It is easy to forget that newswires were a Victorian invention – a technology that brought consumers news about the likes of General Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. These 'telegraphs' revolutionised communication, and now, after more than a
century of development, the nature of news distribution is again undergoing fundamental change, driven by firms such as Business Wire, Newslink, PRNewswire and Associated Press. And this change affects PROs.
Along with been market growth – over the past decade or so there has been a proliferation of internet and email specialist newswire services (such as US-based URLWire, which launched in 1994, and the UK's WebitPR, which launched in 2001) – there has also been a widening of the newswires' scope.
A recent example of this is the link-up between Associated Press and Microsoft. The initiative, launched at the end of 2005, enables AP to supply video news footage to 3,500 media websites across the US.
These mostly comprise local newspapers – the weekly source of news for 30 per cent of Americans, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings research (September 2005). And the Microsoft deal is just the start of a period of expansion for AP. Early this year it is planning another major move – a partnership with Google that will give internet users more direct access to AP content.
The development of note for PROs, says AP global head of broadcast Chris Stocking, is the ability of newswires to distribute video far more cheaply than they could previously; the advance of fibre optics has enabled operators to ditch the expensive means of sending content via satellite. 'It is now possible to move 15 minutes of video from London to Los Angles in real time for under £150,' says Stocking. 'It's as cheap as a traditional delivery service but quicker. You can move ten minutes of video to virtually every television newsroom in Europe for £750.'
Mick Jolly is the executive vice-president of fee-based site PRWeb, which has around 3,000 UK clients. He argues that broadcast, including VNR, is a crucial growth area. 'We already get footage out to journalists and onto the web, but broadcast is the real growth area and we are looking to expand what we can offer,' he says. 'I can't give away any details at the moment but 2006 will be a major year for broadcast. We have big plans.'
Elsewhere, Scott Guthrie, UK wire product and media relations manager at PRNewswire, notes PROs' increasing hunger for services that ensure high placements on search engines. Many wire services now offer specialist tools to achieve this, including PRNewswire, which launched Search Engine Visibility last year.
According to Guthrie, the importance of high search engine visibility is two-fold. 'It enables organisations to reach journalists, particularly those in the trade press who don't have newswires but need to access news quickly,' he says. 'When stories go online they are then archived by services such as LexisNexis.' Just as important, according to Guthrie, is the ability to reach consumers directly: 'More people than ever before are interested in news grazing and want to access a variety of stories and releases. If a story gets picked up by a news site, that's great, but people also want to read it direct. This trend cannot be ignored.'
Other internet-based innovations from newswires include RSS feeds and directly sending releases to sites such as Yahoo! News. PRWeb's Jolly reveals that 'the big area for us is internet visibility'. He adds: 'We have more than 100,000 media contacts. If PROs have something such as a book launch to arrange, sites such as Yahoo! News are useful because they are used for searches.'
Tim Gibbons, director at Elemental PR, uses services including PRWeb and PRNewswire for a variety of clients, from SMEs to bigger firms such as Universal Pictures. He says high visibility on search engines is one of the main reasons for using newswires, particularly for technology and entertainment PR. 'There are so many people searching for news that it is extremely worthwhile for us to get our releases high up. It is about getting to the journalists and the consumers themselves,' he adds.
But not all in the newswire market are as enthusiastic about the power of the internet. Newslink business development manager Iain Fleming says: 'The internet and email are not the safeguards that people make out. Email is a particular problem for newsdesks. There is no guarantee an email will arrive and it can really bog down a newspaper's system.'
Fleming claims some clients are looking to decrease their use of email as a means of distribution due to its unreliability, especially regarding photos. He says one national newspaper group, which he declines to name, is interested in using a wire service for material from the commercial PR sector. 'I have received several informal expressions of interest from the regional daily press and am due to raise the issue with national publishers.'
Another firm looking to concentrate more on the traditional wire service is Newslink client Scottish Provincial Press, which owns 16 titles in the country. IT manager Kenny Brown says: 'The bottom line for us is that copy is being lost and everyone is getting annoyed [with email]. As a result we are pushing contributors towards
delivering to our system via a newswire, rather than by email – the former is much more reliable, we can confirm receipt to the sender and control how the files come in. And, most importantly, we are not clogging up our email system in the process.'
He adds: 'It's a tough job weaning people off email but it's an essential task in our opinion. Once someone uses a newswire and sees how easy it is, the service pretty much sells itself as a delivery mechanism.'
Charles Arthur, editor of The Guardian's Technology supplement, is another who is scathing about email, indicating that content sent by wire has more credibility. 'The good thing about newswires is that their content has been through some sort of filtering system,' he says.
'They are also useful just to see what stories are out there. The thing about emails is that they just seem to be sent out so randomly, and there are so many that it is almost beyond human capability to deal with them all.'
However, traditionalists such as Fleming are not against technological development per se – Newslink, for instance, will continue to offer an email service, and this year is seeking to develop a mobile phone text alert system. It is also looking into VNR distribution. 'The mobile service will be targeted, and could alert a journalist to a particular story or include something such as the first 160 characters. It is
just another avenue of distribution,' Fleming reveals.
Plug and play
Other innovations in the newswire sector of which PROs should be aware include AP's plug-and-play service. This allows camera crews to distribute content quickly from locations of news interest, such as the Houses of Parliament, via specially installed wall boxes. AP says this can cost less than £250 for 15 minutes of video content.
Many newswires also offer archive, monitoring and evaluation services. PRNewswire, for example, has a product called MediaSense, which analyses the tone of an article and the presence of certain messages, as well as volume and coverage by type.
PRNewswire's Guthrie notes: 'PR professionals are increasingly more concerned with measuring the outcome of their efforts.'
And according to WebitPR managing director Jonathan Dolby, his company's unique selling point is its email distribution and measurement system – releases include links to places that have picked up the story. 'We are looking to develop that further and are looking at media analysis services as well,' he adds.
Speed is also vital to the way newswires are attempting to improve their services. Business Wire, for example, claims to be able to send out 50 releases a minute directly to editorial systems via its NX service, which uses the NewsML language (an encoding for news distribution).
Paid-for versus free
Newswires across the board are clearly keen to get more contracts within the PR industry, and hope their commitment to technological advances, particularly in the way journalists and
the public receive news, will sway many to sign up.
However, despite the array of choice and gadgetry being made available to PROs by fee-based news services, many in the PR industry are reluctant to part with money. The Arnold Group director Tim Arnold, for example, would rather use his own contacts than a wire service. For Arnold, it is almost a sign of failure if a PRO can
only get a story into print or broadcast media via a paid-for wire.
'We don't use paid-for newswires at all. I have never been impressed by marketing speak such as "we'll put your proposition in front of the decision makers",' he says. 'Journalists are not fluffy marketing bunnies; they are hard-nosed professionals in a hurry.
'I have been a journalist for the past 25 years, and I know how to talk to fellow journalists. I would be cautious about using a marketing agency or newswire service to sell-in a story. Journalists know us, and we wouldn't want to use any kind of third party
to get in the way. It weakens the effect,' he adds.
Criticism also comes from other quarters. Although a regular user of paid-for wire services, Elemental PR's Gibbons warns that costs can be high and that it is worth shopping around. Despite declining to give details of how much he pays, Gibbons does reveal that he uses PRWeb more frequently than other newswires because it offers a fixed price irrespective of a release's wordcount.
Elisabeth Lewis Jones, director of Midlands-based PR agency Liquid,
believes 'paid-for wires still make a valuable contribution to the PR industry', especially for the distribution of financial statements. However, Lewis Jones, who is also a Chartered Institute of Public Relations director,concedes that she has never used such services.
'For us, 75 per cent of our work is in the Midlands and therefore it is very targeted. If we wanted something to go global then we have our contacts,' she says. 'There is something more personal about that – we can call the contact, follow a story and monitor it through the process.' She complains that there is something 'anonymous' about using a third-party newswire.
Enthusiasm for the wires
Other PR practitioners are more open to using newswires. Simon Montague is a consultant at Fishburn Hedges and a former BBC News transport correspondent. He says that as a journalist-turned-PRO, he finds newswires' forward-planning list services particularly useful, citing those offered by Future Events News Services and AmiPlan.
'They are extremely useful in alerting journalists and helping them to set their news agenda. As a PRO, and from my time at the BBC, I know that content on forward-planning list services gets seen,' he explains.
But with newswires diversifying, particularly their broadcast capability, to lure PR agencies to their books, could these services present unwanted competition to broadcast PR specialists? Eduardo Castaneda, head of media relations at broadcast consultancy World Television, acknowledges that AP et al are direct rivals to his
firm – through their consultancy offering as well as their core distribution service – but he insists there will always be demand for specialists such as World Television.
'You could call it competition but we offer experience and a dedicated service. With the newswires, consultancy is just one of the things they offer, it is not their main business,' he says.
Castaneda adds that his consultancy is also using technology to enhance its services to PROs, and last year began to offer broadcast-quality footage via the internet, rather than satellite.
World Television also offers an archive service for a number of clients, such as WWF, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Such moves reflect how the modern newswire offers far more to PROs and their clients than the simple distribution of press releases with an unguaranteed promise of coverage.
Dick Bromley, UK and Scandinavian regional manager, Business Wire
'The difficult task for PROs is finding a truly one-stop-shop global newswire service. More than ever, companies now need to communicate with an ever-increasing number of stakeholders on a global basis, including media, investors, suppliers, clients and potential customers.
'In addition to this, staying on top of trends in the PR and IR arenas is a hard task for practitioners. Genuine global newswires make this easier for PROs by developing speciality-based, as well as geographically focused, products.
'These include being able to introduce multimedia components to news releases as well as having the opportunity to communicate with niche audiences. We have recently developed a partnership with CSRwire, which is a testament to this.
'Our clients are now able to communicate directly with journalists and special interest groups on issues which could ultimately have an effect on their reputation.'
Case study: saving the red squirrel
The PR teams at the Northumberland Wildlife Trust – led by communications officer Pamela Dive (left) – and the Forestry Commission have been left in no doubt about the power of newswires. Their campaign to save the UK's red squirrel population received global media attention, including coverage in India, South Africa and across the US.
The two groups are part of the Red Alert North England coalition, which last November launched its North of England Red Squirrel Conservation Strategy, a £1m campaign to preserve the endangered species.
The San Jose Mercury News headline 'Britain trying to save the red squirrel' on 9 November 2005 was typical of coverage, with the US media particularly interested in the reason for the decline of the animal – the introduction to the UK of the American grey in the late 19th century.
Dive says the key to the story's global success was sending a press release about the campaign – with a graphic highlighting the decline of the red squirrel population since 1945 – to The Press Association. 'The priority at first was local media and I always thought it would have national interest, but the influence of the newswire in taking it global really took us by surprise,' she reveals.
'We could also tell that the majority of the coverage around the world came from the PA newswire because for some reason their style was to cap down the W and T of Wildlife Trust, which was repeated in all the copy,' Dive adds.
Richard Darn, the Forestry Commission PRO who sent the release to PA's Newcastle office, says: 'Newswires are absolutely vital. We have our local and national contacts but newswires can take a story a lot further. I've had other stories picked up by a newswire and been called within the hour by a journalist in, say, Los Angeles.'
Dive adds that with the benefit of hindsight, it may have also been worthwhile using a fee-based wire service, rather than solely a news-based one.
But she concedes that such a move would have been too great a financial risk, and one that the charities involved could ill afford.
What's on offer?
Associated Press Launched: 1848
Key facts The world's oldest and largest news agency, employing 3,700 staff in 242 bureaux; it has 330,000 users and claims that news on its feeds reaches one billion people.
Services include Fee and paid-for news release distribution; outside broadcast service called Plug & Play; realtime video capability in prime locations.
Video distribution Yes www.ap.org
PRNewswire Launched: 1954
Key facts Owned by United Business Media, PRNewswire transmits between 700 and 1,000 releases daily via 35 offices, including a base in the UK and 26 outlets in the US. Its media-only website has more than 80,000 registered users.
Services include Wire and online distribution; 460,000-strong database of journalists; measurement and evaluation; online visibility tools; RSS.
Video distribution Yes www.prnewswire.com
Business Wire Launched:1961
Key facts Transmits 1,000 text messages a day in 150 countries using 45 languages; has 24 offices globally, including the UK; news content is available on 4,000 websites and databases.
Services include Distribution via PA in the UK as well as online and through mobile equipment; monitoring and measurement; financial disclosure; trade show services; RSS; CSRwire.
Video distribution Yes www.businesswire.com
Newslink Launched: 1986
Key facts Handles 30,000 news stories daily for a largely UK-based clientele. Services include Wire, online and fax distribution for text and pictures; mobile distribution is apparently in the pipeline.
Video distribution No www.newslink.co.uk
PRWeb Launched: 1997
Key facts Specialises in online distribution to more than 100,000 journalists and uses more than 17,000 advanced RSS feeds.
Services include News release writing
support, search engine visibility, archiving and measurement.
Video distribution Yes www.prweb.com
WebitPR Launched: 2001
Key facts One of the most recent newswires to start up in the UK; specialises in online distribution.
Services include Claims to be the only newswire to offer news release distribution as well as monitoring as an all-in-one service; trade show support and distribution via the Press Association wire.
Video distribution No www.webitpr.com