PR professionals and newswires have become embroiled in a bitter battle over the control of editorial content within press releases. In fact, the very role newswires are playing in the distribution of information is being called into question by industry professionals.
As PRWeek reported last week, PR Newswire adopted a policy earlier this year, giving staffers the power to arbitrarily delete stock ticker symbols from press releases. The practice raises the issue of whether newswires have overstepped the role of being a distribution outlets to become editorial gatekeepers.
Ticker-spamming, or the excessive inclusion of ticker symbols in press releases, is the latest tactic used by PR professionals to generate publicity via the Internet for what are generally small, low-profile companies.
In fact, according to one industry source, the Internet has become the preferred PR vehicle of choice for many small companies because of its low cost and global reach.
Tickers, which often contain hot-links, are included in press releases to draw the interest of readers scanning the releases on Internet sites.
Hot-linked tickers allow the reader of the news releases to click through tickers to a company's web site, which is registered as a hit.
PR professionals can then use the hits generated from journalists, investors and others interested in viewing the web site, as proof that publicity is being generated for the client through traffic to its web site.
In a CBS MarketWatch article written in early December, Mike Waters, vice president and chief financial officer of Internet company QUAD-I, said the use of extra ticker symbols in one company press release attracted potential investors, including Merrill Lynch, to the company.
'Our savvy PR people really scored on that one,' Waters exclaimed in the story.
PR Newswire, which has arrangements with more than 300 online databases and web sites, adopted a policy earlier this year of removing ticker symbols from press releases when the problem became excessive, according to Ira Krawitz, a vice president at PR Newswire. 'In our review of the information going through,we saw gratuitous use of ticker symbols unrelated to the essence of the story.'
However, Krawitz admitted that the editing of press releases by PR Newswire editors was still 'a judgement call at times.'
Although he acknowledged that companies can derive extra publicity exposure on the Internet through the use of tickers, he questioned whether the additional publicity was meaningful.
As a matter of policy, before PR Newswire distributes a press release, the company reviews it for libelous and scandalous material, as well as promotional and advertising content.
If content is edited from a press release, a PR Newswire staffer contacts the PR employee that submitted the press release and discusses why the release was edited, Krawitz explained.
'Our goal is to get the right news to the right channels based on the needs of our customers,' he said, adding that the news media expects a certain level of quality from the company's press releases.
Business Wire takes a similar stand on the inclusion of ticker symbols in press releases: symbols are left in when their inclusion is related to the content of the news release, an official at BusinessWire said.
Disbelief in PR
Yet, many PR professionals contacted for this story were unaware that newswires exercised editorial control over submitted press releases while others expressed disbelief.
'If they are an information conduit, they should honor the person paying the bill,' said Maureen Blanc, general partner and founder of Blanc & Otus, a San Francisco PR firm that represents high-tech firms.
One account executive at Rubenstein Associates, which had ticker symbols edited from three press releases, defended the inclusion of symbols, claiming they were relevant to the news releases.
The executive said the newswire had little right to control the content of press releases. 'Who are they to step in and tell us how to do our business?' the executive asked.
As a result of the policy, the Rubenstein executive has started distributing news releases over Business Wire.
A Business Wire executive, though, admitted that hot-linked tickers provide strong marketing and public relations exposure. Furthermore, the executive said that some companies search Internet press releases solely for ticker symbols, meaning the removal of such symbols could limit the potential publicity exposure those companies receive.
At a basic level, both newswires and PR professionals have the same goal: to disseminate information to the news media. The real issue, said one professional, concerns the contractual relationship newswires share with customers in the distribution of such information.
'There needs to be a clarification between what the newswire is doing and what the customer is contracting for,' said Jim Lukaszewski, chairman of the Lukaszewski Group, a PR crisis consulting company.
The issue between PR professionals and newswires concerning ticker symbols could be worked out through contract clarification between the supplier of the news release and the distributor, according to Lukaszewski. 'You should be able to contract with the newswire to leave your news release as is.'
And he has a point. If PR professionals who are unhappy with the wire services want press releases to be distributed without loss of editorial content, the issue needs to be dealt with in the contract with the supplier.
That would force the wires to take a different stance which, at the moment, appears to lean more toward being editorial gatekeepers than information distributors.