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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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As consumers are the main revenue-generating stakeholders for corporations, the attention given to cultivating good customer relations was very evident, albeit at different levels for different organizations. In 2004, corporations such as Nike, Starbucks, Heineken, and Singapore Airlines stood out in customer relations. Among non-profits, (Singapore’s) People’s Association, World Wildlife Fund, Singapore International Foundation, and (Singapore) National Kidney Foundation offered better consumer relations information. A plethora of information was available for consumers such as detailed fact-sheets and descriptions of products, online newsletters, after-sales service, product registration, frequently-asked-questions (FAQs), technical support, online knowledge-base, and forums. These channels ranged from the static (such as FAQ section, which appeared to be updated infrequently), to the interactive and dynamic (such as forums, which allow customers to voice their opinions or seek help regarding a problem). The aggressive manner in which corporations sought to establish two-way communication with consumers was evident in a significant percentage of corporations utilizing the two-way asymmetrical (45%) and two-way symmetrical (27%) models.

In 2009, the corporate websites in our sample offered customers the opportunity to browse products, see promotional videos, learn from interactive brochures, generally remained more active in providing information to customers than non-profits. Clothing, shoes, and accessories companies (e.g. Nike, Adidas, and Tommy Hilfiger) were more likely to utilize interactive features by launching games and videos to mix and match styles to engage the imagination of customers about their products’ style possibilities. Food and beverage (e.g. Coca Cola, Heineken, and Starbucks) as well as cosmetics (L’Oreal) companies also used interactive features such as games and quizzes for consumers to better understand product content and advantage, as well as basic tips about body/skin care. Online forums and social networking sites are also now being used to enable customers to offer suggestions and comments about products or discuss promotional events hosted by corporations. Corporations such as Starbucks, Coca Cola, Dell, IBM and Blizzard Entertainment invited customers to use the forums and SNS to share their ideas on new product variations, product enhancement or product names, inquiries, or on how to create a community of product supporters or enhance the experience in outlets/stores.

767 Corporations such as Starbucks, Heineken, Coca Cola, Nike, and Shell are also presenting product history through interactive media, such as games.

Consumers are not so clearly defined for non-profits. As most non-profit organisations benefit the community in one way or the other, “consumers” could refer to both the beneficiaries of the charity as well as members of the public (including donors and volunteers) who visit the website to find out more about the organisation or source information on topics of interest to them. Despite this, non-profit sites followed the patterns of corporations when designing their websites. Most non-profit websites analyzed for this study provided extensive information including details on services and functions of the organisation, its mission, its beneficiaries, telephone numbers, email, FAQs, testimonials, and guestbooks. In fact, both non-profits and corporations, went the extra mile to cater to this stakeholder. One reason behind this could be that this stakeholder group comprises many more sub-stakeholder groups which are radically different from each other and therefore public relations policy reflects the diverse needs of different sub-stakeholder groups. Some global and US-based non-profits (such as World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Red Cross, Lance Armstrong Foundation, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (SPCA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - PETA) have website-hosted online forums and linkages to a variety of social networking sites to create/reach a network supporters. They also offer downloadable files, videos, music, or advocacy-related games/quizzes. Among the Singapore non-profits in this sample, only a few actively used interactive features. However, most interactive features were geared to promote organisational services and activities (asymmetrical) rather than using interactive features to seek suggestions on how to improve their services (symmetrical).

Investor Relations

Both non-profits and corporations generally provided similar information to this group of stakeholders considering how important donors/investors are to both organization types.

Although annual reports and financial statements were the two common features for both types, they differed in the amount of information provided. Corporations tended to include more information to investors such as annual reports (dating back several years), real-time stock updates, credit ratings, quarterly financial results, corporate videos, milestones, achievements, messages and introductions from the board of directors, etc. Email alerts were available for those interested in subscribing and registered stockholders were provided with accounts and the option of customizing the information they want in their website. Further, information that could be downloaded onto personal digital assistants (PDAs) and even options to conduct financial transactions were provided. Contact information such as the addresses, email and telephone number for directing shareholder inquiries were also readily available. The general thrust was to present the corporation’s point of view and financial standing. Overt attempts to present the organisation’s viewpoints were not observed in any of the websites surveyed. In 2009, corporations still focused more on offering information useful to potential investors, which included reports on funds usage, financial factsheets, SEC information, track record, and contact information for interested investors. The reports were often formally presented in downloadable pdf formats.

768 Non-profit organisations provided information similar to corporations. Annual reports, financial statements, and specific breakdowns of how the donations are used to fund specific items were available. Websites of non-profits also included online donation portals and application forms for automated deductions from bank accounts. Online recognition was also given to volunteers – a different kind of investor.

Employee Relations

Both corporations and non-profits in our sample used their websites only to address potential employees with no reference to current employees by providing links and information on employment, internships, and volunteer opportunities. However, in 2004 corporations used more interactive features to provide better access to the information, often allowing for employment searches by different factors, such as location, job type and keyword searches. In what could be seen as an attempt at positive publicity, some corporations courted new employees with current employee testimonials, the company’s human resource ranking by external sources, and promises of career and personal development.

In 2004, non-profit websites also provided information about employment and volunteer opportunities albeit in a more static manner. Information about career opportunities was listed plainly, requiring users to scroll through the page and search for information. Most non-profit websites also did not have online job applications asking volunteers or interested applicants to send resumes via email or regular mail.

In 2009, both types of organizations used social media to reach prospective employees (and volunteers in the case of non-profits) more effectively. Online forums, social networking sites (Facebook), and micro blogging (i.e. Twitter) were also used as avenues for members and volunteers to share their experiences and disseminate announcements on how to be involved in future activities. Social media have been making steady inroads into corporate and non-profit web sites to facilitate better communication with stakeholders but we consider the pace of adoption to be far slower.

Community Relations

Most corporations listed a link for community relations in their websites to showcase their CSR-related activities. Some corporations (eg. Coca Cola, Shell, Tommy Hilfiger) have set up foundations to support humanitarian and environmental work. It was evident that corporations generally seemed to equate community relations either with endorsing a community event such as medical missions or environmental campaigns or supporting socially-responsible causes such as supporting an arts group or relief efforts. In 2009, a number of corporations took greater advantage of social networking sites and other online/mobile applications to build a community of customers or supporters and to facilitate a sharing of product experiences or promote community-building events. For example, Starbucks invited its customers to use its online forums and social networking sites to build interest groups and organize communityoriented activities such as poetry reading or book clubs at its outlets. The podcasts/webcasts of these activities were also featured in the website. Nike, Coca Cola and Dell also encouraged their customers to form online and mobile communities offering downloadable mobile community 769 software. Companies’ websites also provided free audio, games, and video downloads to these communities.

In the case of non-profit organisations, the community is often comprised of both consumers and investors/volunteers. Most non-profit organisations had programmes that were aimed at involving the community, and their commitment to community relations is often inherent within their organisation’s mission. In 2009 some of the non-profits (especially environmental organizations such as WWF and Greenpeace) used online and mobile applications to build a community of volunteers and interested supporters.

Government Relations

There was a marked lack of attention given to this stakeholder group by both organization types, apart from the odd indication of organisation-government affiliation, such as linkages to statutory boards. Even in 2009, use of websites for government relations remained limited or nonexistent. An exception is lobbying activities and linkages to some government offices with which the organisation has joint projects. It is important to note that this study was conducted in Asia where government relations is almost exclusively done on an interpersonal basis. Further, in Singapore, lobbying of government officials would have to be done more subtly.

4 a. How well have the sample organisations used the interactive features offered by this medium?

4 b. Given the prevalence of Web 2.0 applications in 2009, what changes have the sample organisations made to their web sites in 2009 (compared to 2004) in order to harness Web 2.0 features?

In 2009, both organisation types increased their use of the interactive features of the Web (See Table 4) even though such use was mostly intended for asymmetrical communication and for dissemination of product/service promotion, product updates, disseminating communityrelated activities to generate more publicity for the organisation.

A growing number of organisations also used interactive features for soliciting feedback, albeit to a very limited extent. Sixty seven percent (67%) of corporations and 48% of non-profits had at least some online feature to solicit ideas or suggestions from website visitors. A few stretched their efforts a bit more, offering e-surveys on the usefulness or ease of use of the website, or e-polls on products and services. Interestingly, more non-profits appeared to use online surveys and e-polls than corporations, although more corporations had an online suggestion box feature in thier website.

Another avenue for possible interactive communication with publics are social media. A number of organisations have established links on their websites to relevant blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. The most popular social networking site was Facebook, with about 46% of both profit and non-profits embedding Facebook links to their websites. Other popular social media applications were: online forums, online/mobile communities, and micro-blogging (such as Twitter). Global web sites used social networking sites more than domestic 770 (Singaporean) websites, which is surprising given the popularity of social media among the average Singaporean.

In general, a larger percentage of corporations used interactive features such as blogs, links to social networking sites, micro-blogs, and online forums. The only exceptions were online donation, YouTube video links, and email-alert/sign-up features, which non-profits seemed to use more actively. Online donation features provided detailed information for interested supporters of non-profits on how to donate, and some even offered the filling of pledge forms or making immediate online donations. On the other hand, corporations offered a wealth of information online to potential investors who were invited for further offline discussions.

Links to uploaded videos (to YouTube) were also more commonly used among non-profits, who often posted videos created by their volunteers.

A variety of content has also been created seemingly to draw more web visits.

Downloadables include files, newsletters, e-cards, wallpapers, icons, calendars, screensavers, mobile phone skins, music in mp3 format, and videos. Website visitors were also offered advertisements or promotional videos, and could take organisation-related quizzes and play games that showcase products or organisational causes. Interactive features were used to a greater extent in 2009 than 2004 to showcase products and services.

Interestingly, in 2009 a number of global corporate and non-profit web sites contain fraud or security alerts such as employment scams or fake “grant awards” from organisations (e.g.

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