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Make it easy for journalists to find information in your website

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

Traditional media relations activity has consisted of a ‘push’ approach to providing information to the media. The Internet provides a ‘pull’ approach in which a journalist obtains information from your website only when they want it.

Many journalists now accept the Web for use as a basic research tool. They start their research on your organization by accessing your website directly. Others start their research by using a search engine such as Google. This creates a need for you to ensure you have optimized your site for the major search engines.

The journalists’ search is helped immensely when your website has a clearly labeled media section that can provide answers. Their job is also helped when you have an easily found “About us” section on your home page.

The top five reasons journalists give for visiting an organization’s website are to:

  • find a PR contact (name and telephone number);

  • check basic facts about the organization (eg spelling the name of the CEO, checking where head office is located, etc);

  • discover the organization’s version of events;

  • check financial information;
    download images to use as illustrations in stories

Organizations spend a lot of money on websites, but unfortunately, the media sections of websites often fail to provide the most basic information for media use. The media area of the website needs to be simple, clean and free of the excessive puffery found on many websites.

The media area should obviously contain current and recent (within the past 12 months) news releases with a searchable archive facility of earlier releases. It can contain the full text, in HTML format, of recent speeches by the chairman or CEO, with an option to access sound bites of the speech highlights. It can contain copies of formal reportage such as annual and half-yearly reports to the stock exchange, the environmental protection authority and other government bodies.

Routine information should be readily accessible in the media area. For instance, details on the background of top management, with their high-quality photographs, can be included in online media kits. Copies of your organizational structure and policies may be included. A corporate calendar of events may be available. Links can be established to photographs of products.

A diligently maintained media area may also contain other value-adding information such as story ideas, file footage of your organization’s operations and perhaps some organizational case studies.

Journalists don’t take an organization’s own word as truth. They access media releases mainly to see how the organization is trying to position itself. The credibility of the organization improves when the media area of the website contains links to external sources, including media coverage, since articles from third party sources such as newspapers, magazines and television coverage are more credible than the organization’s own information output.

Journalists usually work to tight deadlines. They need fast answers and don’t want to wait for irrelevant downloads cluttered up by irrelevant pretty pictures and fancy designs. Many journalists work freelance and/or from home where some have slow dial-up connections. Some also have old computer equipment and software. Non-standard data formats like Flash and Quicktime tend to clog up their Internet connections. The simpler the format, the better.

When they are up against deadlines, journalists don’t want to wade through red tape to reach someone in the media relations area of your corporate website. They don’t want to register their details in order to read a media release; they just want to scan a release quickly to see if it contains anything worth using. And they don’t want to be forced to email questions to generic email addresses such as ‘corporate.communications@nokia.com’ when they need a fast response. Often there is no telephone number given, either.

Websites also need to take the universal nature of the World Wide Web into account. For instance, it is customary in the United States to write a date in the sequence of month, day and year. However, in many other countries it is customary to write the day, month and year. This may seem trivial, but some journalists’ have ignored certain media releases because they assumed the information contained was out of date. As an example, 3.10.2006 is seven months different from 10.3.2006.

Similarly, Web pages in US sites are generally American Quarto in size (279 x 216 mm); in Europe and Australia pages are A4 in size (297 x 210 mm). This makes printing a Web page problematic unless the pages are ‘printer friendly’. The last thing a journalist needs when under deadline pressure is to find that the print area has bled off the side of the page and some words or numbers have been lost from view. This happens when the wider US Web page is printed in a country where the size of printed pages is A4.

If journalists can’t find what they are looking for on your website, it is likely they will reduce or eliminate information about your organization in their article. The ability to find information on the site will also affect their impression of the site and therefore their attitude towards your organization.

Research by Web usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, found that journalists who participated in a usability study could only find 60% of basic information on the corporate websites of internationally known companies! Among other tasks, the journalists tried to find basic information about each company’s financial statements, management, commitment to social responsibility and PR telephone number. These were professional journalists, skilled at finding information and skilled at using the Web.

Another alarming way to look at the result is to consider that 40% of the information couldn’t be found. Leaving 40% of media enquiries unanswered should be a crime for any PR department.

What’s worse, the journalists in the test could find a PR telephone number only 55% of the time. Although a website can answer many basic questions for journalists, they still invariably want to talk to a live person as well.

The way to fix these problems:

  1. Conduct an audit of your website to see how easy it is to navigate.

  2. Check your website PR information, especially your online newsroom if you have one, to determine how well it supports journalists’ tasks.

  3. Consider conducting your own usability testing. Ask reporters who cover your industry to visit your site to find standard information.

The effectiveness of your online media relations activities may be measured by the number of visits to your newsroom and by the number of journalists who have given their email addresses to you for receiving news releases and other information.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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