Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Semantic Opportunity for Sir Martin Sorrell

There is a lot of drive behind the Social Media Club and its flagship 'New Media Release' which has its own wiki, blog and podcast.

I am an enthusiast. It is not that I see this capability levering advantage for the Public Relations industry as it tries to cope with so many media channels (see here for both a list and a podcast). It is of no consequence to me (the fee has not been paid) if no PR people use all or any of these channels. What is important is that someone (loads of people) will. I just hope it is PR professionals.

For a decade I thought that it was the PR industry that could benefit from initiatives like these. Well, lets examine the reality.

When Sir Martin Sorrell puts on a best face on for the annual financial results party on Friday he could reflect on how much of his empire is now leaching away from around the foundations of his monolith.

His company will use XBRL to announce its results (Quote: “Getting the right information to the right people at the right time—faster, more accurately, and with greater efficiency—is vital in today’s business world. Which is why investors and analysts alike favour XBRL” says PriceWaterhouseCoopers. This company has invested heavily in XBRL so it could communicate with its client's stakeholders efficiently.

Sir Martin's statement will use the equivalent of paper because he and his companies can't see the advantages of supporting XPRL to deliver words to investors and analysts despite his empire's claim to be “A World Leader in Communication” (WPP ).

The people running traditional companies do not move rapidly enough. It is impossible to change a company rapidly enough in this era of technological change (quoth Sir Martin) and over four years, the Sorrel companies have briskly demonstrated this as the semantic web marched in a completely different direction.

Because all of this is about the semantic web. It is manifest in the New Media Release initiative.

It seemed obvious to a number of us in 2001 that there would be a need for a Public Relations to be involved in the semantic web. It is all about communication. To us this meant there was a need for an industry XML schema.

There were four reasons for this.

  • Closer to home, Reuters had a standard which they released to the news publishing industry which because NewsML. It seemed to us that if we were going to communicate with the media using NewsML, there was a need to join the club.
  • The financial sector was developing a schema (XBRL)for posting financial results in a structured way to the major stock markets. It was providing the numbers but not the statements and text related content. For financial PR it was important to be able to use XML in this environment.
  • It became clear that, as the emerging semantic web took hold, every communicator would need capabilities to lever the value of XML in all their software.

We formed a group called, involving the CIPR and PRCA in the UK and a number of people in the UK and USA.

Timing was awful. It was 2001. The dot com bubble burst, there was recession and the PR industry struggled for every buck.

Furthermore, this was a time when in PR even the web was new and attempting to move thinking among people like clip companies, press release distribution companies and PR agencies was very difficult. It was still a time of paper and, tentatively, email.

The PR evaluation companies really did get it. Mostly because they could see how good XML would be for creating mine-able data.

Using volunteers we created the site, I wrote the Vision statement, and a group created the first schema.

We had a number of meetings with a range of organisations (agencies, clip companies, press release distributors, government departments etc.) asking them to adopt the standard.

The concept was taken to the Global Alliance, the worldwide organisation for all the national Public Relations Associations. It was, and remains, supportive.

However, the vendors and practitioners in PR, just could not understand or see the value of XML in their businesses.

What happened then was that, as companies realised that XML was useful, they started to build it into new software. It soon became obvious that the CEO and CIO across the PR industry have little in common and mostly have no way of discussing the niceties of communications technologies.

Time after time I would visit companies to hear that they were using XML in development; had not heard of XPRL and, in any case, preferred proprietary XML schema thinking that it gave them some kind of competitive advantage.

Time after time, I saw programmers building 'look up' tables so that the proprietary schema could 'talk to' other schemas most often not just in the same group of companies but on the same computer!.

We now have a circumstance where even in the same group of companies for example where there are a number of big PR firms under the same ownership they do not have common data management standards and have mix'n match XML knitting in their computers.

I also know of two PR big service providers who have two or more schemas running in parallel inside the same company. One is for proprietary computing and one is for interface with other, external schemas.

The IT costs run to five if not six figures.

Part of the problem is that most companies feel that what they do is unique. Is what a big PR company does each day so novel or can anyone do it?

There is almost nothing unique in PR.

(a quick diversion here, I founded Media Measurement, we had a complete software capability to replicate all the evaluation outputs of all of our competitors in the late '90's. We chose not to because our approach was, to our mind, better. For most in the PR industry, the same applies).

What these organisations have not yet managed to understand is that by co-operating they can up their individual game to levels they would not believe.

Meantime, other industries were not so reticent. They brought their XML schemas together, they shared their technologies and they created huge advantages that allowed them to prosper.

There are a number of reasons why the PR industry needs to take XPRL seriously now.

First :

Much (probably all) of the services delivered to in-house and agencies are now delivered using XML as the basis for managing data. While this is delivered as a one off service this is of no consequence. But the minute the organisation wants to make two services work together, they are at (an expensive) disadvantage.

Where services are delivered using the Internet, it can ONLY be optimised using XML. For example, if you have a Google News RSS feed to bring you breaking news about a client, industry or other news, you are using XML and need to be able to integrate using other XML enabled software. This is also true of press lists, clippings, events calendars and without exception, all social media. It is only the PR industry that is out of step.

None adoption of an industry schema is costing the industry a lot of money AND it is losing competitive advantage because the more advanced competitors are using XML standards. A small number may be edging towards involvement but the announcements are thin on the ground.


To be able to provide services to clients (intranets, extranets, web based, social media based, news release, SMS etc) the industry now has to use XML. Other computers just don't use any other common standard. At present, the industry is relying on a human interaction (such as a journalist transposing words in an email to his article). This is no longer an option for many publishers, the time cost is too high. They have to change the rules to survive.

This means that the PR industry needs to adopt an XML standard to be able to deliver its offering.

The delivery of financial results in XML format is now important even if only to get the timing right and yet the XML standard is presently optimised for numbers and not text. XBRL (the business schema was forced


Most of the emerging practices such as posting photos to web sites, including video and podcasts in blogs, and monitoring the Internet with RSS is dependant on the application of XML.

In fact, to receive press clips from most of the major clipping companies is XML enabled.

Not being able to optimise XML means that PR practice is hamstrung. It cannot compete with people and practices that can use XML.

These three reasons:

Reception and integration of information from suppliers; distribution of information and an ability to optimise interaction with digital media are the three reasons why the PR industry globally needs XPRL. It needs a group of people and the companies involved in providing vendor and client side services to come together to provide both a Public Relations Schema and XML services and advice to the industry.

In a time when the media is becoming the audience, the industry and each of its competitors will be stronger if they collaborate. Beggar thy neighbour is not a policy, it is a suicide note and one hopes that recent events are not an attempt at rushing the pearly gates.

This of all industries should know pro bono publicam. Which is what XPRL is really about.

Of course, there is one other reason why the semantic web and XML is important. For the unwary, it leaches out value from the foundations of the big companies unless they can, to quote Sir Martin again, find better poodles.

Go Join XPRL. This is the person to talk to.