Designing Web Sites to Maximize Press Relations

Would you like to know how to design corporate Web sites that are usable for journalists and also deliver the company’s desired message? Of course you would, but it seems most PR professionals need remedial education in the art of Web site usability design.

PR pros either have too little input into their employers’ or clients’ Web site pressroom designs or don’t sufficiently understand the needs of journalists. “Most PR sections fail to support journalists in their quest for facts, information, and points of contact that they can use when they write stories about companies or their products,” reported a March study, “Designing Websites to Maximize Press Relations,” by Kara Pernice Coyne and Jakob Nielsen, of the Nielsen Norman Group, Fremont, CA.

According to the study, which is reinforced by the recent Middleberg/Ross Survey of Media in the Wired World, there is a “pressing need for PR practitioners to put sound, timely information on the Web.” Well, who woulda thunk it? We’re still dealing with information as our primary medium of exchange.

A Web-Age Journalist’s First Stop

We’ve finally, in 2001, arrived in the digital age in which most journalists turn to the Web first for basic corporate information. About half begin by visiting a target company’s Web site; the rest turn to search engines, like Google, or, if well funded, to Dow Jones Interactive or Lexis-Nexis. This finding demonstrates the necessity of a clean corporate Web site with a clearly labeled Press or PR section that quickly satisfies journalists’ basic needs.

Of particular note is the importance of solid representation in external search engines and databases. Run a test yourself. Try Google. Key in the name of a client, company, or executive and see what kind of digital trail appears. The increasingly interlinked, archival nature of the World Wide Web is fast transforming it into a 21st-century Library of Alexandria where the world’s knowledge can be retrieved in minutes by a savvy searcher with a DSL connection.

The Nielsen Norman Group study sent 20 journalists to 10 major corporate Web sites (obviously not a projectable sample) to gather basic information for hypothetical stories. So what does a reporter want from that initial Web site contact? Let me recount the ways:

  1. Find a PR contact. (Oh my, a name and telephone numbers!)

  2. Check basic facts, spellings, ages of executives, location of headquarters, etc.
  3. Discover the company’s spin on events.
  4. Download images to illustrate stories.

This material should be easy to find (no passwords or registration, please) and should be cleansed of corporatese. In other words, just the facts, ma’am.

The researchers found a task success rate of 60 percent, which they consider reasonably good compared with those of e-commerce sites, which average a success rate of 56 percent for shopping tasks. And success rates below 50 percent are the norm today, according to many Web usability studies.

But turn it around, and one has a 40 percent failure rate, something no PR department can countenance. “Even worse, our study revealed the lowest success rate for the most critical of all the tasks: finding the telephone number of a PR contact.” (Phone numbers were listed for only 55 percent of the sites.) Surely, we all have several phones with multiple lines, and dedicating one line to a Web phone number is not too much to ask for.

Design Guidelines: Some Recommendations

OK, that’s the bad news, but what can we do to improve things? The Nielsen Norman Group Study offers 32 design guidelines (most of them obvious, they claim) that will improve the usability of a corporate Web site’s PR area.

  1. Start with an internal audit, taking a hard look at your site while bearing in mind the report’s guidelines (more than we can review here, sorry).

  2. Take another hard look at your Web site’s (or your client’s) online PR information section to see how well it supports the four basic needs. Will a journalist, working on deadline, find the answers on your site?
  3. Consider conducting your own usability survey with friendly reporters. This will probably be an eye-opener.

Methodology

The Nielsen study tested the PR sections of 10 corporate Web sites, all of which demonstrated significant usability shortcomings. “At some point in every single test session, journalists said that they would have to leave the site because it failed to deliver what they needed.”

See for yourself. The sites tested were:

Good luck to you. And remember, if journalists do not find what they need on your Web site, “they may exclude or limit information about your company in their story.” We obviously have a lot of work ahead of us.

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