Crossing the digital divide

Journalists and PROs met this week to discuss comms in the context of emerging channels. As Steve Smethurst reports, papers have embraced online formats – but has the PR industry?

Times Online editorial director Peter Bale needs no convincing about the importance of new media. Since 2005, the newspaper’s website has grown from 1.5 million users a day to 8.5 million. It employs 30 journalists, and 20 to 25 per cent of its content is original.

Speaking at PRWeek’s inaugural ‘PR and New Media’ conference in London this week, Bale told delegates: ‘We want PROs to contact us and engage with our journalists. We are seeking new messages to tell consumers and subtle ways of reaching readers. Why? The definition of our competition – who they are – is getting wider. As well as traditional competitors, such as The Guardian, we’re also up against MSN and Yahoo!, etc.’

Blurred boundaries
Bale’s call for PR practitioners to work proactively with online news providers was just one of the messages emerging from the conference. Bale also argued that the traditional editorial boundaries between journalists and PROs had collapsed with the spread of new media – making the environment more commercial. ‘We are trying to offer new editorial and advertising formats that appeal to readers and can be commercialised quickly,’ he explained. ‘We can experiment quite a lot – and it helps if we have a sponsor.’

By way of example, he detailed how Times Online’s Sounds podcasts – containing interviews with bands and some of their tracks, and sponsored by Sony Ericsson – had since January notched up 170,000 downloads. Meanwhile, the site’s World Cup Baddiel and Skinner casts – launched on 5 June and sponsored by US car maker Dodge – have already become the UK’s number one podcast (according to Bale).

The drive to suck readers in to The Times brand on the web does not stop there. Times Online will soon be launching a video portal, allowing newsreels to be downloaded and giving PROs the opportunity to add a visual dimension to their clients’ stories.

Bale was joined in his encouragement of PR professionals by Richard Burton, web editor of Telegraph.co.uk, which prides itself on its SMS, RSS and BlackBerry news alerts. ‘PROs chasing up ideas in print channels often have to wait in line or be judged alongside the other priorities of the week,’ he told delegates. ‘Online is a 24/7, constantly updated channel.

PROs that understand the medium and use it well could become a valuable supplier of continuous information. Say we are doing something big on a new film. Savvy PROs will know that this story will go online. But the really savvy ones will approach us with clips to download, or interviews with people behind the scenes for use as background material – that’s getting inside the head of the modern newsroom, and that is the relationship we are after.’

While the amount of video content on The Daily Telegraph’s website is rising, its podcast editor, Guy Ruddle, cited his arena as the real area of excitement. ‘Podcasting is simply an accessible medium. Podcasting personalises news much more successfully. There’s a lot of interaction during interviews; they can become as addictive as a soap opera.’

Prime channels
Optimising new media is not just about engaging with journalists though. Some of the PR industry’s own exponents of new media were in attendance, sharing their views about how they want to use emerging channels directly to get their messages noticed. 

Bertie Bosredon is head of new media at Breast Cancer Care, and was formerly online manager at the British Heart Foundation. His objective, he told delegates, was for BCC to optimise its new-media department as the prime channel for PR campaigns.

Since joining the charity in February, Bosredon has introduced web forums – which, he said, journalists are already picking up on – and is looking at the possibility of adding streaming video to news sites. The charity is soon to launch a blog written by a breast cancer patient.

One aim of all of these initiatives is to make headlines – something to which Bosredon is not new. While at BHF in 2004, he was behind an anti-smoking viral game that could be downloaded from the organisation’s website to mobile phones. ‘It was like a version of Tetris,’ he told the conference. ‘Instead of the usual building-blocks, we had lumps of fat dripping down from a cigarette.’

The results of the campaign, promoted by M2 Communications, speak for themselves. In its first month, the microsite had 65,000 hits. It ended 2004 as the second-most-visited healthcare site in the UK, according to the agency.

However, although Bosredon is an evangelist for the opportunities provided by new media, he warned  delegates to  exercise caution: ‘The biggest challenge in this space is the difficulty in keeping any new-media content relevant for different audiences. We have people affected by breast cancer coming to us for advice, journalists wanting information, and companies that want to team up with us – as well as  politicians and health professionals. How will we solve this? That is what I am trying to work out at the moment.’

Bosredon said part of the solution meant devoting more resources to the support of new media. ‘For example, we have to monitor the forums very carefully,’ he explained. ‘If someone says “eating lemons reduces the risk of breast cancer”, it needs to be removed. Forums have been a great success, but that’s led to us employing six part-time administrators to monitor the site on a 24-hour basis.’

Online infiltration
George Andrew is head of market relations at Scottish Widows. He told the audience that he, too, will be launching webcasts and podcasts, later this month – a first for a pensions provider. ‘There has been an explosion in people researching and buying financial products online,’ he said.

‘We are positioning ourselves so that anyone looking for financial  products will see ours discussed on the message boards of newspapers, by bloggers or on podcasts.’

The first Scottish Widows campaign to be supported by web and podcasts is the recently launched ‘Preparation Nation’, aimed at raising awareness of the need to plan for one’s retirement. One third of the campaign’s budget was spent online, targeting blogs and financial advice sites. ‘We’re really upping the ante in our new-media spend,’ Andrew added.

Promotion this way does widen the net for discussion about products and services, but according to Howard Kosky, MD of markettiers4dc, this has its dangers, and PROs should always weigh up the associated risks. For instance, he argued that new media necessitates greater transparency around the organisation being promoted. ‘If you’re not on the front foot and make incorrect claims, you’ll have to face the consequences,’ he warned.

And Kosky criticised the actions of those who had infiltrated message boards by deception. A recent example of this was The PR Office, which posted messages – supposedly from supporters – on a Southampton Football Club fans’ forum in favour of embattled chairman Rupert Lowe (PRWeek, 9 June).

‘They get found out, and it does more harm than good,’ Kosky said.

But how does an organisation deal with online negative messages about its activities? Andrew, in contrast to Kosky, lauded the benefits of counter-blogging: ‘Nothing negative about us has appeared on the message boards we’ve monitored. If so, we would [post our own messages] or write a blog.’

Mark Brooks, head of media and PR at National Savings & Investments, had a similar message. ‘If you want to maximise your PR impact, you have to abide by the “John Major principle” – back to basics. Online PR is not rocket science, and PROs still need to remember that they need a story.’

Broadened horizons
Brooks said he has given the NS&I brand an online presence by looking beyond news media sites and adding links or data to less obvious portals: ‘We recently produced statistics on trends in gardening for the Chelsea Flower Show website, and sent other releases to online gardening community sites.’

He advised in-house PROs to ‘get friendlier with your company’s web designers’. He also suggested firms should use their websites to ‘act as their own publishers’. He reported that the media pages alone on the NS&I website get 100,000 visits a year, but only a slight majority of these are from journalists. ‘Use your media pages to give extra info to customers – it will give more depth to your organisation,’ he explained.

Peter Birch, head of interactive sales at ITV, concluded that PR professionals should approach new media as a whole: ‘People expect more information to be available to them at the press of the button. Whether that button is on a remote control, an iPod or a mobile doesn’t matter: people growing up in this cross-platform society don’t distinguish, they just expect content. So I’m encouraging everyone to create digital messages for a digital age.’

PRWeek interviewed the speakers prior to the conference. Their actual presentations may have differed slightly.


Case Study: The Daily Telegraph and podcasts
Guy Ruddle, podcast editor of Telegraph.co.uk, does not miss radio. Five years of getting up at 3am to be a Radio 5 Live presenter takes its toll. So do challenges such as riding a galloping horse for a mile and a half while trying to interview a jockey – ‘the worst moment of my career,’ Ruddle says.

He is now safely behind a desk, at the website of The Daily Telegraph, and since January has hosted the site’s daily news podcasts. So, has it taken off? Yes, but telegraph.co.uk does not talk about download figures. ‘No one knows how many are downloaded through iTunes, so our figures might under-report by one or by 100,000,’ Ruddle says. He adds,  jokingly: ‘Mind you, we’ll probably find that all the figures we have are real, and we’ll no longer be able to say “oh, it’s a terrible under-measurement”.’

Six months into his role, Ruddle says the service is becoming more professional. ‘We’ve gone from journalists reading their stories out [on the podcasts] to a more engaged interview style. Now the podcast is more like a 30-minute radio programme.’

He acknowledges that Telegraph.co.uk’s podcasting strength is not its news delivery. ‘You can get that by listening to the radio,’ he says. ‘Where we compete is by delivering comment and analysis around the news.’

Small team
Editorially, there are two staff dedicated to podcasts – Ruddle and a reporter/producer – plus a couple of sound engineers. For the moment, podcast content reflects what’s in the paper, mainly because of the expense of news gathering. As well as organising the podcast, Ruddle will check the prominence of stories on telegraph.co.uk; he  isolates stories from the  podcast and puts them on the site as a ‘click-and-listen’ option.

Ruddle says there are many PR opportunities in podcasting, but claims few PROs contact him: ‘If agencies came up with ideas that we could develop – and not just news stories – it might be fruitful.’

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