WebBusiness: virtual press box

I was writing an article recently and wanted to make a statement about how the worlds of banking and insurance were soon to lose market share to Intuit (www.intuit.com), an adolescent software company. I wanted to be sure Intuit was at least in its teens.

From the Intuit home page I clicked on Company and quickly found the answer after checking out the Company History link: Intuit was founded by Scott Cook and Tom Proulx in 1983. But something brought me back to the company page. Yes, it had the usual content -- the latest about beta testing, available job opportunities, how to buy products and so on. But Intuit also had a section entitled Press Room.

Creating a press kit online requires some careful planning. Members of the press are a diverse group with wide-ranging areas of interest. As a result, online press areas need to cater to the various constituencies by providing relevant information to journalists of all stripes. That's not to say that press kits on the Web will quell the questions of every inquiring reporter. After all, reporting consists of more than downloading paragraphs verbatim from press releases. But reporters need factual information about executives, products and financial conditions. Press sections of Web sites are useful not only for providing such information to journalists, but they could save PR people from personally handling routine questions. In many cases, there's no reason why a PR person needs to answer every inquiry about the CEO's professional background or the date of the most recent merger agreement. Why not put that information on the Web and make it easy for journalists to find?

What does Intuit offer beyond the usual? The Virtual Press Kit link for the company's Quicken financial software, accessible by choosing from either the section Quicken for Windows or Quicken for Macs under the Quicken link, contains such gems as the Fast Fact Sheet. This section contains succinct descriptions of the Quicken software family.

In classic ask-the-customer-what-they-want style, PR Specialist Stacy Wilkinson and her team interviewed the interviewers to find out what kind of information journalists wanted most on the site. "Everybody liked what we had in mind, but they all wanted us to post screen shots on our site," she recalls. Now, Intuit offers photographs of product boxes and screen shots of the software in action. "Instead of writers trying to explain to their art departments exactly which screens they wanted in the article, they could just e-mail them the URL of the shot we had taken," Wilkinson says.

To really understand the difference between treating editors well and treating them as an afterthought, one need only compare the reception a writer gets at National Semiconductor (www. national.com) versus at Motorola (www.mot.com).

It's obvious that the people at National Semiconductor know what life on the job is like for journalists. That's why National Semiconductor offers a page of Links to Articles About Us in the online press room. Why does an editor want to see what others have written? Because nobody wants to quote the same sources, parrot the same statistics or make the same points in the same way. More to the point, good reporters want to learn as much as they can about a company.

It's nice that National Semiconductor lists news releases by date going back to 1995. But that's not helpful to an editor who is looking for the date (Feb. 2, 1996) Gilbert F. Amelio resigned to head up Apple Computer. At the News Release Search Engine link on the site, editors can enter key words and get a list of matching documents quickly. The page also includes three other search tools to make different technical queries by entering such terms as part numbers, product categories and application notes.

Finally, National Semiconductor's PR Contacts page lists almost a dozen people according to their area of expertise with phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Editors seeking contacts for diverse areas such as community relations, future technologies, financial information and the Asia-Pacific region can quickly find the right people as well as the means to get in touch with them.

I won't go so far as to say that the Motorola site is incomplete. There's a lot of information there. For example, the archive of press releases contains documents dating back to January 1993 that are searchable with an Excite for Web Servers engine. It's just that the information is laid out the way Motorola wants to present it without much thought as to how different users might try to access it. And unlike Intuit's site, there's no designated area just for the press. Editors looking for specific information can click on the Inside Motorola link from the home page. From that point, there are numerous links to relevant information including Investor Relations, Timeline or Facts '98. Any guesses as to what information can be found on the Timeline page versus the Facts '98 page? While the information is there, it's not organized in a way that's both intuitive and quick for journalists who are staring down a deadline.

Having a journalist-friendly Web site won't guarantee good press, nor will it satisfy all the reporting needs of the pros. But providing information about your company and its products online where journalists can find it quickly and easily is a good investment of PR resources. If nothing else, such pages will go a long way to ensure that the press has ready access to accurate, basic facts about your company.

(Jim Sterne is the author of What Makes People Click: Advertising on the Internet. He can be reached at jsterne@targeting.com.)

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