Friday, December 30, 2005

How PR could have given BT a Milch Cow

The date was August 22 2002. This day showed quite starkly that patents are a liability unless they are exposed to the processes of Public Relations.

It is etched in the minds of British Telecom, the UK communication giant, when it lost its court case against Prodigy. BT was taking Prodigy to court for royalties it claimed it was owed as the inventor of the hyperlink. BT tried to prove that a patent lodged with the US patent office back in 1980 was still valid. The company claims that every US hyperlink was its intellectual property and therefore subject to a licensing fee. If successful, every internet service provider in the US would have been liable to pay BT for the use of the technology.

There is no doubt that patent 4,873,662
was lodged by BT and was a protocol we now recognise as a hyperlink and The Register outlined the technology with a copy of the short abstract about the "Hidden Page" patent.

BT developed the technology itself in the 1970s, applied for the patent in 1980, and received it in 1989. It next stumbled upon the patent during a routine update of its 15,000 global patents in the summer of 2000.

As milch cows go, being the 'owner' of hyperlink technology does not come better than this but BT fluffed it.

The missing link was that the investment in the patent was lost because its features and benefits were not exposed to those people who could translate it into financial return.

Bearing in mind the cost of gaining a patent both in time and financial cost, there will have been considerable internal communication inside BT about this spiffing idea. What was lacking was the process of Public Relations.

Public Relations has a role in exploring the values inherent in a brief such as ideas and products (tangible and intangible assets). It reviews the landscape for the brief in a range of social and cultural contexts. Its practice includes the planning and execution of engagement (internal as well as external) among publics such that they relate these value to their knowledge, understanding and interests. In turn, such publics can (through their own public relations processes) spread the values to a wider public.

The difference between communication and Public Relations becomes clear in this example. Creating relationships with publics, goes beyond (but may include) the communications processes required but it is in the relationship management process that we see the role of Public Relations at its most effective.

What this case shows is that the management of public relations in BT, that is the process of empowering BT employees with PR skills or engagement of PR professionals in support of employee activities, was missing.

Public Relations is a process of relationship management and at its most effective has to be a management practice as ubiquitous as financial management for companies to be successful.

This approach is essential for a modern company.

In the first instance, it is the means by which productivity is enhanced, especially among those valuable employees whose jobs cannot be automated. Employees whose role it is to create new ideas, products, processes and services are better deployed when added value is levered from their work through effective relationships that engage colleagues in their exploitation.

This relationship value model is the means by which an organisation can have and sustain unique competitive advantage because its develops a capability in which teams of people with a common interests are engaged in adding value throughout the organisation and beyond.

Finally, the application of the public relations process offers high value returns because this is the process that speeds product to market.

Picture: Milch Cow