How to make sure the press gets to your side of the story

Company press offices are too unaware to take advantage of how the web is changing the way their principal customers – journalists – go about their work.

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Journalists tend to be a conservative lot, but even they have noticed that the easiest way of finding information is on the worldwide web. So it must make sense for companies and other organisations to try to turn the medium to their advantage. I have spent much time recently poring over corporate websites – and am struck by how few of them are doing this well.
It is not that press offices are unaware of the internet – they are all too keen on sending out e-mail releases that get deleted en masse – but few of them realise that it is changing the way journalists go about their business. They could influence this change to their benefit; but there are few signs of that happening yet.

Three uses of the web

I asked a journalist friend what he uses the web for. Three things, he said: fact-checking, locating contact numbers and “anything else we can find on Google”.
Most journalists will not start at the company home page, they will start at Google – the company site is just one of the links they may or may not click. Nor are they likely to make a great distinction between company and non-company sites: as the saying goes, ‘it must be true, it’s on the internet’.
Apart from making the obvious point that it is crucial that your company features near the top of Google (which should not be rocket science), how do you make your site stand out against the others? Say you have been in the news recently. What will journalists type in to find you? If you are Jarvis, the UK Private Finance Initiative specialist that has been hitting the headlines this week, they may well try ‘jarvis pfi’. I did, and found a list of negative stories from various media outlets, as well as a chirpy Jarvis press release from 2000.
I know Jarvis press people have had other things on their minds, but in an ideal world they would have got a briefing note up on the web. Yukos’s lot certainly would have done: it is clear they regard their site as a major weapon in their battle with the Kremlin. I typed ‘Yukos’ into Google, and its site popped up at number one. Moreover, the home page has a mass of links to material supporting its case: details of taxes it has paid, a conference call by the CFO and, most intriguing, a half-hour video putting its case. Journalists should be well briefed before they put through that call to Russia.

Meeting day-to-day demands

But this is not just about crisis management; it is about the way companies use the web in normal times. Investor relations teams are used to publishing statements first on the web: it is a way of getting them around the world simultaneously. Press offices haven’t got there yet, my friend says. If they have something to say, they prepare a release and send it to a handful of chosen journalists. Then, maybe, it goes on the web. Very gentlemanly, but not fitting the way the press is coming to work: if a story breaks in the morning, journalists should be able to log on when they come into the office and find a home page link to good briefing material. Bad news for the press person who likes to linger over breakfast, but necessary.
It is impossible to stop journalists looking at other sites that cover your company. These may well be helpful – the first ‘sponsored link’ when ‘Yukos’ is tapped into Google is for a site ( backing the company’s jailed chairman. But eventually the journalists will make their way to your site, if only to get the press office phone number. Make sure they can find it. Do not do as the World Health Organization does, tucking the link to the media area a couple of feet down the home page, and providing a single phone number and e-mail address. Do rather what ExxonMobil does: provide a clear link to the news area, then give detailed contacts for business and country press officers.

The gift of time

You will also make your company popular with journalists by saving them time. Smith & Nephew’s media resources (in the News section) hits the button. A compact menu of background information includes a corporate profile, main financial and corporate social responsibility (CSR) documents and directors’ biographies. They can be read as web pages, or downloaded in PDF format, printed out and read in the canteen. Sadly, most groups are more like Barclays: its News Room has press releases, a list of press officers with no contact details and – that’s it. It is possible to find more about the company by clicking around the site, but convenient it isn’t. I am not picking on Barclays – it is typical of far too many companies and like them needs to get up to date. Catching up with the technical needs of journalists can’t be that hard, can it?

First published 14 July, 2004
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