If you can think back to a time before Amazon, before Google, before Facebook and Twitter and even before My Space, you might remember how the worldwide web was first breaking into the public collective consciousness. In Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, former editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridgerdescribes how his newspaper encountered the early web and tried to understand what it meant – and how to make it work.
This new thing had arrived on the communications landscape, and no one understood if it even mattered, or what you might do with it. At the exact same time Rusbridger was grappling with the question at The Guardian, we were grappling with it out our company. His efforts had one major advantage over ours – a small “skunk works” of IT people at the newspaper were working on the technical idea of the web for the newspaper. At our company, the IT organization had looked at the web idea and concluded that it was a passing fad, that the business’s future was more in the province of software programs like Lotus Notes.
It sounds almost incredulous today, but there was logic to that decision. If the business was largely focused on customers and markets, then electronic programs to share information within those markets and with and between those customers made sense. We in communications understood that, but also understood that there was a large regulatory and public component to the business, and Lotus Notes would not work in that environment.
Fresh from the experience with email communications to employees, we were spending time looking at emerging electronic technologies for communications. We quickly discovered that what research existed on the subject was largely academic, and mostly within the confines of Departments of English and Literature. We waded our way through a considerable number of books, research papers, and published studies in journals. The writing was a challenge – almost as if academics wrote on the subject to avoid understanding. We gradually sorted through it, and we began to learn the jargon, like hypertext and hypertext markup language (html).
What helped crystallize our thinking turned out to be the annual conference communications and public affairs people in the company worldwide. I was given the duty of organizing it for this year. With a small team, we made the theme electronic communications. While the subject was relatively narrow, the speakers came from a broad array of backgrounds – the recently named online editor for Newsweek, a professor of rhetoric and public policy who talked about the similarities between oral and electronic communication, people who talked about the “emerging web,” and several others. We also used an outside firm that specialized in what was called “emerging IT technologies,” and they facilitated the involvement of every attendee in creating a CD of the conference.
Nothing like this had been attempted before, and it was wildly successful. As a senior communications leader said later, “We were dragged kicking and screaming into the electronic era.”
The conference set the stage for the next communications leap – how to get the company on the web. We asked IT for help and were turned down; they couldn’t afford the time or what they thought the investment might be. So, we turned again to the tech firm that had helped us with the conference. They were local, and they happened to be the only firm with experience in creating a web site, for a small company that used the site internally and with a few customers. Only one other company had a web site in St. Louis at the time – Anheuser-Busch.
It was one of the most intense professional experiences I’ve ever had. For six months, we worked on creating a company web site. Everyone thought we were nuts and throwing good money away. The team consisted of me, my admin, and the outside consultants. To describe the companies and its operations, we used materials already approved for public consumption. But make all news releases available? Post news about the company? Link to external articles on the company? Create a weekly cartoon feature about the company? A feedback loop? All of that, and vastly more, had to be worked through a company famous for its extensive legal, technical, scientific, and public policy approval channels.
Three weeks before we launched the site, the company hired a new IT vice president. He came from outside, and one of his first questions to the department leaders on his staff was, “Who’s in charge of the worldwide web?” The answer he finally got was, “Well, there is this guy in PR.” We found ourselves descended upon. With the launch so close, we convinced IT to hold off until after the launch, and then we could form a team to evaluate and look at how to go forward.
The launch was a stunning success. The critical factor was the knowledge and expertise of the outside firm; what they knew would not be duplicated inside the company for years. The fact that this firm had helped with the communications conference also gave them instant credibility with the company’s communications people. The web site attracted the attention of companies from all over the world; our contractor, in fact, was contacted directly by Microsoft, who’d seen our site and wanted to make the company a preferred supplier.
What we understood was that a web site was largely a one-way communication vehicle; even with a feedback loop or contact email address, it capitalized upon the advantages of the web but didn’t really create two-way communications. That would come years later, and when it came, it would be a revolution.
Top photograph by Umberto via Unsplash. Used with permission.
Middle photograph by Marcus Spiske via Unsplash. Used with permission.
Lower photograph by Ian Schneider via Unsplash. Used with permission.