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On-line databases: the professional edge.

On-line Databases: The Professional Edge

Communication executives in the late '80s and '90s will increasingly become information managers. The use of electronic communication applied in the newspaper industry as well as in radio and television means that information is transmitted internationally almost instantaneously. The role of the communication professional is often to play a proactive role, anticipating media coverage before it happens, tracking media reports before they have an impact upon the public, and quickly replying to gain maximum exposure in providing a positive image of the corporation and its products.

Communication professionals are increasingly turning to the computer to assist them in tracking and managing the voluminous information about their companies and their competitors as well as general trends in industry and the economy. An informal survey conducted among communication professionals at agencies and corporations confirms that these executives frequently turn to on-line databases for instantaneous coverage of the news as well as in-depth historical searches for background and trend information.

Sam Yanes, director of corporate communication at Polaroid Corporation, exemplifies the new type of communication executive as information manager. He uses his computer and has trained his secretary to use it as he taps into databases at least three times a day. He uses on-line databases to relate world business and economic activity to the specific activity surrounding Polaroid. He is able to get immediate stock quotes through Dow Jones News/Retrieval and relate the activity of the stock to world activity. When he does the search he also receives a feature that alerts him of current news on the company he has called up. Through the same service he can search the full text of the Wall Street Journal to provide background on the news.

"It's kind of like getting the newspaper," says Yanes. "It's especially important for competitive analysis." Yanes distributes his searches to about 30 Polaroid executives, and also uses Disclosure to analyze other companies.

Yanes points out that often you can't wait to read about the day's events in next morning's newspaper. Once a story makes it across AP, UPI or Dow Jones News, he is likely to get 30 or 40 calls on the same day. By searching the wires on databases, he is able to anticipate the calls and be proactive.

In the past, Yanes explains, what the world was saying about your company's products was of primary importance to communication executives. Now, what people say about the corporation is of equal importance. With the aid of the computer and on-line databases, tracking this information quickly is no longer a problem.

Some communication executives search databases themselves, some delegate it to assistants, and some rely on their corporate librarians or information specialists. There are definite advantages to having executives do it themselves. Direct searches stimulate creativity, and the executive can pursue leads suggested by the search. A danger also may exist in this, suggests Nathan J. Silverman of Nathan J. Silverman Co., a small Chicago public relations consulting firm. Silverman conducts his own searches on Dow Jones News/Retrieval and Dialog's Knowledge Index. He claims that when you do your own searches you can become distracted by the possibilities.

One obvious advantage for the executive in a small firm such as Silverman's to searching the databases is that you don't have to employ or train other people to do the work. Databases are becoming easier to use, and with new computer technologies acquired by the database publishers, the future looks bright for searching with a minimum of training. Hill and Knowlton's Washington D.C. office relies upon the searching capabilities of Barbara Coons, vice president and director for research services. She uses four full-time information staffers to work on requests of account executives. Coons says that using an information specialist offers some unique advantages over having the executives conduct their own searches. Information specialists have special training in information management and have more experience in selecting and using databases than executives. Coons believes that the information specialist can brainstorm with the account executive; this can result in a better definition of objectives and more accurate search.

An ideal combination of talents might include both the executive and the information specialist using online databases for different reasons. Executives could use it for fast searches and to use the news to stimulate new ideas. They could use some of the menu-driven resources for this such as Dow Jones News Retrieval, the Source or CompuServe. Because Dow Jones covers the Wall Street Journal and many of the major business magazines, they could cast a broad net in these databases for background before they do more comprehensive searches. Once they know what they want to search for, executives could go to the information specialist, who could refine the search further and go to additional databases such as those covered by Nexis, Newsnet, Vu/Text or Dialog. This system takes advantage of complementary information management capabilities of the executive and the information specialist.

Should on-line database searching capabilities replace a clipping service? In certain cases they should, according to our informal survey, but in other cases they are complementary. Hill and Knowlton's Coons recommends using both types of services for general coverage. She has found that when news is breaking, next-day clipping services are extremely expensive. Although databases can also be expensive, she recommends their use in these cases because of their timeliness. Databases can save staff time and therefore internal expenses as well. For example, she now uses the Datatimes database instead of having other offices fax their regional newspaper clippings to her.

Our survey also revealed that communication agencies who want to be a step ahead of the competition used on-line databases to profile potential clients. A quick search enables the agency to gather the information necessary to put together a proposal for helping the client. It also helps the agency to review and then critique the activities of the agencies that previously handled the account. Finally, a search on industry trends and the potential client's competitors gives the account executive information that will make him appear knowledgeable to the client.

One particular application of databases that communication professionals can appreciate is the use of these systems in crisis management. Product safety crises, environmental crises, occupational safety and health, explosions, natural disasters and legislative investigations are examples of situations where immediate access to information is essential.

Lloyd N. Newman, executive vice president for public affairs at Manning, Selvage & Lee in New York, is a good example of an information-savvy professional who knows how to use databases when his clients are facing crises. Under normal conditions, he has someone in his office run news retrieval searches on each client on a daily basis. In times of crisis, however, he orders hourly checks on news via the news retrieval capability.

"During a crisis, we need to know what else is going on at that location and in that area," says Newman. "For instance: Is our client's spill the tenth in that city? Who are the key players there? I need an external view to develop both sides of the story to be able to counsel a client and help formulate strategy."

Newman uses a variety of databases but especially relies upon Dow Jones and Nexis. He normally goes into Dow Jones first for a general search, then moves onto others for specialized information.

Although he has searches performed for him at home as well as at the office, this inveterate traveler is contemplating buying a laptop computer and performing his own searches while on the road. He cites three great advantages to on-line databases: They're fast, they're available 24 hours a day, and they give you access to a broad scope of information without too much detail.

Information-savvy communication professionals can find a very important application of news retrieval databases. By scanning and searching news, they can obtain an accurate appraisal of the success of their companies' communication strategies. They obtain feedback about their performance as well as the state of the environment around the companies. By conducting daily searches, such professionals can alter both the short-term and long-term strategies of the company, monitoring everything from individual mentions to trends and analysts' reports.

What does the future hold for communication professionals as far as on-line databases are concerned? An emerging trend in large corporations is the use of executive information systems (EIS), user-friendly computer-based systems that allow executives to scan company spreadsheets and call up product and other business information.

A trend is emerging for setting up these systems to incorporate on-line databases. By simply touching a screen or moving a mouse, the executive can get stock quotes, order a document on line, or scan the news wires. Database vendors and software developers are working to make this capability even easier to use on the company's EIS. As these systems are perfected, they may change the roles of communication professionals. They may become more important as internal information advisers, assisting in choosing where and how much information is accessed--that is, what publications are to be normally screened by executives. As executives throughout the company become more precise in obtaining published information from databases, the importance of the corporate communication director's position should increase.

Tim Turner is director of marketing and sales, Dow Jones Information Services
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Turner, Tim L.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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