Online Pressrooms: All the news that's fit to download

Eternity is less than a decade old for the web, and online pressrooms spawned in its dawn must evolve to serve time-strapped reporters well.

Eternity is less than a decade old for the web, and online pressrooms spawned in its dawn must evolve to serve time-strapped reporters well.

An online pressroom is the media's front door to the company, but its importance can be underestimated. So one of the most important steps in keeping news pages current and accessible is educating company executives and site designers about reporters' special needs. Sales and marketing departments often carry clout in website development, especially within consumer product companies, but their objectives may run counter to principles of media-friendly design.

"Marketing tends to go for Flash-y and sticky. You want [potential customers] to stick to your site," explains Tim Roberts, president of Wieck Media Services in Dallas. "For media relations, it's just the opposite. You want [reporters] to be able to spend as little time as possible on your site, get exactly what they want as quickly as possible, and get out."

News sites often require more immediate and frequent updates than sections of a firm's site designed for general audiences. If assisting corporate communications doesn't top the IT department's priority list, PR pros with urgent press releases to post must learn to help themselves. Not uncommon these days are job ads for corporate communications positions that seek applicants who know HTML.

A plethora of outside vendors, however, offer website tools and templates that require little training or technical expertise. "If you can go to Amazon.com and order a book and fill out the web form, you can maintain the websites that we build," says Adam Smith, US practice director for Hill & Knowlton's Netcoms division.

Do-it-yourselfers with limited skills risk losing consistency, contends Reid Carr, president of Red Door Interactive, which offers a product called Interactive Press Center. "A lot of times, if you have somebody doing HTML, they will put things in the wrong color or bold things they shouldn't," Carr says.

Specialty firms, PR agencies, and news distribution services offer online pressroom development with nifty features designed to top competitors. Red Door's system, for example, reminds users to do things like include contact information on press releases, while The NewsMarket specializes in broadcast-quality digital video.

Last year, Delta Airlines chose TEKgroup International to help update its news site, through which journalists can create their own folders to save press releases or photos.

"Basically our site had not changed since 1996, when it was launched," says William Smith, Delta's corporate communications manager. "The infrastructure was not really flexible, we couldn't incorporate changes easily, it had no search capabilities, and the back-end process for maintaining it was more complex than it should have been."

Often, incoming PR directors or agencies with new clients inherit online newsrooms that need similar sprucing up. "I try to advise on the easy changes that we can make, and over time, maybe talk them into bigger changes," says Aimee Grove, an account manager for Allison & Partners in San Francisco.

Heath Shackleford undertook a press center redesign when he became PR manager for American Healthways in Nashville. Linking to content elsewhere on the corporate site meant his team didn't have to start from scratch. "When we got down to it, we had probably 80% of the information already on the site that a journalist would need, but it wasn't intuitively arranged for a journalist."

Delta's redesign features a two-part online newsroom - a public section and a password-access area with special features and content.

PR practitioners, however, debate whether pressrooms should be password protected or segregated from a company's main site.

The prevailing opinion does not seem to favor passwords. "Anything that can slow someone down is going to increase the chance that they are going to take a shortcut with the information or go elsewhere for a source," Grove notes.

Password application processes might take more time than a journalist on deadline can spare, and she might not remember her login on the next visit. Then there's the paranoia factor - some users fear being tracked, notes Gretchen Vogel, corporate PR manager for Cisco Systems.

Those who favor passwords cite legal concerns and/or the ability to know who visits a site. Passwords might not keep logos or photos out of unauthorized hands, but they can help webmasters figure out who downloaded the material.

On Delta's site, everyone who requests a password gets immediate access to pressroom content. "Anybody can sign up," Smith says. "We go through the list on occasion, and those who don't seem to fit the reporter mold, we expunge."

Experts generally apply the simpler-is-better rule when designing online newsrooms. "For the media, it really has to be functional first," Roberts says. "That new technology might not be supported by the browser they're using. They're going to use it once, it's going to blow up, and they're going to end up calling the company anyway."

Most pressroom designers eschew Flash animation and PDF files, especially because reporters writing from the road may only have dial-up access.

Contentwise, the basics include press release archives, executive bios, color headshots, and company backgrounders, but many sites go even further.

Video content is becoming common, for example, but tremendous file size can hinder downloading broadcast-quality images. The Iraq war pushed adoption by more newsrooms, however, and newer video compression ratios also help, Roberts says, though adds, "It will take another few years before its really mainstream."

That doesn't mean TV reporters don't find online video useful, even if they can't put it on the air. They might preview low-bandwidth footage and request tapes or satellite feeds of broadcast-quality clips. Roberts says Wieck often breaks longer video segments into shorter scenes so video editors can download just the bits they want.

Other examples of above-and-beyond content include searchable databases of on-staff experts and feature stories.

Technique tips

Do keep it simple

Do post high-resolution color photos (editors can always convert them to black and white)

Do link your online pressroom to your company's home page

Don't incorporate software or animation that might not be compatible with reporters' computer systems or browsers

Don't wait for IT to post press releases. Find a way to do it yourself

Don't forget to include media contact phone numbers and the company's HQ address in easy-to-find places

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