The Corporate Website as a Public Relations and E-Commerce Tool
The Internet is championed as the technology that is the driving force behind the "Information Revolution" and is the medium by which an increasing number of corporations, governments and societies are providing information to consumers about themselves. By developing a Web presence, these governments, companies and societies are projecting themselves onto the world arena and are thus able to express and represent themselves in a way that is advantageous.
Moreover, due to the interactive nature of the Internet and the World-Wide-Web (WWW), the relationships between website owners and website users are being fundamentally altered. Each browser that visits a website is a potential consumer. "Understanding how to forge lasting relationships with these demanding consumers is the key" (Schwartz, 1997, p4). Website owners have the opportunity and the ability to enhance the customer experience and to reinforce the message that they are trying to instil in the mind of the consumer. They can equip their sites with a wealth of additional information in electronic format and provide additional services and support to complement those offered by their physical operations.
The escalation of capitalism, business globalisation and increased competition means corporations are faced with challenge of gaining and retaining business in a world where the consumer is empowered with greater choice and higher expectations than ever before.
"Tens of millions of people worldwide are surfing the Web in search of surprises, cheap thrills, knowledge and entertainment, time-saving services plus information on products that they hope will enhance their lives. They expect to make the Web a place of their own, a place of customised information and relationships. The consumers are in the driving seat. Able to search for the best deals in an instant, they will obtain a product or service over the Web only if it is the best, cheapest and most convenient alternative from a source they trust" (Schwartz, 1997, p3).
In an attempt to illustrate how websites are improving customer relations and how the interactivity of websites is changing the relationship between organisation and its customer base, the sites of the UK government's Environment Agency and the grocery retailer, Tesco will be analysed.
The Environment Agency was established by the government as a direct result of the 1995 Environment Act and became fully operational on 1 April 1996. It operates throughout the whole of England and Wales and seeks to ensure a better quality of life by creating "a healthy, rich and diverse environment", "for present and future generations" (Environment Agency, 2001). The Agency recognises that it cannot achieve its objectives alone but requires a special working relationship with the public in order to fulfil its "Environmental Vision". The opportunity the Internet offers for improving customer relations in a dynamic environment is recognised in the Environment Agency's mission statement:
Change continues to be a way of life for society, particularly with the exciting prospects of electronic service delivery. We want to involve our customers and meet their changing needs, and we see the Internet as a powerful tool to help us do this" (Barbara Young, The Environment Agency, 2001.