Tips, Dos and Don’ts for On-Line Newsrooms

By Henry Griggs, CCMC Co-Founder and now Independent Media Consultant, March 2015

Key features of any nonprofit group’s website are the gateway and content used to serve the needs of working journalists. These elements may seem straightforward enough, but getting them right actually poses some interesting questions.

There has always been considerable overlap between things that interest the news media and things that interest the general public. Each group must consider its own tailored design that will 1) invite both audiences to learn more, but 2) steer reporters and producers in one direction, while general traffic moves in another.

One way to start thinking about this issue is to examine the websites of a number of relevant organizations that are well regarded for effective outreach to the news media. As part of our survey of best practice, we reviewed various tip sheets, newsletters, and other sources, and interviewed several highly placed editors and reporters for their insights.

What follows is a review of some basic principles of web design for attracting and building interest in your work among journalists, along with specific recommendations about implementing that design. We also offer some cases studies that include a range of features that in some cases might be applicable to your organization. Other cases illustrate the kind of detours that needlessly complicate access to an otherwise useful media room.

Key elements of successful media center design

    1. Include the media/press center button on your home page. It should be as prominent as the other main buttons. Assuming that one of your priorities is to raise awareness of the issues, media coverage will be a prized commodity to your partners and donors. The button should have a drop-down capacity, and it is best to keep the list to 6 to 8 options. Reporters should be one click away from critical contact information and other relevant sections such as a press kit, FAQs, news stories, press releases, free photos and videos clips, etc.
    2. Design the media center for the widest range of journalists: This means the widest possible skill levels and access to technology. Think of your journalist audiences as both those who regularly use digital and social media, likely younger reporters, and of those who have less on-line abilities, likely older, more senior reporters, and those in countries with slower internet bandwidth without capacity to download large files in a timely manner (this includes parts of the United States.)
    3. The #1 item on all lists from reporters is 24/7 contact information for your press officers so that live interaction can take place in the shortest time possible. But not all groups have a large staff. So the #2 item journalists look for is good background information on spokespeople including a short bio, longer background information, photos and, when they are available, really good examples of short broadcast interviews. These latter features make it possible for journalists to do basic research and get relevant data and quotes even without access to a live person.
    4. Personal stories are key. For most journalists and the vast bulk of their audiences, personal stories are essential to animating interest in your work. In a desert of data, personal anecdotes and narrative, especially those that include an element of conflict, are a cool oasis. But it’s also important to ensure that those stories are both verifiable and sympathetic to general audiences.

With those essential elements in mind, a number of other questions crop up.

What to Call it? How to Format it?

At some point, the question will arise of what to call the media room/press room/media center.

The term ”press room” remains useful, and is certainly recognizable to most working journalists today. But it also has a connotation of being a legacy term, used largely by well-established groups that gained prominence at a time when coverage in elite print publications was by far the most sought-after media outcome.

There are alternative terms that should appeal to a generation of journalists who were reared on social media and smart phones and for whom the print format is quaint. The alternative terms include tabs listed as News and Media; Media Room; and Media Center. This last name finds favor in several case studies examined below.

Once a name is chosen, there is the challenge for formatting the flow of incoming queries so that working journalists are handled in a way different from the general public, including donors and advocates. All audiences are interested in compelling stories, backed up with a good graphic sense, reliable data and memorable quotes. But only journalists should expect access to top spokespeople on a priority basis.

At the same time, responsiveness to journalist queries generated by the media center is vital. Journalists require contacts, often on very short notice, to answer questions, arrange interviews, seek help cutting through to key information, provide fresh quotes and data, and otherwise fulfill the expectations brought about by the 24/7 news reporting environment.

These contacts will always include communications staff and often include key spokespeople. A small organization is not expected to run a 24-hour operation. However, an excellent way to build healthy working relationships with journalists is by being highly responsive within established working hours and within a working day of receiving requests off-hours.

What Should the Content be?

Some of the content of a Media Center (or whatever you decide to call it) will be more or less static, needing only occasional refreshing. Other elements will be continually changing.

Static Content

The Media Center should contain static material in the form of a basic online press kit that includes printed, graphic, audio and video materials.(The term “static” is something of a misnomer because, like all content on the website, this content should be updated as needed to reflect developments.)

This kit should include the kind of material still to be found in a printed press kit: news releases, current and past; transcripts or full text of statements; photos of key personnel and other graphically useful content like charts, cartoons, graphs, info-graphics and photos of the issues (all should be without copyright restrictions); a shorthistory of the organization, along with biographies of key or featured personnel; and acontact directory of both media relations staff and experts, searchable by name and area of specialization.

Generally speaking, the list of experts should not include direct contact information; inquiries should be directed first to media staff.

Recent coverageof your group should be easily found and searchable in the Media Center. Stock photos and images of recent events should be available in high-, medium- and low-resolution formats, and guidelines for reproducing them and other static content should be clearly spelled out.

Other useful static elements of the Media Center are fact sheets and background paperson key issues. A listing of awards and other forms of recognition of the group’s work may also help round out a journalist’s understanding of the work of your group.

Many groups working in specialized fields or with vulnerable populations will include aglossary of terminology and a style sheet in the Media Center that steers journalists away from outdated language (e.g., “disabled people” versus “people with disabilities;” or “population control” versus “population stabilization”) and toward current preferred usage.

If there are events scheduled, such as personal appearances, conferences or reports, a calendar will help journalists plan their coverage. This is one aspect of the online Media Center that must be kept perfectly up-to-date. The first time a journalist encounters an outdated event listing may be the last time she visits the site.

Unlike a printed press kit, and online press kit can include audio and video clips of various lengths that can be downloaded and reproduced. The content should be refreshed regularly, and be accompanied by clear guidelines for downloading and publication elsewhere.

Interactive features – e.g., maps that pop up information as the cursor moves over them – an increasingly popular way to communicate detailed information that is tailored to specific national or geographic needs.

Just as the home page should link directly, if not always prominently to the Media Center, so the Media Center should always point back to the key features of the home page and other top pages.

Changing Content

The static elements of a Media Center are necessary to effective communications, but they are hardly sufficient. Any Media Center should include features that bring the latest information to the forefront constantly. Fortunately, the tools of web design make this work easier than ever.

For instance, a Media Center might include links to one of more blogs that are regularly updated, at least during normal business hours. Another approach is to carry a stream of headlines from a news service, filtered to address the anticipated interests of the web audience.

Similarly, a Media Center should allow journalists and others to sign up for automaticMedia Center updates so that they can get instant notification of news and developments whether or not they have their browsers open to your group’s website.

You should encourage reporters to sign-up for your Twitter feeds for more regular information and follow your group on Facebook.

Case Studies

Below are several illustrated case studies of effective Media Centers along with some commentary about how they differ and what makes them effective for their audiences.

Amnesty International’s Media Centre button on the home page (and throughout the site) is easy to ignore unless you’re looking for it, tucked up on the upper right corner. Once it is found, it lead to a section called NEWS on the home page that highlights news stories and AI in the news. The AI Media Centre “provides media professionals with access to breaking news, expert comment and important information about human rights issues around the world.” Press releases, keys facts, Fads and Media Contacts are all prominent on this page, while a pull-down menu allows the browser to visit specific country reports.

http://www.amnesty.org

CARE International: Note the PRESS button is clearly on the home page with a simple pull down of six options. This one follows all of the key rules – and makes it easy for reporters to get what they need. As compared with the CARE.org website – the CARE International site is much better for journalists. CARE.org has a hard-to-navigate newsroom, without a pull-down from the Home Page for reporters to get what they need. It is worth a look at both sites to see the difference.

http://www.care-international.org

The International Rescue Committee has a tab at the top of its home page called “News and Media.” Mousing over that tab opens a drop-down menu on which the eighth selection is “Media Center.” (This tab could have been better called For Journalists or For Reporters.) Opening that page reveals a section of News, Photos & Video that in turn contains recent press releases and multimedia, immediately followed by a list of media contacts and their specialties. That list appears below the screen capture. Again, this one is a little hard to find.

IRC’s approach is a simple but subtle way of exposing a general audience to news and media offerings while steering working journalists to key “top-line” information tailored for their work needs. It falls a bit short, however, to the needs of journalists with too many clicks to get to critical contacts and making it rather busy and difficult to find information if on a deadline.

http://www.rescue.org

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is both a news-making organization in its own right and a clearinghouse for news and information for its hundreds of constituent groups. It brings together more than 100 groups from around the United States. The site successfully addresses the needs of both audiences. LCCR explicitly lists its Press Room on the home page. Clicking that tab takes the viewer to a listing of recent press releases, directly below which is a single media contact. There are links on the side of the Press Room page for a press release library, a calendar of events, photos, the site’s “About Us feature,” and a listing of staff with bios.

http://www.civilrights.org

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a direct link from its home page to the Press Room. CBPP is noted for timely, careful analysis of tax and budget proposals updated on a daily basis. The CEO’s photo and most recent statement appear along with photos of all three media staffers, one of whom lists an After Hours phone number. The group produces primers on key issues before Congress and state governments to provide context for its numerous reports. Recent TV coverage is prominent, as is the sign-up box for e-mail alerts. This is a good clean design and easy to navigate – reporters give it high marks.

http://www.cbpp.org

The American Cancer Society has a clean, very easy to use and welcoming press room. The problem lies in finding it on the home page. One the reader is there, however, the layout is easy to use, with an opening video and all of the relevant information needed for a reporter to do a story. It makes for an interesting model.

http://pressroom.cancer.org

Here are several resources that all have slightly different takes on what is outlined above:

Six on-line media room essentials:

http://www.30minutepr.com/6-online-media-room-essentials-reporters-want-to-see/

PR Newswire Tips based on surveys with reporters:

http://www.prnewswire.com/knowledge-center/online-public-relations/Online-Newsroom-Best-Practices.html