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A revolution in search of revolutionaries.

In assembling information for readers on available databases useful to communicators, Communication World sought the opinions of public relations consultants wen known for the emphasis they place on research. Participating in a recent roundtable, cosponsored by the NEXIS[R] service of Mead Data Central, Inc., and exclusive to CW were: John Porter, chairman of Porter-Novelli Public Relations Co.; Louis C. Williams, Jr., ABC, APR, president of L.C. Williams & Associates; Lloyd Kirban, executive vice president and director of research, Burson. Marsteller Worldwide; James Horton, vice president, Arnold, Horton, Kiss & Maher, and Ann Beeson, marketing manager, Mea Data Central, provider of the NEXIS[R] and LEXIS[R] services

CW: We commonly hear that communication professionals should be incorporating research into their communication planning and day-to-day activities. IABC certainly advocates that position. To what extent do you think that communicators are actually routinely doing research, and more specifically using electronic databases? Porter. My finn is one of the most frequent, most committed users of research as a public relations company. We probably introduced database research in our firm 11 or 12 years ago. The availability of NEXIS changed everything. There were databases before that, but none so accessible.

Beeson: NEXIS was introduced in 1979. Early users were news media, public relations and advertising agency professionals. These professionals continue to depend on electronic databases for research.

Kirban: I was hired by Burson to form the research department about I I years ago, too. We had been working by the seat of our pants, and that was no longer acceptable. We wanted to be knowledge-driven, not assumption-driven.

Williams: Doing database research is just so much part and parcel of what we do, that to take it away would just handicap us enormously. It would be like being without computers. But the level of understanding of external databases among communicators is very low still, I think. It's growing, and growing dramatically, but still not common.

CW: Why aren't more communicators using databases?

Kirban: I think we ought to make a distinction, first of all, between raw information and processed information. You can develop the capability to retrieve data from a myriad of databases. But you also have to develop the capability to process raw data and put it into some kind of coherent fashion. From this standpoint, there are two problems. First, a lot of people don't know what's available, and then only use databases for limited purposes. The second problem is to truly be able to generate an attitude which says "no problem or challenge or opportunity exists that doesn't have some relevant knowledge available on it."

Porter: There's another problem. People working on something full time assume they know what they need to know. There is an assumption that they have access to all knowledge. That's as big a problem as not knowing.

Horton: That often happens in corporate settings. People assume everybody around me knows what I need, so therefore all I have to do is make a couple of quick telephone calls and I get all the information I need."

Beeson: I think budget is another issue.

Horton: But, given the size of some of the corporate departments, the cost of databases is really nominal.

Williams: Whether or not it's a big budget, database research costs are small. We're a small firm, 22 people. But we have a research director. It's a matter of choice. I think there's a psychological barrier.

Kirban: it's attitudinal.

CW: How do you explain this attitudinal, or psychological barrier?

Horton: Suppose the corporate librarian does the database search. They do the search and then put a pile of pages on the communicator's desk of undigested, raw information. The communicators look at it and freak; they don't know what to do with it.

Williams: What we have to do in the industry is to educate people on what they expect to get, and how to get data. Not how to punch the keys, but what the data will give them.

Horton: The problem with the communication industry, and it seems to be a problem with a lot of other industries, is that we work under assumption, not knowledge.

Williams: Instinct.

Horton: Instinct. We're tactical people. We want to do press releases, press kits. It is an in-depth problem across public relations and communication, both in corporations and in agencies. People just don't really think that you need to know all that. Some don't really think that you even have to know your company's business that much. The attitude you see all too often is, "I'm a stylist. I'm a professional writer. That's all I do. You tell me what to write and I'll write it."

Kirban: We are talking about different kinds of people and different skills. To make database research work, people have to be just as talented in data retrieval as they have to be in synthesizing and interpreting. I don't believe communicators are sufficiently trained or have the analytical mind to make them able to access information efficiently. It is also a different kind of talent to do the synthesis and analysis of raw data.

Porter: The question is whether database research should be centralized. I think it should, for one thing, because of the interrelation of the databases. You've also got to have people who are professionally attuned to research, rather than have communicators going through databases where they may or may not know what they're doing.

Williams: Decentralization is too expensive and inefficient. Our people understand the big picture. But there's so much available on the external databases they don't know where to dig in.

Beeson: That's a common problem. That's why NEXIS has developed custom pricing. A fixed price for NEXIS access is set to take the financial risk out of allowing more people across a department or company access to the database. You pay a fixed price, and share access. We're also introducing NEXIS Turbo, a menu-driven product that asks the user a series of questions. NEXIS Turbo selects the appropriate database by the way the questions are answered. It reduces the need to be an "expert" on NEXIS.

Kirban: That's precisely what we do within our own organization. Our researchers will go through the query process with a requester to specify the nature of the information wanted. That focuses the request into content areas the requester wants but wasn't able to articulate.

CW: How can communicators who are not accustomed to using database information make it useful to themselves?

Beeson: We find that media relations people use a database to look for press coverage on a company, or product or issue. Other communicators, particularly agencies, use it to look for background information or competitive information, often for new business development. Advertising agencies often use it to stay on the edge of trends.

Kirban: We use it to offer to clients when they need it, but also as part of our own management information system. For instance, when Burson went into negotiations with Dentsu, the arrangement was that we would examine the US market for opportunities for Japanese companies and they would examine the Japanese market for US opportunities. We created a huge industry analysis report that had a significant impact on the final negotiations of the arrangement.

Horton: There are human resources publications online, covering how to explain benefits programs to employees. That's a good way to find out what others did to communicate.

Beeson: We've seen electronic databases used for speechwriting and press releases. And communicators use it to follow their competition, to see how their competitor is mentioned in the news media. We recently completed two focus groups of people who do not use databases. When we asked them how they did industry and company analyses, they literally said they picked up the phone and called people. That means they rely on telephone calls with delays, concerns about accuracy and limitation of sources. These participants were unaware of electronic databases and their capabilities.

Williams: Most years, a new Social Security tax or base goes into effect January 1. The communicator can go to the database to find out what the new rate is going to be this year and how it's going to affect people's salaries. That way, they can so easily become managers of information instead of the ones who ask the controller what's going on.

CW: How can communicators use database research more proactively, to make themselves valuable to their organizations?

Beeson: One of the things corporate communication could be doing is functioning as corporate intelligence centers for management and staff, keeping them informed about trends, competition, legislation and company publicity.

Horton: A listening-post function, which too often is neglected. In corporate America, the communication department is not perceived as a source of knowledge. It's perceived as a source of execution. And to become a source of knowledge, you have to use some rather good political skills, particularly if you're two or three steps away from the CEO.

Williams: It's a question of who's controlling the information. That's where the power is. You need to know just to operate.

Horton: We're working with a large biomedical firm, to help them restructure their entire worldwide communication approach. They are organized by business units, and each unit may have a marketing person who collects a body of knowledge for that unit. Consequently, no one in the corporation has a handle on all the issues, which include positions by the FDA, doctors, industry health providers, groups against animal experimentation. You can't get any of that from one source, because it's spread over 10 different departments. We told them that the corporate communication department should become the fundamental listening department before anything else. That's where the database fits in. If corporate communication wants to be a listening post, the best and fastest way to do that is to get a specialist in the department who tracks information. Then you constantly provide this information to management and employees through newsletters, on-line bulletin boards or e-mail and you become a vital center to the organization.

CW: Once the communicator arrives at the recognition that a research function is necessary, how does he or she sell the organization on that need?

Kirban: I think you're making a strategic error if you think all you have to do is let top management know what's available. That will mean nothing to top management. The issue is one of conditioning, or accumulating, communicators to research.

Horton: It's not a top management decision. The director of communication has to drive this. I would say the first basic is to change attitudes. The director has to have the attitude that you're not going to bring me copy until you've looked up the data."

Beeson: Many communicators have done without research, and may feel they can continue to do without. I see four stages of electronic information management. First, there's the Introduction, when you bring in the electronic database to keep people from running to the library and improve productivity. Then there is Growth, when you start to transform information into some of your own databases. Then integration, when you make sure all your departments have access to the information. Then there's the Power stage, when you're using both external and internal information creatively and productively. I would say a lot of corporate departments are at the Introduction or Growth stages.

CW: What improvements or trends in databases are coming up that will make them even more valuable to communicators?

Porter: I'd like to see NEXIS printouts of media coverage include circulation data on the publications. Then we'd have some quantitative data to go with the qualitative. And I'd like to see the database broadened. Add consumer magazines and more dailies.

Beeson: As marketers, we've all become more niche-oriented. NEXIS has the general database. Now we're looking to add more specialized data for particular professions such as marketing. We've also set up a technical support group to work with communicators to provide the kind of access that works with the equipment that they have, to integrate our services into their environment. We're looking at creating more personalized interfaces. And we're filtering data so you can do research in one area, like Environment, or Banking. Under Environment, we might have a regulations category, and under that you can find out more about a regulation and its impact.

Kirban: You're codifying trends. Each year we follow our account people to find out what kind of information they need. We'll add a database if it satisfied a particular information need.

CW: In summary, how would you say that the availability of electronic databases has affected communication?

Porter: Electronic database information has revolutionized the whole way we approach our business. Previously, a lot of public relations business went to specialist firms because only they had the knowledge. Always the big firms had the resources and probably the better people. The small firms didn't have the knowledge. Now they have the knowledge.

The Future Is Now, Say Two Communicators

Corporate communication managers invited to participate in the roundtable were unable to attend at the last minute. So to make sure the corporate perspective on electronic information databases was represented, CW talked to Bill Lutholtz, communication coordinator, Indianapolis Power Light, Indianapolis, Ind., and Shel Holtz, ABC, manager of employee communication, Allergan, Inc., Irvine, Calif.

CW: How have you used electronic information databases?

Lutholtz: In the old days, when I needed to do research for a speech or major feature article, I would first go through the company's research center materials. Then I'd check industry reference services. Then I'd spend the afternoon in the public library, looking through periodicals, books and microfilm. Now I still check the information center and industry sources first. But then I'll switch to my modem, call up CompuServe, and use an electronic "gateway" (see glossary) to Ziff-Davis Magazine Database, the I-Quest service, or the Newsgrid section-all of which I can access through a single on-line service. I can usually find about 95 percent of what I need. The net cost to the company is lower this way, I'm available if someone needs me, and I'm usually done in half an hour.

CW: What is the value of the information you get this way?

Holtz: The value is based on the content of the magazine or newspaper article, and timeliness of the information. I can also access information from other communicators. For example, an employee recently requested that we prepare an article for the company publication on a particular topic. Three hours after putting out an e-mail message to participants of CompuServe's "PR and Marketing Forum," I received eight responses, all advising against the article. I was able to use that input to explain why we were rejecting the article idea.

Lutholtz: More companies now can afford to gather information that was previously only available to larger corporations that could afford to pay extremely high correct-time charges. And information is now accessible through very modest personal computers. The value of the information, of course, depends on how an organization chooses to use it.

CW: Are you spoting trends more effectively?

Holtz: Absolutely, we are more on top of trends as they happen. Before, when I heard about something, I'd make a note of it and hope to get to looking it up. Now it takes just a minute to log on and see what's available. I can also learn what's worth tracking and what I should forget. The public relations professional's stock is increasing because of the speed with which he or she is able to get information, instead of waiting for the request to be fulfilled.

Lutholtz: The corporate public relations staff can access much of the news at the same time the rest of the media is getting it, by reading it directly off the AP, UPI and Reuters wires. That may give you as much as a full day's time to read, think, study and then react.

CW: Is management's respect increasing for strategic thinking, or do you still see decisions made by the seat of the pants?

Lutholtz: I see a lot more decisions being based on numbers, research and surveys. All management seems to be attaching more importance to studying numbers and analysis of what those numbers mean than at any prior time I can recall.

Holtz: Instead of developing five-year plans, executives are developing flexible plans that can change with the wind. A large part of strategic thinking is planning, but some of it is the ability to fly by the seat of your pants. Presumably, the faster you can spot a trend or a change, the faster you can respond to it.

CW: How many external databases do you find necessary?

Lutholtz: Through CompuServe's gateways, I can access hundreds of other databases, through one number to call, one set of commands to memorize and one bill. I also use General Electric's GEnie at home, for its Writers Roundtable and Small Business Roundtable, two electronic "coffee shops" where you can talk with other writers and freelancers.

Holtz: For me, CompuServe is enough, along with some electronic bulletin boards in which I participate. My company, a healthcare firm, uses a variety of medical and scientific databases.

CW: Should the research function and information databases be centralized in the organization?

Holtz: What makes technology so great is that you can do it yourself If I'm working at 11 pm and need information, I want to be able to access it, not wait until the next morning when the librarian shows up. Information has always meant power, and when senior management mandates a free flow of information, those with control now will loosen their grip.

Lutholtz: For the present, I think, we will probably have to rely on the centralized, librarian model and the specialist information seeker. That model is the one people feel comfortable with. But I don't think it's the best way for companies to get information. There's a serendipity factor involved in hunting for information yourself. That's more likely to occur when the person doing the searching is the person who is going to put the information to use.

CW: Does the cost of using a database ever affect your decision to use one?

Lutholtz: Absolutely. I try to weigh the cost of getting the information online versus alternative methods almost every time.

Holtz: I wish it cost less. I do consider whether I really need this information before I log on. But if I need the information now, I just go ahead and do the search.

CW: What can we look for next in information technology in communication and public relations?

Lutholtz: The focus right now seems to be on information gathering, largely because the technology is still so new to many people. I think the emphasis will shift to information interpretation, which is really much more important. The new technology will integrate print with television and motion pictures. It will be called multimedia, be digitally based and be transmitted over a fiber optic network system that can be extended globally. Also, very soon, we should see a laptop computer with the ability to carry a full business library of information in a briefcase that travels with communicators wherever they go.

Holtz: I think it'll still take some time before people get used to the simple idea Of e-mail, but when it catches on, it'll catch on BIG. The time is coming, I think, when people will regularly take to their computers to query their peers about how they handled an issue or responded to a situation. Check the markets to see if it's having a financial impact. Put out a message asking for input from communicators who've faced a similar crisis. Check the library for text files. After you've completed your first draft, log back on to pull up responses to your query. All without leaving your desk! It's the widespread application of what's available that will make a splash in the future.
 The following are a few of
the terms frequently
encountered when using
online services.
 Most information services charge
by the minute you are online;
a flat-rate fee (usually monthly)
with unlimited access is gaining
popularity. Access rates set
the basic cost of a service.
Example: "prime-time" fees
usual business hours.
 Database(s) that contain only tides,
abstracts and keyword indexes of
printed publications. Example:
National Agriculture Library
communications; informal network with
low-cost software but high-time
involvement in maintenance and
operations. Example: FIDO-NET
 Structured electronic mail with a
topical organization; may be real,
time (now) or store-and-forward
(posted). Example: PRSIG Forum
 A structured set of records stored
on a computer, a specific type of
computer software; a published
set of files. Example: Official
Airline Guide
 Computer-based communication
that may be networked internally
via a single computer or worldwide
via telephone or satellite. Example:
AT&T, MCI, Genie
 A computer connector which
provides access to other databases
or services. Example: IQUEST
 A computer network that
provides access to multiple data,
bases, electronic mail and other
specialized functions.
Example: CompuServe
 Connected to a computer, may or
may not require a modem.
 Most commercial services
provide access through a local
telephone number, which in turn
accesses a national telephone
network. Usually a hidden fee
included as part of access time.
Example: Telenet
 Usually refers to telephone and
NOT television.
 Computer-stored text which is
accessed a "screen" at a time.
May include graphics Prodigy) or
not (Dialog). Also used by local
cable operators with character
(text) generators.
 A computer-based answering


With more than 6,000 public databases and dozens of information services, which do you choose? Here is a sample list of general services. For a more complete list and tips about online access, get Alfred Glossbrenner's "The Complete Handbook of Computer Communications 1990." Link-Up, from Learned Information Systems, is a nontechnical monthly tabloid which covers information providers.


(formerly AppleLink) (800-227-6364)

A low-cost computer conferencing network organized into functional departments. Low-cost access to American Airlines EaasySabre, which is easier to use and cheaper than the Official Airline Guide (Also on CIS and GEnie). Currently Apple users only.

DIALOG 800-334-2564)

A bibliographic search service which provides access to more than 200 scientific and technical databases. An abbreviated version, Knowledge Index, with fewer databases is available after-hours at much lower rates. Competitors include Bibliographic Retrieval Service and SDC/Orbit, which provide comparable coverage and rates. Even with specialized communications programs, these services are expensive, have rigid protocols, and require knowledge. able researchers.

COMPUSERVE (800,848.8199)

Full-text access to many databases; gateway service to hundreds of others. Specialized interest groups set up in forums," which provide computer conferencing and free software. Moderately priced, the service includes so many services it takes a map to find what you want. Simplified access via TAPCIS (IBM) or Navigator (Mac). IABC now in PRSIG Forum in Data Library 8.


Full-text access to an Dow Jones databases, numerous business magazines, ValuLine, investment programs, and a gateway service to PR NEWSWIRE, DataTimes (regional newspapers), and many other specialized functions. Win automatically download stock quotes and histories.

GENIE 800-638,9636)

General Electric Information Services provides a flat-rate service which includes e-mail and computer conferencing. Rapidly expanding service with gateway to DJNR.


A consortium of defense and university computing centers which provide "free" electronic mail through a network of local computing centers. E-mail is slow and cumbersome. Lots of free software and limited computer conferencing.

NEXIS (800,227-4948)

Full-text access to New York Times, Washington Post, wire services and gateway access to create other services. Very complete but expensive.


Consumer videotext service of Sears and IBM; it provides color graphics but no downloading capability. Oriented to promoting services available from advertisers. Flat-rate access. Has generated a lot of controversy about censoring e-mail. It has recently expanded and is growing rapidly. Few business. oriented services.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes glossary of on-line terminology and list of information services; data bases for communication professionals
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:panel discussion
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Recession hits communicators outside US hardest.
Next Article:The new meaning of meetings.

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