
"_if a reporter is doing research, that's what we really want,
for them to come to Community Chest (Web site) for them to do their
research for social services _ Well if they're doing a search and they want
to know about welfare reform and they type in that, then our Web site will
pop up and it will be all the information that we're doing with welfare
On the other hand, participants had very few stories about the press
actually using the site. A few participants could cite specific examples of the
use of their site by journalists, but overall, most felt that very little media
coverage was generated because of the site. An interesting twist to the media
relations benefits of a Web site was the fear of one participant that the Web
site might take the place of personal contact. His line of discovery went like
(When reporters use Web sites) "that's frightening in a way, I
mean that has a down side in that you're trying to eliminate your
position. Basically is what you're doing is to make the information so
easy that they don't need you very much anymore. The Daily News will get
the information from here, and never, and you're thinking, 'well the phones
are not even ringing. Do they even need us any more?'"
Reaching new audiences. There was a belief that the Web site had the
ability to reach publics the organization normally does not reach. The
following respondent's comment came after discussing potential visitors
accessing the Web site: "I think we could hit our audience in that way, better
than we could with the direct mail. And it's so much cheaper." A participant
associated with a fund-raising organization that was always trying to find new
donors echoed this sentiment.
"There are a lot of people out there who we haven't even touched,
who may not have a paying job, who may be homemakers, but would give if
they had a channel, a vehicle. So, if they can give through the Web site
Building relationships. A Web site was not viewed as a replacement for
face-to-face contact, but it was perceived as a way to strengthen relationships
that already exist, mainly because of the e-mail function. For one participant,
a Web site made it possible for alumni to reach his organization at any time.
"And we can talk to them individually as, as well as responding
immediately when they feel like talking to us, like 3 a.m. on a Tuesday.
And then when we get in we can say, 'whoa, we got a letter from
so-and-so.' So we can respond to their Web sites too."
Also, networking opportunities were enhanced as the following comment indicated,
"And we go to conferences, national conferences and more and more
non-profits are using the Internet and using e-mail so it's been real good
for that. I mean I can have that address on my cards and it's an easy and
inexpensive way for us to communicate with other organizations around the
Increasing my personal value. The organization was not the only recipient
of benefits offered by a Web site. The practitioners also believed that the
acquisition of new skills was a personal benefit. This is noteworthy in light
the list of job characteristicD which included the opportunity to learn new
skills and knowledgeDassociated with professionalism. These comments illustrated
"It's not going to hurt for me to have that knowledge on my
r sum , for companies to know that if this is something they want done, I
can do it."
"I don't think either of us would know, say Photoshop, the
software of a whole lot of different programs if we didn't have Publisher
[for doing the Web site]. So it keeps us technologically decent, not
proficient I would say, but decent."
"I really think that it's so technical that I just as soon have
somebody else do it. But, that's not going to happen at this
organization. And at the same time I think it would be good knowledge for
me. I think it would help me grow professionally."
The Juggling Act
The participants in the study indicated they had to deal with several
issues simultaneously as they tried to judge the worth of their Web site. In
analyzing the transcripts, it appeared that the practitioners were juggling
several perceptions of the Web site. Some issues might be in the air at any
given time, while others were in need of immediate attention. Which issue took
priority for the practitioner could vary situationally. These issues were given
the names "skepticism," "evaluation," "up-to-date," and "control." They are
related to concepts already discussed, but for various reasons stand on their
own and are also very connected to one other.
Skepticism. Doubts about the value of Web sites as a communications tool
existed. One practitioner said, "A lot of people are online, but not as many as
need to be for us to put all our eggs in the Web site, I think." A similar
sentiment was reflected in this statement: "Well, a lot of people still question
the validity of the Web site. 'Do we really need it and this is an expense we
don't really need to have?'"
Many of the practitioners believed in the value of the Web site, but had to
deal with others in the organization who were skeptical. The skeptics wanted
tangible evidence as one participant pointed out, "They're a lot into proof,
'prove this to me, why is this important, that I won't take just your word for
it, I want to know why, why are we putting this extra effort into it.' So, you
have to prove to them that it's worth their while."
This attitude was a likely the cause for the "B list" status. The site had
a lower priority than other activities because peopleDeither the practitioner or
organization leadersDdoubted a site was providing something as valuable as the
resources that were being put into it. A participant added validity to this
assessment with this observation: "And I know it should be high on the priority
list and I already have a problem with that. Because there are certain things
that have to get done and there are things more pressing than a site people
might hit if they're out surfing the Web."
Evaluation. Most participants in the study had not formally evaluated the
effectiveness of their Web site. One participant said, "I've done some
evaluation, but not an intense evaluation." Without adequate evaluation of a Web
site, it will be difficult to gather the ammunition needed to disarm the
skeptics. Only one of the participants conducted regular evaluations on the site
and this was only analysis of hits. Others also counted hits, but not as
systematically. A participant said, "We've kind of just really looked at how
many hits we're getting and it's always increasing and we take that as kind of a
good sign, so, you know, we haven't really become very scientific about it."
Another participant pointed out a reason for the lack of evaluation: "They won't
spend a lot of money on evaluation programs like marketing surveys or anything
of that nature. They just will not do it."
There was often an evaluation process inside the organization that involved
comments from committees made of up organizational leaders. No participant
indicated that targeted publics were providing evaluation information, except
occasionally through feedback mechanisms on the site or comments in person. The
vagaries of this approach were illustrated in this comment: "I don't know how
effective it is. I haven't had people make enough comments or calls or whatever.
It's not out there enough for people to know about it."
Up-to-date factor. Many of the participants were bothered by the fact that
they could not keep the site up-to-date with their current resources. For one
respondent, the need to be up-to-date was a reason for questioning the wisdom of
putting up the site in the first place. She described the situation this way:
"The communications department resisted a little bit because we
knew that in order to do it the right way, to be online, we had to have
current information on a daily basis online or it wouldn't work. You can't
go online with a product and then update it every six months. You may as
well not be there at all."
The next comment was representative of comments from many of the participants.
"When we don't do that (update the site) on a timely basis, it
bothers me a great deal. But, you know the last thing I want is for it to
be old news on our news pages when we're going to a lot of time and trouble
to, you know, tell the world about something new that we're doing and you
turn to our Web site and it's not even there. It is something that we have
control over, that we totally can control the content. I mean, I can send
a press release to every newspaper in the world and I can't guarantee that
they're going to print it. But something that we have total control over,
you know, it's frustrating if we can't get it up there_"
Practitioners believed that keeping a site up-to-date was vital to the
effectiveness of their sites. They thought their publics expected Web sites to
be up-to-date and were afraid if they did not do so they would undermine the
advantages of demonstrating they were technologically savvy.
Quality control. Throughout the interviews, the idea that the site is a
reflection of the organization's image was expressed. The relationship between
quality control and corporate image was revealed in this explanation of why
maintenance of a site was taken from a telecommunications department and given
to a communications and marketing department: "The powers that be really wanted
my position as director of publications, to take over the look of that, kind of
our corporate identity." The practitioner, whose office is still in the process
of training the new webmaster said, "One problem was that we don't have any,
really, means of controlling that site. What goes on it. How it looks. And as a
result it's kind of a schizophrenic looking thing." He attributed the disparate
appearance to the site designer's lack of public relations and communications
skills. A site that had inconsistent pages was viewed as problematic, as seen
in this observation made by a different participant:
"If you were a perspective student looking at our Web site, and
you clicked up, and you were interested in sports, and you clicked up
lacrosse, you would find a really impressive site several layers thick on
lacrosse and what it has to offer and how successful we've been. And then
you said, 'well maybe I don't want to play lacrosse, maybe I want to play
golf.' So you click on golf and nothing. So then do you say, 'this
school's inconsistent, it doesn't have its act together'? That's bothered
me a whole lot. The only solution is for me to take over golf, because the
golf coach is never going to do it. And I don't have time to do it."
Lack of communication between the practitioner and the site designer also
created problems as is noted in the following comment.
"He designed a Web page for [us] but he didn't discuss it with me
or meet with me about it, or sit down and do it together_he didn't talk to
the staff to see what we wanted on it.'"
Another organization described the following situation.
"It was our ad agency who had been recruited for all our print
materials for the fund-raising campaign, okay. So they knew our message
strategy. They knew everything we needed. They went ahead and designed the
Web page based on input that we gave them, based on senior staff meetings,
from all the departments here at Community Chest. So we all had input on
what it needed to be."
However, when the participants (there were two in this interview) were asked
what they thought of their current site, they responded:
"It's very dull. It needs better visuals. It needs to come up
sooner. It comes up real slow because of the visual that's on there. It
needs to be just more graphically pleasing to the eye. If nothing but the
Community Chest logo. It needs to be better. It's just not, it's not good.
We weren't pleased with it when we got it."
Controlling the quality of a Web site was an important issue. The more
influence a practitioner had on the site, the greater his ability to direct its
appearance. Practitioners with sites that had multiple sources of content had to
balance the need to disseminate information with the need to shape the
organization's image. Juggling various issues was a source of frustration for
the practitioners, and if not handled with dexterity, could interfere with a
site's ability to be effective.
There is little doubt that a Web site was a communications tool for a
public relations practitionerDone of many tools they utilize to share
information with an organization's public. One participant said, "it is one more
piece of the puzzle." The study found that practitioners thought using this
tool required more time than anticipated and that a Web site was often a
low-priority item, both for practitioners who had a number of other
responsibilities and more pressing matters, as well as for other managers in the
organization. Participants believed that a Web site had the potential to
provide information to the media, demonstrate the organization's
competitiveness, and build relationships with new and existing publics.
Working with a site was perceived to enhance personal skills. However, several
issues interfered with the participants ability to maximize the benefits of a
Web site: skepticism about the value of a Web site; inadequate evaluation
methods, inability to keep the site updated, and quality control expectations.
To maximize the benefits of a Web site for an organization, it is helpful
to see what a Web site is and is not for the practitioner. An understanding of
how Web sites are perceived by public relations professionals with a vested
interest in these sites can help formulate thinking about how the Web is
impacting the practice of public relations. Recommendations that may help
public relations practitioners can be offered based on these findings.
Perceptions. Participants in the study perceived that their Web sites had
the potential to provide new benefits to their organization, such as the
opportunity to reach new audiences and an additional interface with journalists.
However, they could not articulate or demonstrate with research that they were
currently achieving these benefits. There was a positive perception of the
anticipated value of the site that co-existed with some skepticism about the
value of the site under current circumstances. Participants believed that if
given time and resources to do the job right, the site could reach its
Participants believed that a Web site is symbolicDhaving a Web site creates
a positive image and competitive edge for an organization, and allows the
organization to appear to be on the cutting edge. The study found a perception
that a Web site symbolizes keeping up with trends and being at the forefront of
what is happening in the world. Understanding this perception can benefit
practitioners involved with Web sites. If a site is created all or in part for
the purpose of conveying a cutting-edge image, the site must be up-to-date and
technologically advanced. This, of course, takes resources; the study found
that lack of resources for maintaining a Web site was common. If image
building is a priority for the organization's Web site, it is necessary to make
the resources to maintain it a priority.
The participants had a pragmatic acceptance of the reality of limited
resources. They were not overly frustrated that they were not achieving what
they wanted with their Web site. But at the same time, they expressed concerns
that their site was not living up to its potential and was a low priority item.
This ties back to Johnson's (1997) observation that practitioners' adoption of
technology is driven by their own definitions of professionalism and their
attempt to live up to what one "ought" to do and "ought to know."
One of the most common frustrationsDespecially for those who had outside
departments posting contentDwas the perception that the site did not reflect
positively on the organization. The frustration was related to the fact that
even thought the site was something they were responsible for, they were unable
to completely control it. There may be several reasons for this perceived lack
of control: inadequate resources make it impractical to review other
departments' content before it is posted, the belief that other departments will
chaff at having the public relations department overseeing their work, or the
fact that practitioners do not have the time to make the site what they thought
it "ought" to be. This connects to the McKee et al. (1975) list of extremely or
quite important job characteristics which includes having influence on important
decisions. In this case the practitioners may feel professionally frustrated
that they do not have much influence on the company's image as they would like.
This lack of influence could also be connected to the fact that most of the
participants described their work in terms that would categorize them in the
role of communication technician. But those participants whose responsibilities
extended beyond the technician role, also seemed to be frustrated by their
departments' lack of control of the site's appearance and lack of support from
On the other hand, none of the participants reported that any other
department was trying to take responsibility for the site from them. This
absence of a perception of encroachment by another department may be a function
of the sample.
The Web as a communications tool. A Web site is becoming a widely adopted
public relations tool. It is used to provide information to both external and
internal publics. The e-mail function is seen as offering two-way communication
opportunities. But the Web is not seen as a replacement for other tools. For
instance, participants routinely posted news releases to their sites without
abandoning traditional methods of distributing releases. They did not think the
audiences of their newsletters would visit the Web site to get the same
information and did not believe the Web replaced face-to-face communication.
For the participants in this study, a Web site was more work than most
anticipated. These practitioners already felt overwhelmed by their workload and
had little incentive to make the Web site a higher priority than the other tasks
on their agenda. Most felt that the organization did not commit the resources
needed to increase the level of attention given to the site. They also faced
other obstacles to making the site a priority. These include skepticism about
the value of the site, the lack of useful evaluation procedures, and the fact
that multiple audiences are often the targets of a Web site.
As for understanding how a Web site fits into an overall communications
plan, the participants in this study did not articulate on a specific plan for
their organizations other than "to get the word out about us."
Recommendations. The practitioner needs to be prepared to make the site a
priority if it is to stay up-to-date and present a positive image of the
organization. In order for the site to become a priority, there must be a
commitment to provide the personnel, training and equipment needed to keep pace
with the additional work. Also, if the site is to be a useful tool, standards
for evaluating its But once again, there needs to be a commitment of resources
if research is to be funded. If it is to be a useful tool, standards for
evaluating its effectiveness in that context must to be established.
Practitioners also need reliable measures that can be used in these evaluations.
Exploratory research often raises more questions that it answers. Such was
the case in this study. Several themes emerged from this research which also
were found in previous qualitative studies. The notions that a Web site is a
mark of professionalism for both the practitioner and the organization, the idea
that the use of technology is a necessary tool of the future, and the perception
of Web sites as an image builder symbolizing that an organization is on top of
things were congruent with findings of Johnson (1997) as well as White and Raman
(1998). These recurring ideas warrant further study. It will be interesting to
find out whether in the future, the predictions of anticipated value hold true.
The study found that public relations practitioners perceive a Web site as a
tool to enhance an organization's image. Future research needs to explore
whether this holds true for the users of the Web site. Do people think having a
Web site is a mark of quality for an organization? Does a Web site truly improve
an organization's image? Related to this was the belief that having a Web site
helped participants in the study reach new audiences even though no one had
concrete evidence this was the case. Evaluation tools for measuring the
effectiveness of Web sites need to be developed. Additionally, more research is
needed which looks at audiences of new media.
Participants also believed that journalists used the Web site to obtain
information about the organization. Participants routinely posted news releases
to their sites, but did not know if journalists were reading them on the Web.
None of the participants worked for publicly traded organizations, so the issue
of investor relations and insider trading problems are not relevant. Research
that examines how useful Web sites are to journalistsDespecially sites of
smaller organizationsDis needed.
It would also be interesting to explore how public relations practitioners
determine the priority they assign to their different tasks. If a Web site is
given low priority because other tools or activities are deemed more important,
what are the criteria the practitioner uses to assign a higher priority? The
findings seemed to indicate that it is deadline pressures or "people at the
door." However, research is needed to reconcile the fact that Web sites are
considered important, particularly for image building and competitiveness, but
yet they are often given low priority in terms of time and resources.
The literature review for this study included a look at professionalism in
public relations. In this study, the issue of professionalism primarily came up
in interviews with young women who worked in non-profit organizations. Being
seen as a professional is a more pressing issue for women in non-profit
organizations than for men in that environment or for women in for-profit
organizations. This phenomenon could be explored further.
A limitation of qualitative studies is that the findings are not generalizable
to a larger population, not even to other public relations practitioners who
work with a Web site. However, after ten or so interviews in this study the
responses began to be somewhat redundant, and because some findings in the study
are very similar to findings from other related studies, the findings are
Follow up conversations with some of the participants in the study indicated
that some things about use of their Web sites had changed since the study was
conducted. The primary limitation of research about new technologies is that it
is very difficult to keep pace with a rapidly moving target.
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Practitioner Perspectives of the WWW
Figure 1. Description of interview participants.
Job title responsibilities
director of Web site, newsletters, TV show, press releases, advertising,
communications and publicity materials, communication consulting to other
"all communications aspects of the organization"
marketing & PR intern Web site, press releases, journal articles
director of public affairs alumni affairs, press relations, fund-raising,
asst. director, public affairs Web site, newsletters, press releases
mgr. of corporate Web site content, editor for quarterly magazine, special
communications publicity, awards shows, "internal and external communications"
director of development fund-raising for a medical college
director of communications supervises directors of publications, marketing and
& marketing relations, "all university publications"
communications director supervises Web site publications staff, media relations,
former comm. director held position when Web site was created
community relations Web site, media relations, community outreach, publications,
specialist to other groups, grant writing, promotions
V.P. of marketing and Web site, fundraising events, media relations, all PR,
development retail stores
advertising manager heads dept. responsible for PR, advertising, exhibits and
promotions, new media,
print and collateral materials
PR/marketing manager "everything that is PR/marketing," media relations,employee