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Net PR taking over traditional media relations

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"We expect the Internet to become the main tool of our trade within the next five years." Press relations is usually the last thing companies consider when crafting their interactive strategies. But that is changing as more companies free up scarce Web dollars for a new type of business-to-business site: Online news bureaus.

Ranging from spartan text to sophisticated database-driven sites, online news bureaus are already delivering returns to their investors. General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Nissan Motor Corp. USA and Bell Atlantic Corp., for example, all claim to be sending out fewer press kits and receiving fewer phone inquiries as a result of efforts to divert media from the phone to the Web.

They also cite the ability to respond to "impossible" media requests and update press materials quickly and cheaply.

"We expect the Internet to become the main tool of our trade within the next five years, relegating faxes to the status of eight-track tapes," says Jeff Gluck, Web master of Bell Atlantic's News Center and staff manager of media relations.

But, he adds, "it will never replace face-to-face meetings, which is the best way to communicate in our business."

Slashing the high cost of PR

Indeed, such standalone sites are slashing the high cost of public relations by providing the most requested information -- news releases, new product information, media kits, executive biographies, digitized photos, contact names and numbers, executive speeches and regulatory filings -- online, in one easy-to-access area.

Bell Atlantic, for one, cut distribution of its printed press kits by 50% this year by posting a digital version on its award-winning site.

Automakers, however, have been the biggest beneficiaries of online news bureaus to date; they routinely distribute 150-page, photograph-intensive press binders to 2,000 or more journalists, at an average cost of $200 per piece. It's not surprising then, that General Motors saved handsomely this year by posting Chevrolet's press kit at GM Media Online. And, rather than trash the entire piece after post-publication spec changes from Chevy meant corrections to 100 different pages, GM simply updated its online version.

Other carmakers have experienced similar benefits. By allowing journalists to download reproduction-quality photographs from their sites, Ford and Nissan have saved on the cost of processing, printing and expediting glossies of new car models, which can average $25 per media request.

Reducing costs

"We've had over 900 photo downloads this year," says John Emmert, communications technology manager for public affairs, Ford.

In addition to reducing costs, corporate managers claim these sites allow them to better serve their all-important media customers -- and those located overseas. The most bleeding-edge versions let journalists push information directly to their e-mail boxes, tap streaming audio/video clips of executive speeches, or witness live events they might not have the time or budget to attend. Bell Atlantic's News Made to Order even allows users to customize the site with their own filters.

But as an ancillary corporate service, online news bureaus are not cheap. Costs start at $40,000 for the basic information site -- a press release library and archive, a database of passwords, an e-mail service that notifies journalists each time site content has changed, and general design and production.

Setup expenses

"That cost can top six figures for more interactive, multimedia operations," says Steve Klinenberg, general manager, Digital Facades, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based developer that created Nissan's bureau. That doesn't include the ongoing cost of hosting and maintenance, which could run as much as $50,000 annually.

Nevertheless, many companies have recognized the long-range potential of such sites. "We've gone into this with the agreement that the news center will take three to five years to pay back," says Len Marsico, GM's director of communications technology. "But with the cost of producing media kits at $100 to $150 per piece, and a distribution list of 2,000 journalists, it has great potential."

The key to achieving a return on investment, however, is getting journalists to register -- and use -- the site. "Now, for every media call, our standard reply is `Have you been to our Web site yet?' " says Bell Atlantic's Mr. Gluck.

This kind of persistence has helped the phone company sign up 2,000 people to whom it regularly distributes company information. Of these, 800 are media and the rest are regulators, analysts and industry pundits.

Monitoring usage

Unlike Bell Atlantic, which is open to the general public, many sites are password-protected to monitor usage and protect digital photo assets or embargoed information. Such gatekeeping, however, hasn't deterred users, who may wait up to two days to receive their IDs and passwords by e-mail.

At the GM site, 1,500 out of 2,000 media contacts are currently registered, each spending an average 12 minutes per visit there.

Despite the many advantages of online newsrooms, some companies are still reluctant to go paperless just yet. Nissan, for one, is waiting for greater media acceptance of the Internet before cutting back its print run.

"People are still more comfortable having a hard copy in their hands," says Bill Garlin, corporate manager of product technology and public relations. "It's actually costing us more now because we're doing both."

Jumping on the bandwagon

Companies are also holding back on hiring staff for these news bureaus. Most are accomplishing the task with the help of authoring tools and templates supplied by their Web developers, as well as existing communications staffs and some free-lancers.

"We have one person, that's it," says Ford's Mr. Emmert. "We're looking to other departments and marketing divisions to maintain their own information."

But ultimately, companies are jumping on the bandwagon to maintain their competitive edge. "It was the thing to do in our industry," says Mr. Emmert. "To not be there would have been a mistake."

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