Bill Gates once said he would spend his last dollar on PR.

He wasn't suggesting we should all invite our customers to more Pig Roasts, but was alluding to the marketing power of good public relations.

Bill is quite a long way from his last dollar, so we'll have to take his word for it, but if he spent it on online PR, it would probably be a wise investment.

PR is often considered the poor cousin of main stream marketing, thanks to its ethereal nature and lack of predictable results. But I suspect the internet is going to change its fortune.

PR is essentially about getting other people to say nice things about you. Consumers intrinsically mistrust advertising, expecting at best exaggeration and worst lies. However editorial is implicitly trusted - if it is written in the newspapers it must be true, right?

Online PR works just the same, we trust text links found in online posts, but seldom trust banner ads enough to click on them.

The internet buzzwords du jour include blogging, social networking, user-generated content and citizen journalism.

Digital marketing pundits put them all into one online toy box called Web2.0 (pronounced Web Two Point Zero).

Few companies understand the marketing opportunity of Web2.0 thanks to all the above geek-speak. However if you tell them it's about online PR they are quick to see the analogy.

Get the bloggers blogging about your website, get the online socialites chattering about your podcast at all the fashionable Net parties and your brand equity grows.

To get the best results from PR you need to relinquish control. You can't tell journal-ists what to write, you present the evidence, they decide if your company's proposition is a good one.

This is even more important with online PR. Letting customers post unedited reviews to your website instils trust. A bad comment in the context of overwhelmingly good feedback gives validity.

Hotel managers that reply to bad reviews on can apologise and explain what has been done to rectify the situation - turning a customer service disaster in to good PR.

Big brands have a problem letting go. If you said to the average marketing director "I've got a great communications strategy for you - just let your customers write whatever they like on your websites", they would quickly show you the door!

But given a button to filter out all the adverts from our lives, most of us would press it.

Our computers are littered with such buttons and the traditional advertising approach of shouting loudly in people's faces doesn't work.

Online PR might be the only way of getting through.

There are risks, of course.

Your products and services better stand up to close scrutiny. as there is no hiding in Web2.0 world. However, even bad feedback is a valuable commodity.

Bill Gates also said: "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning" - something he has had considerably more practical experience of than spending that last dollar.

* Chris is managing director of internet consultancy WAA WebXpress. This and other unedited articles can be found at E-mail