E-PUBLIC RELATIONS: Virtual contact - Online press offices are still very much in their infancy but their potential as a communications tool between PROs and journalists is immense if they are done properly Nick Purdom reports.

The 24/7/52 press office has become a reality with the advent of the internet. But the online - or virtual - press office is still in a very early stage of evolution, and PR people and users are only just starting to realise its potential.

The 24/7/52 press office has become a reality with the advent of the internet. But the online - or virtual - press office is still in a very early stage of evolution, and PR people and users are only just starting to realise its potential.

This March David Phillips will publish his book, On-Line Public Relations.

According to Phillips, who runs the research and monitoring company Internet Reputation Services, around 70 per cent of the companies he speaks to post press releases on their website. But Phillips is not complimentary about the general standard of online press offices. 'Most of them are like 1950s office filing cabinets put online,' he says.

One of the criticisms Phillips levels at virtual press offices (VPOs) is that all too often they are very static, simply containing a database of press releases. He believes they should provide a 'rich resource' of information for journalists researching a story, including an easily searchable database of press releases, reference to similar articles, and links to relevant external sites.

Simon Quarendon, who heads the London technology practice at Ogilvy PR, thinks that 'journalists should be able to find everything at a virtual press office that they traditionally had to phone a press office and ask for. This should include, at a minimum, recent press releases, Q&As, management photography and/or product shots, and useful links to other places or sites.'

Last October, Ogilvy built a VPO for BT as part of its efforts to publicise the Manx Telecom UMTS project. 'We recognised this was a project of international interest and the traffic to the website, which was designed and built with the media in mind, reflects this with much interest coming from Japan,' says Quarendon. The VPO was intended to act as an unmanned, 24-hours-a-day press office, and a Times journalist wrote a story on the project without speaking to anyone, Quarendon adds.

So far Ogilvy has only set up VPOs for technology clients. 'They are more au fait with the whole culture, and there's a greater propensity for technology journalists to take and receive information online,' explains Quarendon.

Lewis PR chief executive, Chris Lewis agrees. 'Outside the hi-tech sector the VPO is still a relatively new thing. In the consumer area there are still quite a few recidivists, some of the journalists don't even have e-mail, and you've got to be careful you don't alienate them,' he says.

Ogilvy is now keen to roll out VPOs to the healthcare sector, 'whose corporate websites to date have been notoriously media unfriendly,' says Quarendon.

The benefits

Those PR agencies that have set up VPOs have no doubt that they offer many benefits. First and foremost has to be that they provide a means of offering a 24/7 service to the media. 'The 24-hours-a-day press office means reduced risk of a journalist being unable to contact a PRO and obtain information, and therefore more chance of coverage,' says Quarendon.

Hi-tech specialist Midnight Communications has offered clients virtual press rooms since it set up in 1995, and director Vicki Hughes believes VPOs are very useful to journalists. 'One of the key advantages for the press is getting an instant PR contact. Where a journalist might know a company name they might not have a PR contact at their fingertips and a VPO on a corporate website is an obvious place to look.'

As well as establishing contact between journalist and PR agency, Pauline Christie, dot. com PR managing director, believes another advantage of the VPO is that it actually allows better targeting of journalists.

'Once you've informed a journalist that a press office is online, that's when you have an opportunity to e-mail an invitation for them to receive e-releases from the site as they come up,' she says.

Martin Jones, MD of online PR and marketing agency iJack, thinks an important feature of VPOs is that they give the ability to track site activity. 'Giving content owners the ability to look at how active their site is can be extremely valuable,' he says. Agencies and clients can see how many times a particular story or image was retrieved and who by, and can use this information to judge how long data should remain active before being archived.

There are also good economic reasons for VPOs, thinks Quarendon. 'Mundane enquiries can be handled more easily and therefore at reduced costs, and automatic mailings to registered journalists reduce press release distribution costs,' he says.

The speed and immediacy of the internet also makes VPOs a useful tool.

'Press releases can be posted immediately and you are more able to react to breaking issues as they occur,' Quarendon says. Such a facility can be particularly useful in a crisis situation, where a VPO can also reduce the chance of an organisation being misrepresented.

The pitfalls

For all the arguments in favour of VPOs there are inevitably some negatives.

One issue of paramount concern is security. 'You have to be constantly vigilant and keep checking that people are not hacking in and putting up information that is not from the client,' says Lewis.

Password protection appears to be one way of ensuring some areas of the site are only accessible to approved users, but passwords are almost universally hated by journalists. And as Phillips points out: 'Competitors don't forget passwords'.

There is also no doubt that VPOs take a lot of time and effort to maintain properly. 'There's the need for constant updating to keep them fresh,' says Lewis. Christie agrees: 'Currently there is some duplication of effort on and offline. Until all media are comfortable with using new technology this will remain the case,' she laments.

Journalists' perception of VPOs is another area of concern. 'The main disadvantage is that journalists may not consider the resource independent,' believes Jones. Quarendon's fear is that 'Corporate websites might become unduly sanitised by lawyers so that journalists seek alternative, unauthorised sources'.

But potentially the greatest disadvantage of VPOs is the loss of personal contact with journalists. 'There is the possibility of losing the opportunity to interact with a journalist if they can access all the information they need remotely. This would be more relevant in a contentious area,' says Jones.

PR people are adamant that personal contact remains essential in the digital era. 'There is nothing to substitute personal attention when it comes to dealing with journalist requests and anything virtual is only ever as successful as the people behind it,' says Hughes.

In the long term, most PR people appear to believe that VPOs will be beneficial to all parties. 'The virtual press room will serve to enhance communication between PR persons and journalists. The change from push to pull technology allows for communication and interviews between the two parties to be more targeted and subject specific,' says Christie.

'It should enhance the relationship as conversations become more meaningful - ie all the dross is taken out of the conversation,' agrees Quarendon.

The future

In the future Christie envisages using VPOs to create 'specialised e-mail databases of customers and journalists for audience specific newsletters and updates'.

'We believe future sites should have higher degrees of interactivity built in to help build repeat visits and, if possible, build an online community of interest,' says Quarendon.

He adds that Ogilvy is currently experimenting with a client to build a 'call me' button on a site, so that journalists can be called back immediately.

This serves to highlight the fact that VPOs may be very useful, but they can never really meet the specific needs of individuals.

Technology will inevitably have an important role to play in the evolution of VPOs. Christie believes the future will bring 'extensive use of video streaming and multimedia techniques'. Lewis is already using video on its VPO, which Chris Lewis says 'helps a writer get a better idea of whether someone is worth interviewing'.

VPOs could also have an impact on the traditional press conference, thinks Quarendon. Webcasting will allow journalists to choose whether or not they attend an event, and VPOs will be able to store webcasts so journalists can choose when they watch them. 'For those that can't attend, you will be able to direct them to the VPO and say here's the press conference in digital form,' says Quarendon.

The future will also see virtual interview rooms becoming commonplace, says Christie. 'Within a VPO you will be able to establish an interview arena which journalists can click onto to ask questions or to see what others are asking.'

The future looks exciting, but the creators of VPOs need to keep their feet on the ground. 'Sometimes over-sophistication can work against you,' says Jones. 'A well-designed and intuitive interface with efficient key word and categorical search mechanisms will always be a staple in the information retrieval market.'

Many VPOs still need to get the basics right. As the panel above shows, there is still room for improvement. Issues about access, navigation, content and technology still need to be sorted out. But VPOs are set to play an increasingly important role in the world of PR and having a VPO will soon be as necessary as an e-mail or web address.


- Make access simple. Registration allows you to keep track of who's using the site, but could put many users off, so make it straightforward. Passwords are a deterrent and most experts think they should be avoided.

- Contact details, including telephone and e-mail for media spokespeople, should be readily accessible. Offering users the option to e-mail questions or a callback button is a useful extra facility.

- Navigation around the site should be logical. Offer users the option of searching material by date, subject or person.

- When offering pictures and graphics consider download times. Keep images on separate pages to text. Thumbnails allow users to see quickly what's available, and the option to click to enlarge is useful. Allow users to download images at different resolutions, such as 75, 300, 600 and 2000 dpi, according to their needs.

- Links to related sites offer a rich resource for journalists and help establish your site as a fount of knowledge and increase stickiness.

- Content should be regularly updated so it is always current. Most company material is available digitally now so it is easy to post it on a VPO, but it should always be adapted for use by the media.

- Content update notification systems allow you to keep in touch with journalists and update them about developments of interest to them. Allow them to choose to receive updates on specific subjects and use the information you gather about them to target more accurately.

- Video and audio files are useful to some, but they can take a long time to download, so give users the option as to whether to receive them.

- Value-added services such as subject specific chat rooms and online interviews increase the attractiveness and usability of your site.

- Different language versions are a useful feature for an international medium.


The reaction of journalists to VPOs seems to be that generally they welcome and appreciate them, but they also see a lot of room for improvement.

Having a source of information available whenever it is needed is a boon for many journalists. The Mail on Sunday deputy money editor Neil Simpson says: 'I'd say the crucial thing is that you can get solid facts whenever you need them - not just when press office staff are in or are using their mobiles'.

But journalists are concerned about the accuracy of information they find on websites. Ray Hatley, editor of The Evening Argus' hi-tech supplement Evolution and a freelance for nationals including The Times, says 'Online press rooms are inaccurate when they are not updated daily, or whenever changes are required'. He believes that PR people often neglect the maintenance of sites because of the expense.

'I tend not to trust website press office information and, whenever possible, try to get the latest info from a real person who can then be held personally accountable for errors,' he adds.

Accessibility is a key issue for journalists. Many resent having to go through a lengthy registration process and detest passwords. 'The worse thing that sites can do is issue passwords, it's the most frustrating process I've ever come across,' says Amy Vickers, mediaguardian. co.uk new media editor. But Kyle MacRae, a freelance technology writer for titles including The Mirror and PC World, says 'Passwords are a necessary evil and wouldn't put me off'.

Images on VPOs are a matter of contention. 'Pictures on a website are fine providing they are on a decent server and don't take ages to download.

Thumbnails with access to high-res images would be my preferred choice,' says Hatley. 'Photos and an image gallery are essential,' says MacRae, who says he probably spends more time on the phone to PROs about pictures than anything else. But for Daily Mail deputy features editor, Steve Bevan: 'Images can be useful if I can't find anything else, but they are not usually of publishable quality so they are a last resort'.

The kind of features journalists would like to see on VPOs serve to highlight what is missing from many of the sites that currently exist.

Bevan would like VPOs to be 'easily accessible, with a very clear way in from the home page'. Site navigation is heavily criticised by many journalists.

'Often you get hundreds of press releases which have not been sorted into any sort of order. I have never found an online press room yet that is searchable by keyword, which would be a godsend,' says MacRae. Vickers agrees. 'A searchable archive would be fantastic, no one has really done that,' she says.

What journalists also really want from VPOs are contact details. 'I want good contact details, I can't think of any that have e-mail and phone numbers,' says Vickers.

'I like being able to access contact telephone numbers and wish more companies would put the name and telephone number of their PR company on their press welcome page,' says Hatley.

Simpson would also like the option of being able to leave an e-mail question out of office hours: 'As long as you have the confidence that they will get back to you early the next day'.

So while journalists like having a ready source of information at their fingertips, there is no getting away from the fact that they still want to be able to speak to a real person.

'VPOs are fine but are only able to get you so far. I hope there will still be a PR person available on the phone to sort out things like a spokesperson and to talk knowledgeably about a product,' says MacRae.

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