Online Pressrooms: Your company at the journalist's fingertips

An online pressroom can be much more than a repository for photos and bios. David Ward investigates what journalists should be able to get from your website

An online pressroom can be much more than a repository for photos and bios. David Ward investigates what journalists should be able to get from your website

Though it's been a good 10 years since the first online pressrooms were established, far too many of them still seem as if they were designed more to aggravate reporters than to help them - and many of the problems are the same as they've always been.

"Some company websites seem to be set up specifically not to provide certain contact information in terms of phone numbers or addresses," says Bill Kisliuk, managing editor of The Napa Valley (CA) Register. "Recently I was on the website of a company that was doing business in this area, and my only option was to send them an e-mail, which I wasn't about to do because I was on deadline."

Other pet peeves of reporters include pressrooms loaded with Flash animation or graphics that might charm consumers but frustrate someone on deadline.

"Nobody wants to see tap-dancing bears in a pressroom," notes Mike Spataro, EVP and head of Weber Shandwick's web relations group. "We've talked to enough reporters to know they want things simple. If it takes them more than 30 seconds to get the information they need, you've made a mistake."

Most reporters are now savvy enough to go to a company website when they're looking for breaking news, but that doesn't mean an online pressroom should simply be a depository of releases, bios, and pictures.

"The new model is to make your pressroom a dynamic forum for true two-way communication," says Peter Pedersen, SVP and deputy general manager of Edelman's Seattle office. "You could, for example, have a blog from a company executive within the confines of the press area that can give reporters a very transparent look into the mindset of executives, as well as the issues facing the company."

Pedersen adds that online newsrooms also need to take into account the changing nature of journalism and a liberal policy on who can access the site's material. "Four or five years ago I might have said yes to password protection, but now everyone is kind of a journalist," he says. "You're not only dealing with traditional press, but there's also bloggers, the web community, and other nontraditional journalists who clearly play an important role in how information is disseminated."

However, Dee Rambeau, product manager for PR Newswire's MediaRoom and managing partner of DVCO Technology, adds that journalists do not mind password protection in certain situations "If it's an exclusive where you're giving 10 of your favorite writers a sneak peak at a product announcement, most journalists are willing to do that," he says.

For companies wanting to track reporters coming to their sites, Rambeau also suggests an optional registration program. "Journalists will take the path of least resistance, and they may or may not want to tell you who they are," he says. "But we've found that, if we give them a chance to opt in and give us their e-mail address in exchange for getting on a hot list for company news, some will at least take advantage of that."

But in order for an opt-in registration program to succeed, reporters need to see its advantages, says Ibrey Woodall, director of marketing for content- management software company TEKgroup International. "You can point out that journalists can fill out a profile and state whether or not they want all the corporate news or just a segment," she says. "It ends up reducing the amount of e-mail they'll get."

No online pressroom will ever replace a reporter's face-to-face time with key executives, but, Spataro says, sites can be designed to help facilitate those meetings. "The events section of a pressroom, where you're alerting journalists to an upcoming event, can also be a natural place to let journalists sign up for an interview with an executive or brand manager," he says.

Once at a conference, Leon Harbar, director of Business Wire's global event services group, says, companies should leverage both their own sites and the conference's online pressroom. "You can include a link back to the company's press site, but you don't want to put in a lot of garbage that isn't relevant to the event," he adds. "Make sure that the contact information is for reaching corporate communication staff during the show, and also includes booth numbers and reasons why the company is at the show."

Pressroom designers should remember that reporters have preferences for how they want to interact with press material. "If you're going to put releases and other pages on your website, do it as a Word document, so reporters can cut and paste, and do it in a PDF format, as well," Rambeau says. "We also recommend offering low-resolution versions of pictures and videos in a media room with an option so that reporters can request the high-resolution versions."

Rachel Meranus, PR director for PR Newswire, also suggests that somewhere on every major company website should exist dark pages that can be activated within minutes of a communications crisis. "You want something simple enough that even tech-challenged corporate communicators can activate and update it quickly," she says.

There are cool new web tools being introduced almost daily, and often it's up to the outside agency to figure out if they're applicable to the PR space. Spataro says that the hottest trend he currently sees in online pressrooms is RSS feeds. "All a reporter has to do is grab a simple XML code from a press site, then drag it into a RSS reader on their PC," he says. "After that, every time the company updates its site with news releases, those are automatically sent to a reporter's desktop."

The goal of online pressrooms isn't to replace the human PR touch, but "you want to design your site assuming that the reporter coming to it is doing their story at midnight," Rambeau notes. "So you want to do as much as you can to give that writer as much information as they can possibly use."

Technique tips

Do put your contact information, including names and phone numbers, on every page of an online pressroom

Do offer journalists different ways to access content, including documents with one-click print commands, as well as low- and high-resolution options for pictures and videos

Do at least offer reporters the chance to register at the site. Not all of them will opt in, but it can be a good way to track some of the journalists visiting your pressroom

Don't overload your pressroom with Flash animation or other graphics. Most reporters are looking for quick and easy-to-access content

Don't password-protect your site. There are many types of journalists today. You don't want to exclude anyone from spreading the word about a company

Don't leave the responsibility for updating a pressroom to a company's IT or web-development teams. You need tools that put control of the site in the hands of PR pros

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