Online Newsrooms: Building Effective Sites From The Ground Up

How many journalists does it take to navigate through a company's online newsroom? The question isn't a snarky shot at journalists' intelligence or their ability to find their way into or out of a newsroom; rather, it's a call to action for PR executives who fall short in designing cyber media. Online newsrooms are ubiquitous in this age of Internet-dependency, but hidden sand traps and common mistakes committed by PR professionals often make them more of a hindrance than a help to the communities they serve. Disjointed content, difficult-to-navigate pathways and too many bells and whistles all impede the platforms' real raison d'etre: to serve as a resource and act as an interface between the company and its audience. "The biggest problem we see is that online newsrooms are underutilized," says Tim Roberts, president of Wieck Media. "Too many companies have a newsroom of only press releases, but that's not enough." According to Roberts, whose consultancy helps such companies as Southwest Airlines, Michelin North America and Verizon develop and maintain online media centers, the 21st century is all about staying ahead of the game in cyberspace. Mastering multi-media is the linchpin of an online newsroom. "Multi-media is the catalyst for pushing people to visit online news centers," Roberts says. "Think broadcast-quality video, RSS, blog formats -- more social media." His clients are jumping on board. According to Linda Rutherford, VP, public relations and community affairs for Southwest Airlines, "Online newsrooms should offer as many dynamic opportunities as possible, in addition to static offerings like fact sheets." She says her team now uses a digital video library and photo image gallery to achieve this goal. But, beyond including multi-media in the mix, there is the ongoing challenge to develop an effective, sturdy foundation. For this, Roberts points to another trendy concept: integration. "When building an online newsroom, [PR practitioners] must have a very integrated approach," he says. "Right now, too many companies have press releases over here, pictures over there. It's just not effective." What is effective, he says, is ensuring that all necessary elements (see checklist) work together to achieve a balance of information, location and design. To make your sites effective, you need to build them well from the ground up. Following is a list of pointers to take into consideration: Develop a root outline/infrastructure: This needs to be done first. Many PR teams will gather press releases and then build the site out from there, which contributes little to integration; plus, it makes navigation tricky if the searcher is looking for anything other than press releases. Work with the IT department or an outside vendor to realize the layout: The PR team must develop a good relationship with the IT department if the site will be maintained internally, as techies will be responsible for maintenance and upgrades. If an outside vendor will be used, identify one that will take the company's culture into consideration. Avoid the temptation to buy an online newsroom kit off the shelf; these do not accurately reflect brand and identity, and they aren't tailored to meet individual business needs. Add in the information flow with the journalist's point of view in mind: "Journalists shouldn't have to jump through hoops to find what they want," Roberts says. With this in mind, the PR team should take a fully integrated approach while keeping the focus on easy navigation. There should be as few click-thrus as possible for getting to each section, and attention to readability -- font size, background colors -- is key. Start with content and then bring in the designer: Once the basic layout is in place, it's time for the designer to get involved. When there is a rush to make a site look "pretty" before its content is substantive, visual elements can interfere. Consider making the media center site completely separate from the corporate Web site: Another common faux pas in online newsroom construction is the site's relationship to or position within the overall corporate site. Often, they are difficult to track down. Roberts notes that having a separate media site has a number of benefits, including: Giving the media a distinct destination that's all about them; Fewer clicks to find the information of interest; and A simple URL (as opposed to URLs for media centers within corporate Web sites that involve slashes, dashes and numbers). Online media centers can be ideal liaisons between the press and the PR team. The key is building them well and, as Roberts emphasizes, embracing new technologies for the sake of modern functionality. "Let's face it," he says. "The Web is a multi-media, living thing. You have to feed the beast." (This topic will be addressed in the Dec. 12 PR News Webinar. To register, visit Contact: Tim Roberts, 972.392.0888,, Linda Rutherford, 214.792.7733 Online Newsroom Checklist The following checklist contains functions and features that will round out any newsroom to make it as valuable as possible for all relevant constituents. __ Press releases __ Latest news and speeches by executives __ PR team contact information __ Images of executives and board members and their bios available for download __ Low and high-resolution images available for download __ Streaming video in both Windows Media Player and QuickTime __ Downloadable broadcast quality video (B-roll, evergreen corporate video) __ Logo library __ Image and video light box function __ Simultaneous multimedia search capability __ Media-friendly interface design (speed and intuitive ease of navigation) __ E-mail registrations by area of interest __ RSS What To Ask Before You Launch An Online Newsroom: 1. If you decide to build your own site, can your Web team/IT group and/or contractors create a fully functioning multi-media-capable site that is intuitive, fast and media- friendly for time-starved journalists? 2. To become a reliable resource to your media, your online newsroom site needs to be updated daily -- sometimes hourly. Does your team have the time and inclination to do this? 3. Whether building your own site or purchasing an out-of-the-box solution, do you or your team know how to digitize video and properly caption and tag images for enhanced search functionality? 4. How important is streaming video and offering broadcast quality video downloads from your site? If it is very important, how comfortable is your IT department with hosting bandwidth-intensive images and video on its network? 5. Given that consumers are increasingly viewing corporate newsrooms, how will your corporate branding be communicated in an off-the-shelf newsroom product? 6. What kind of registration process will you require for media to access and download information and assets from your newsroom site? 7. If you're in a time crunch and need to upload or remove critical media information on the site, how responsive will your IT team be when its primary objective is to maintain the stability and security of the corporate network? 8. In the event of a crisis or positive news event, your corporate Web site will be hit hard by consumers. In addition, your online newsroom will be the first place journalists go to find information. To prevent shutting down either site, what steps will your IT team take? 9. If you plan on implementing multiple new media channels like blogs, podcasts, Webcasts, RSS and e-mail subscriptions on your site, do you have a plan for efficiently maximizing the use of all available visual media assets?

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