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PR learning online

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Online is the present and future of PR. It is not the end of PR as we know it. It is a media tool with features that PR practitioners should exploit.

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  1. Learning Online Crafts James L. Horton Online is the present and future of PR. It understanding. By then, other is not the end of PR as we know it. It is a communications fields are using media tool with features that PR communications technology in new practitioners should exploit. and creative ways. For example, databases are at the heart of list And there is the challenge. Because management, and PR practitioners online is a tool, one must learn to use it. make lists, especially media lists. And that is a challenge many PR However, few practitioners know how practitioners avoid. There are reasons or why databases work. They buy why: lists from vendors like MediaMap, which builds and runs the database.  Most PR practitioners fear technology. Old and young practitioners have time  PR practitioners can’t get past “so and again demonstrated deep-seated what?” The “so-what” objection goes reluctance to learn technology well. something like this, “So what? We They use the Internet, e-mail and Web don’t need to know anything about pages. But, they memorize rules: online. We just use it.” The problem They don’t understand reasons for is that one cannot use technology doing things. They click a button, and creatively without understanding its if it doesn’t work, they call “Hank” who parameters. For example, if all you knows about this stuff. know about a hammer is that it drives nails, you don’t know that a hammer  PR practitioners fear technology pulls nails; that a hammer is crucial in beyond writing and presentation tools. aligning wood to be nailed; that a They use a word processor more or hammer is a quick lever when less well, and they use PowerPoint. boosting things into place; that a Few use an electronic spreadsheet hammer is perfect for making dimples like Excel or know what to do with it. in sheetrock before compounding it to Fewer use a relational database like cover nail heads; that a hammer has Access or have any idea of how to many other uses besides driving nails. apply it. What is disturbing is how Online is a complex and growing suite little most PR practitioners know about of tools. To use online well, one word processors. needs to learn its techniques and to study new applications as they arise.  Because PR practitioners fear In other words, online is lifelong technology, they do not think learning. technologically. They follow and do not lead in developing technology for client service. But the outcome of Theory and Craft following is that client service in PR suffers until technology becomes an Online PR is craft, not theory. PR theory integral part of a practitioner’s remains the same whether one uses 1
  2. online, newsprint, TV, radio, events or Adherents to the Content school believe another technique. Craft means one can content matters, and flash doesn’t do something, or not. PR practitioners because: can write well or not, can pitch media successfully or not, can set up events or  Most online users want information not, can handle crises or not and know quickly. They don’t want to wade how to use online – or not. PR through cutesy, animated pages to get practitioners are hired to do and not to data, and they can’t stand ads, theorize about doing. This does not especially those that hover over copy mean that practitioners disdain theory – you are trying read or distract you by far from it. Theory underlies everything floating around the screen to music. practitioners do, but paychecks come from getting things done.  The highest use sites are content sites – including search engines, e- Doing online is useful: Reading about commerce, news and corporate web online is useless. That’s an sites. Google, the search engine, has overstatement, but not by much. Few a presentation so simple that one read manuals, no matter how well written might call it simplistic. Google hides or indexed. This is true for all levels of machinery to help users, and users society and all ages, and it is true for prefer it that way. online. In 20 years of teaching technology formally and informally, I have  Personal experience supports content. concluded that PR practitioners are Surf the Web and see for yourself. pragmatic. They learn techniques as Simple and usable presentation that required. They don’t read about delivers content intuitively and quickly techniques. They forget formal training is king while flashy presentation is when they leave a classroom, and they annoying. are not given to self-learning. The Flash school disagrees with the That is why learning online is doing content school – sometimes vehemently. online. One can discuss online theory or To the Flash school, excitement matters one can do. Doing is better. One can because: talk about the segments of an e-mail message or one can write e-mail. Writing  When on the web, do as the web is better. One can discuss what is in a allows. The Web allows Web page or build a Web page. Building multimedia interactivity, so exploit a Web page is better. multimedia interactivity. If it can be done, do it. Content and Flash  Some users want excitement, so give it to them. Sites can be an And what is it that one builds? In fact, end to themselves and not just a what is online? There are two answers. means of conveying information. Online is content OR online is flash, Plenty of sites are for games, for pizzazz or whatever you wish to call it. animation and entertainment of all kinds. 2
  3.  Sometimes there isn’t much hyperlink that takes me to a page with content to put on a site. If one is more -- if I choose to go there. Tell me promoting inconsequential what I need to know quickly. E-mail products, services and ideas, use content is an inverted pyramid. Reporters eye candy to make the point. It and clients want news in a short two or can carry the day when reasonable three sentences with a place to go to get persuasion cannot. more, if they choose to go there.  Flash is part of us. Much None of this will surprise anyone who has American life depends on surface written news stories or laid out a appearance – the latest movies, newspaper. Page design, news sections, fashion, fads and other aspects of indices, jump lines, story formatting are transient culture. all designed to deliver news without confusing or losing readers. Newspapers PR is split between content and flash. entice readers to read news while There are those who hew to all-out delivering content efficiently and promotional, press agentry techniques of intuitively. The same basic principles marketing PR and those who hew to apply to the Content school’s approach to Arthur Page principles of building long- online. As any editor will tell you, content term trust with audiences. The two sides alone is not knowledge. Dumping facts talk past each other without onto paper without organization and understanding. connecting dots is noise. Dumping information online is futile. Content on PR practitioners should learn both paper and content online must be useful content and flash while taking care not to to readers, or they leave. When one mix them. But, if one does not have learns online, one learns about content energy for both, practitioners should stick usability and not just writing. with content. More people use the Web for content than for entertainment. Usability includes everything from navigation bars to hyperlinking strategy. Usability includes animation that Content Delivery illustrates content. For example, rather than writing about how a machine works, Adherents to the Content school show how it works. Usability includes subordinate design to information. page framing and layout. Where does Design does not distract readers from the eye go first? How quickly can the content. Design serves readers finding user spot what to do? How many clicks content and helps explains content. does it take the user to get to content? Principles of usability are known but Content generation relies on tested evolving as online matures. There are at communications principles. For example, least 20 online style guides and none are web writing is really an inverted pyramid the last word in Web design and with hyperlinking. If you know how to information presentation. write a press release with news in the lead, you know how to write for online. One can grasp usability before building a An online user wants you to get to the web site, but no one learns usability point. If there is more, give me a except by coding. One exercise I had online students perform when I was 3
  4. teaching was to critique Web sites for that one must depend on technologists. usability. This required teams of students Collaborative communication is not to go through large sites, section by unusual. Newspaper and magazine section and page by page to assess journalists depend on graphic designers, whether the site delivered content photographers and printers. Film efficiently and effectively. The next task producers depend on writers, was to build their own web sites using cameramen, directors, editors, actors, set insights they gained. They mastered designers, stunt men and more. Online usability when they could do what they depends on writers, designers, grasped intellectually. technologists, musicians and others. The key to collaboration is familiarity with the Another time-tested principle that applies process and knowledge of the language. to online is freshness. Content is Collaborative technologists and artists continuous online. Old content goes develop verbal shorthand to work stale: New content attracts readers. together. PR practitioners should know Online is not a book or brochure. It is a what each person does online and be television or radio that demands new able to converse intelligently with the information daily. Online editors feed a individual. machine just like broadcast news editors do. Online is a worldwide medium that One does this by going to the technicians operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a who often discount practitioners until they year. It is not a place to build pretty show that they understand what presentations that won’t change for technicians do. One learns quickly that months at a time. There is a term for this online is negotiation. Each technical error – “brochureware.” Many companies department has its say and needs. One continue to err by thinking about online as must learn to meld divergent interests into “brochureware.” It isn’t and never was. a whole. This is especially true in large organizations where integrating e-mail Online is interactive. One talks to users and Web site communications is an and users talk back one at a time. Letters onerous task that involves more than to the editor in a newspaper are a technical skill. The politics of every simulacrum of what online can do in department, division and operating unit relating to readers. PR practitioners get thrown into the mix and achieving should give users a chance to talk back coordination is difficult. and to express preference. Online is about choice, the reader’s choice, not There is one traditional communications your choice. Users control the Who, concept that practitioners must forget What, Where, When, Why and How much when learning online. This is the idea of of learning. One can make content mass media. Online is an individual delivery enticing, but no one can force- medium. Even though web-based feed the user. With one click, the user is advertising counts on attracting eyeballs, gone. It is easier to leave a Web site the fact is that each pair of eyeballs than to throw away a newspaper. chooses individually to use a Web site, or not. There are millions of Web sites and Yet another time-tested principle that millions of choices. A monopoly of three applies to online is the nature of its TV networks and a newspaper is production. Online is collaborative. irrelevant. Practitioners trained in There are so many elements to online 4
  5. concepts and crafts of mass media have of Illinois in Urbana. The Web roared into a difficult re-education. existence and has never stopped growing. Today it is billions of pages and Online is a direct medium. The goal is to no one, not even Google, knows how tailor a web page, e-mail or other large it is. Online has moved from a toy communication exactly to the needs of a to a tool. user. The goal is not to develop a site that is all things to all users. Each user Online is the first worldwide, should be able to access a site quickly in individualized medium, and it is a force the way that he or she wants to use it. that has seized the attention of This means that unlike newspapers, newspaper publishers, television and magazines, newsletters, television cable network executives, radio station programs or radio shows, online structure owners, corporate CEOs, not-for-profits is adaptive. Every Web site has structure administrators and millions of individuals. but the structure allows a user to find PR practitioners cannot ignore online. intuitively information that he or she is They should integrate online into looking for and exploit information in the everything they do. But to do so, they way that he or she wishes to do. For must commit themselves to learning example, online allows one to build a online crafts. personal web page. It allows one to customize what he or she wishes to see. ### It is about choice – the reader’s choice, not the practitioners choice. Jim Horton, founder of This is not easy to understand or to, writes frequently about online. implement. Content generation and presentation are craft skills. Just as one learns to write press releases by writing them, one learns how to write and present online content by writing it and formatting it online where others judge it. Practitioners can get ideas by looking at others’ solutions but they learn by imitating them. Surfing is useful, but surfing is not enough. One understands what to do online by experimenting online, by keeping good solutions and throwing out bad ones. The Internet was invented in 1969 in the engineering department of UCLA. Tim Berners-Lee wrote the rules for the World Wide Web in 1991 at CERN, the huge physics accelerator in Europe. Lee’s invention took off when Marc Andreessen led the development of the Mosaic browser in 1993 at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University 5



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