What to do with the poor old media section

The exploding complexity of the media world has left the Cinderella of website sections behind, says David Bowen.

Who do corporate websites serve the best? One way to tell is to look at the Bowen Craggs Index, which is based on a ‘user-centred’ approach. Our reviewers put themselves into the heads of different groups, and see how well they are served: the scores come out of that process.

I’ve extracted averages for each of ‘serving’ metrics in the Database from our top 30 list – that is, the best online communicators among large companies - and have found intriguing differences. The best served group belongs to what we call ‘society’ – a combination of CSR professionals and broader groups interested in the company's behaviour (reputation management would be another way of putting it). They score 24.4 out of 32 on average. Then come investors and jobseekers on 23.1 each, and customers on 22.4.

Bringing up the rear is ‘serving the media’, on a distinctly unimpressive 20.6. If this were a school exam, the media section gets 64 per cent while 'society' gets 76. I’ve done similar sums over the years, and the results are always similar. The media section is too often the Cinderella, and it shows: press releases poorly organized, background information thin, image libraries weak. But journalists are a key to that other thing companies are so good at, reputation management. What’s going on?

It’s surely because the nature of news has been transformed by the internet, but few companies have got their heads round what this really means for them. That, as with so many things, is reflected in their websites: press offices don’t really know what they should be doing, so their web outlets suffer from a lack of clear purpose. 

Traditionally, press officers have concentrated on cultivating a small number of influential journalists with well tried techniques (such as lunch). Many still prefer to do this and it probably still returns maximum results for a set amount of effort. They may have expanded their group of influencers to bloggers or tweeters, but either way the website is not terribly relevant. They do not spend much time helping to get the basics of the media section working smoothly, and it shows.

But I would be libelling them terribly if I claimed they were not very aware of the changes the internet has wrought on their profession. Two changes in particular: the blurring of what a ‘journalist’ is, and the multiple earthquakes caused by social media.

What is a journalist? Is it still a person paid by a publisher to produce words? Does it now include influential bloggers and tweeters? Is it anyone who blogs and tweets? Is it anyone who reads blogs and tweets, and passes them on? Is it everyone (‘there are seven billion journalists’ was once a fashionable line)?  Bringing this back to the press officers - who is it their job to influence?

Every organization has tried to understand social media, and there are signs that some corporations are cracking it: grasping that it is not one thing but many is a key to this, as is getting its huge role of reputation management. But who is in charge of it? Marketing and customer service people jumped on it first; press people leapt at it too, but too often grabbed what they could without asking the simple journalistic questions: why and how? 'Social media dashboards’ appeared, embedded Twitter feeds are still appearing; but I wonder who is using these, and how. Were I still a journalist I would have my own dashboard like Hootsuite, and I’d set it up to follow the people and subjects I needed. I don't think I'd spend too much time looking at social media on corporate sites.

So maybe the targets are broader groups: if not the seven billion, then a congregation of journalists, bloggers, tweeters, ‘concerned consumers’, jobseekers, NGO people, politicians, regulators and so on. This would explain two linked trends. First there is a fashion for giving the old press section a name that is more inclusive: ‘News and features’, News and Insights’ for example. Second, some sites do not provide just the raw material from a which a journalist can start crafting a piece (which is what a press release is), but provide full-formed pieces. ‘The press release is dead’, the head of Coca-Cola’s site declared a few years ago – what he meant was, you don’t need to read a story repackaged by journalists when you can get it beautifully written straight from us. A useful way of thinking of this is wholesale versus retail: with wholesale you give journalists the basic product and let them do it up and sell it in their own shop; with retail you provide perfectly packaged products direct to the consumer. 

Given all these different things, it is hardly surprising that so many media sections are a bit of muddle. The answer, I think, is to untangle them: to straighten out the intertwined strands of spaghetti and lay them neatly next to each other. This can be done, but it requires a change of thinking within the company – as ever it’s about management, not technology.

Here are my suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that ‘traditional’ journalists (perhaps boosted by a few influential bloggers) are not only the most important single group to target, but that they need to be served in a specific way. Keep a traditional press section but make it really useful for these people. Let them check names and dates easily in fully-searchable archive of press releases; give them background material or link to useful pages around your web estate. Maybe management speeches should be here. Include a decent image library. Most important, give them good contacts so that can get in touch at any time of day or night.
  • Acknowledge too that a much broader audience wants to know about your company – our online surveys show surprising numbers of non-journalists saying they are looking for ‘news’. Give it to them in the form of features, soft news articles, interviews – in text, video, audio, graphics, whatever. This is of course what many companies are already doing with online magazines, and they’re doing it well (some, like Coca Cola Journey and the late-departed SAB Miller site, pretty much are magazines with a few bits added).
  • But - and this is the key - separate the two clearly. Getting labels right is crucial. Use a word that says ‘this is for professional journalists’ on the press section – call it press or media. Be even more explicit by calling it ‘For journalists’ (I like this). Don’t include the word ‘news’. The more general material will need a home, and that can be tailored according to need. GSK’s Behind the science is what it says it is; so is Goldman Sachs Our thinking. If it’s a magazine, call it that, as Bayer does.
  • Corporate social media needs to be treated carefully – divided into its different channels, and managed primarily by the same people who run the corporate website. Press officers may be involved, of course, and may even run channels – but only if they understand exactly why they are doing it, and who their audiences are.

What management changes will this need? Well, the press office will run the ‘professional’ bit (along with the digital team of course). Should it also run the softer channels? If not, who will? Who will manage social media? Are press offices as they exist now 'fit for purpose'? Should they be rebranded as reputation management departments?  Do you need a press office at all … the questions have a habit of snowballing. But they need to be answered, or the none of the audiences will be as well served as they should be and corporate websites will continue to underperform badly in our ‘serving the media’ metric.

David Bowen