Feature: Contact us – if you can find us...

Online media centres with no contact details drive journalists to despair. Steve Smethurst looks at the best and worst FTSE examples

For journalists, the task of trying to find information quickly on a corporate website is almost as irritating as hearing the words 'I'll have to get these quotes approved'. Take the comments of former New York Post business columnist Ben Silverman. His experience of trying to get in touch with Amazon's PROs in the US is typical: 'The PR area of its website is quite possibly the worst I've ever seen. There is minimal  information and no PR contacts.'

Business Voice editor Eila Rana says: 'The worst "media centres" on  websites are those that only have an "email us" box with no named contact or number. I'm often still waiting for a response after three weeks.' Carol Lewis, deputy editor of The Times' Career section, adds: 'I get so annoyed with business websites, especially when you have to register to access anything. Journalists need to talk to PROs quickly, and they can do without poor sites.'

To look more closely at the situation, PRWeek can now publish research from interactive comms agency Wheel, which compares the best corporate sites with some of the worst (see link). Wheel asked Mantra PR to independently rate the sites of the top 50 companies in the FTSE 100. It scored them in terms of how easy it was to locate the press area from the home page, the content of the press area and the amount of useful information it held. Corporate social responsibility consultancy Good Business scored the same companies in terms of the online visibility of their CSR activity (an area of major interest to the press). The research was carried out between April and June 2005.

Media and CSR leagues
The website which scored lowest for both media and CSR was that of P&O Cruises owner Carnival. It scored 4.5 out of 15 for its online media centre and a lowly 0.1 out of 15 for CSR information.

Fortunately, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz says the company is interested in feedback. 'We encourage the media to contact us and we like to think of ourselves as a responsive organisation where the media is concerned,' she explains, adding that the website is 'a work in progress.'

A clue to why the Carnival site scored so badly can be found in de la Cruz's admission that it was primarily designed by the corporate and investor relations department. WPP communications director Feona McEwan says lack of consultation with PROs in the design of a website will result in a poor offering. 'PR people must be involved,' she insists.

However, WPP's own ranking, 41st in the media league, put it only eight places above Carnival. McEwan explains that she is guiding wpp.com through a radical overhaul. 'We do see it as the corporate shop window – for clients, employees and the press,' she says. 'The site isn't as good as it could be but we are acutely aware of that. There are too many clicks to get where you want to be. We are very critical of ourselves.'

Wheel managing director Philip Hunt says the fact that many high-street banks were languishing in the bottom 20 of the CSR table is concerning. 'It is linked to retailers also being bad,' he argues. Marks & Spencer and Tesco were both in the bottom ten (J Sainsbury bucked the trend by coming top for its media centre). 'Banks and retailers developed websites primarily to sell products rather than as a comms tool through which to talk to stakeholders. They generally remain in this rut.' 

Mary Walsh, director of corporate relations at 37th-placed (for media) Lloyds TSB, defends the bank's site, which does not have a media link on its home page but does have  contact numbers: 'Our website is aimed at a huge number of people – it has to do a range of jobs.' However, she concedes that while she is 'very involved' in the media part of the site, she did not manage its overall design.

So what makes a good corporate website? Al Loehnis, business development director at website development agency Investis, has worked with many of the FTSE 100 companies. He says 75 per cent of people (including journalists) spend two minutes or less on a website. The key for them is ease of navigation and not having too much information buried in documents. Of course, the other 25 per cent might want depth of information, and Jeremy Graham-Cumming, strategy manager at web solutions provider VLI, says such data are variable: 'You get pockets that are updated regularly, but corporate information often gets left behind as there is no profit motive.'

Mantra MD Debbie Wosskow says the best sites put themselves in the shoes of journalists, considering the need for functions such as a download centre or an image library. 'They road-test them,' she explains.

Some companies, such as M&S, had very different media and CSR scores. It came 11th for its CSR information but only 43rd for its media centre. On the latter it takes two clicks to get from the home page to the media section (only found via an easily missed 'about us' link at the foot of the home page). Once there, however, there is a searchable press release area with an image library.

An M&S spokeswoman says: 'We are disappointed to be ranked so low in the media chart but it's heartening to know we are doing OK in CSR.' She claims the site lost marks for failing to have an automated news distribution service and FAQs. She points out that journalists can get automated news through the IR section and that FAQs were removed due to lack of interest.

 Jos Smith, new media and information manager at Cadbury Schweppes (seventh in the media chart), says she often benchmarks the site against those of its FTSE100 peers. 'We provide some of our main documents in different languages. The site also uses RSS – so people can register for news,' she adds. It came lower for CSR, 23rd, but Smith says this was due to the site being designed to cater for its main body of users, who are less interested in the CSR element.

Imperial Tobacco came second for its media centre but was 42nd in the CSR table. Is group media relations manager Alex Parsons worried? 'Not at all. We are comfortable with where we are.'
But Wosskow warns: 'Websites are the corporate calling card. This research is a call to action for the PR profession.'

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