Online PR: Widen your reach

Web-based press release distribution is on the rise, but opinion is divided as to its value. Robert Gray investigates.

Online distribution of press releases is a subject that polarises opinion. For some PROs, it is an efficient way of taking news to more journalists. For others it is an unsubtle and untargeted approach, the antithesis of what well-executed PR should be.

What is not open to question is that the number of players in the market has swelled in recent years (see box). Alongside the likes of PR Newswire and Business Wire, there is a raft of newer web-centric outfits that focus purely on the online medium. Not only do they give journalists access to press releases, but some also blend traditional PR with search-engine optimisation, or offer to match an expert to a journalist's requirements.

Added value?

Many agencies are sceptical of the worth of these websites, and in some cases are even concerned that they are a threat. After all, why would small clients invest in an agency if they can use web distribution?

'You can't beat the targeted approach,' says Brahm joint managing director Phil Reed. 'Mass distribution from the web does not appeal to us. We won't rule it out completely but we're happy with the way things are and don't plan to change.'

Beattie Communications CEO Gordon Beattie also pulls no punches. 'The existence of these sites simply demonstrates how woeful some PR companies are when it comes to generating coverage. We have not been approached by these sites, presumably because we employ more journalists than most national newspapers.'

Right or wrong, though, the market is growing. Lexicon PR has just added a new function to the recently launched www.newsreleases.co.uk, an offshoot press release repository that piloted last year. It allows clients to see which press releases were viewed by journalists and provides a record of which journalists have downloaded them. 'No one is suggesting that newsreleases.co.uk is a replacement for good PR,' says Lexicon managing director Sue Baker. 'Organisations that already have good relationships with journalists can use it as a distribution system because it tells them who has read what. That's much better than phoning journalists up and asking them. For those new to PR, clients can see which ones are generating interest. In effect, it gives them hot leads.'

International Direct Marketing Fair director Darren Whitehead was one of the first clients to use the website. He sees 'great potential' in it because it gives journalists 24/7 access to IDMF's news and provides an online archive of previous releases. 'It's extremely useful to know which journalists are logging on. It helps us to build relationships,' he says.

In 2004, www.expertsources.co.uk was launched as an online directory of UK-based experts, no matter how obscure their subject. Around 1,500 experts have registered their details so far, together with hundreds of journalists. The site, asserts Expertsources editor Steve Best, will raise the profile of experts, the organisations they represent and the PR agencies that handle their media affairs. Registration for experts is free, but there are plans to introduce a £48 annual charge.

'Experts from business and industry are often overlooked by the media for an authoritative view on a particular subject. We see that as a missed opportunity,' says Best.

Daryl Willcox Publishing chief executive Daryl Willcox argues that online distribution will grow because they have a dual purpose. He founded online portal Sourcewire (which lets journalists send requests to member PR agencies) and responsesource.com, which lets PROs and clients post releases, which it redistributes to registered journalists based on what they say they are interested in.

'The press release no longer exists entirely as a mechanism for generating media coverage,' Willcox says.

'It exists to increase your website's search-engine rankings, too.'

He says this is due to 'cross linking' - the way in which many search engines decide how to rank a website. While it can be time-consuming to try and get other sites to link to yours, including a website address in a press release and ensuring it appears in a number of places on the web can do wonders for a client's search-engine rankings.

At PR Newswire - whose site for the media, www.prnj.com, has 80,000 journalist members and more than 2.3 million press releases - an expert-matching service, from portal www.profnet.com, is also available.

A Search Engine Visibility (SEV) product, launched in the US last year, is to be rolled out in Europe this summer.

'Releases optimised by PR Newswire's SEV service become search-engine friendly and are indexed by the web's leading search engines for six months,' says PR Newswire product director Bill Leask. 'As a result, people searching the web for related information will find the release in their natural search results for months after the release is issued.' And that means consumers as well as journalists.

PR Press Network CEO George Hopkin says: 'Search-engine optimisation firms have pointed out that news releases distributed via services such as ClickPress improve their rankings in the major search engines. To be honest, this should be seen as a slightly useful by-product at the most.

When PROs start writing news releases with a search-engine algorithm in mind they're effectively ad copywriters.'

Boundaries are blurring and it is not always clear which web services are a help, or a hindrance, to effective media relations. But they are here to stay.

WHAT'S OUT THERE?

www.sourcewire.com - Also has sister site - www.responsesource.com

Number of registered journalists: 3,000

Cost to put up a release: From £30

Length of time a release stays up: Indefinitely

Reporting offered: Number of release views, but no information on who

has viewed them so not to deter journalists who don't want to log on

with a password.

www.newsreleases.co.uk

Number of registered journalists: 280

Cost to put up a release: £30 plus VAT (no registration charges)

Length of time a release stays up: One month

Reporting offered: Recently introduced functionality that allows

reporting back to the poster of a news release, advising them which

journalists have viewed their release.

www.prweb.com

Number of registered journalists: 100,000

Cost to put up a release: $10-$200

Length of time a release stays up: Indefinitely

Reporting offered: Basic statistical reporting at $10 that tracks

number of press release reads. Advanced statistics are available for

$200. These show more detailed search-engine tracking data.

www.clickpress.com

Part of the PR Press Network group

Number of registered journalists: Not published

Cost to put up a release: Free

Length of time a release stays up: Indefinitely

Reporting available: None for self-service posting of news releases, but

will be offering a paid-for WireClip (www.wireclip.com) report that will

list a wide range of sites, services, portals and dissemination points

where a release has appeared or been processed.

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