As published in Public Relations Society of America PR Tactics, March 2008

By Steve Momorella and Ibrey Woodall

 

With excitement surrounding the 2008 presidential election, we thought it would be interesting and educational to see how the candidates are using their Web sites, more specifically their online newsrooms, to deliver messages. We decided to focus on four of the presidential candidates for this project: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), http://www.hillaryclinton.com; Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), http://www.barackobama.com; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), http://www.mittromney.com, who dropped out of the race on Feb. 7; and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), http://www.johnmccain.com.

 

Through our Online Newsroom Survey, we’ve learned that journalists expect an online newsroom to have specific elements, including press releases, photographs, biographies, speeches in audio or video format, fact sheets, and a searchable archive. Our goal was to see which of these tools and features candidates are using to provide real-time information to mainstream media and the general public.

 

We organized the lessons we’ve learned through our research of online newsrooms into five major categories - Lesson 1: General, Lesson 2: Features, Lesson 3: Social Media, Lesson 4: Tools and Lesson 5: Update Frequency. Each candidate’s online newsroom received a grade from A+ (highest) to C (lowest) in each lesson and an overall final grade. While none of the candidates’ online newsrooms were perfect, all were very good at producing a large amount of material while maintaining a high-quality look and feel.

 

Lesson 1: General

In this category, we looked for online newsrooms to have a clear presence on the candidates’ main Web sites. Research shows that information in an online newsroom should be no more than one or two clicks away from the home page. Navigation architecture is extremely important in maintaining visitor interest.

 

The online newsroom should be prominently displayed above the fold, and designated by a familiar and easily recognizable header. Each candidate receives an A+ in the General lesson with newsrooms appropriately labeled “News,” “Newsroom,” or, in the case of Barack Obama, “Obama News.”

 

One concern: Hillary Clinton’s Web site has two splinter sites named HillaryHub (http://www.hillaryhub.com) and FactHub (http://facts.hillaryhub.com). These microsites are completely different Web sites with separate branding and a pop-up window structure, yet they contained news. This led to confusion due to the affiliate slogan “THE source for Hillary news.” Unfortunately, an explanation for these splinter sites isn’t readily available.

 

For this study, we concentrated solely on the main newsroom section of HillaryClinton.com. (None of the other candidates use this type of splinter site.

 

Lesson 2: Features

All of the candidates’ online newsrooms provide abundant material to the press and potential voters. Although all offer biographies, speeches, stories, issues dialogue and RSS capability, no one online newsroom possesses every feature available. We looked for press releases, media kits, speeches, audio, video, photographs, an events calendar, contact information, testimonials, downloads and an “In the News” section.

 

Strangely, Clinton’s Web site does not incorporate several of these features, leading to a B grade compared with an A for all of the others. (Some of these features may be available on the splinter sites.)

 

Journalists typically like to download an organized media kit geared to a specific product, service or issue. A media kit groups pertinent assets, like releases, photographs, detailed specifications and video where appropriate, usually in an Adobe PDF or Microsoft Word document. Surprisingly, only the JohnMcCain.com newsroom supplies a standard media kit.

 

Only Obama’s site produces audio clips of speeches. While all of the online newsrooms also contain video, it is noteworthy that BarackObama.com offers podcast versions. MittRomney.com and JohnMcCain.com provide screensavers, wallpaper, buddy icons, flyers and printable signs.

 

Access to only one authorized headshot and the lack of high-resolution photographs available to download on HillaryClinton.com are significant mistakes. According to our annual Online Newsroom Survey, high-resolution photographs are one of the most desired downloads in an online newsroom.

 

Lesson 3: Social Media

The use of social media is extremely important in an online newsroom. The target market for these sites is decidedly the general public. When appropriate, every communicator should use some form of social media internally with blogs, chat or RSS capability, or externally with social networking sites.

 

Social media is still in the early adoption phase within the communications profession. However, MittRomney.com earns an A for a family blog titled Five Brothers. Several members of the Romney family contribute regularly. Also, MittRomney.com has the only online newsroom that holds online chats and posts transcripts of those chats.

 

The other online newsrooms do not make it as easy as MittRomney.com does to subscribe to the site’s RSS feed. BarackObama.com earns a B for providing links to social networking sites including MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn. JohnMcCain.com also garners a B, while HillaryClinton.com trailed with a C due to the absence of social media techniques except for blogging.

 

Lesson 4: Tools

Every online newsroom should provide a set of browser-based tools to find information expeditiously. The 2007 Online Newsroom Survey revealed that searchable archives were the most important function to offer in an online newsroom, especially the ability to search at a granular level through more than a basic keyword search.

 

To our disappointment, the lowest grades for any lesson are posted for this category. None of the online newsrooms provide an in-depth, advanced search mechanism; therefore, no one rates higher than a C+. MittRomney.com and JohnMcCain.com afford a simple keyword search. But when you consider the number of press releases, video clips, photographs and supplementary content to research, it’s clear how the absence of a power search can hinder and annoy journalists and other visitors.

 

Additionally, none of the online newsrooms categorize news. Based on feedback from journalists, sites must section and classify news by type (i.e., financial, environmental, product) to enable more efficient browsing. All of the candidates’ online newsrooms except JohnMcCain.com provide Spanish translations of their content. Wisely, since journalists prefer to receive news by e-mail, all of the online newsrooms provide an e-mail alert sign-up.

 

Lesson 5: Update Frequency

The drill to learn here is to post assets to the online newsroom regularly. Fresh content is the key to a successful online newsroom. This realization is evident in all of the candidates’ online newsrooms. BarackObama.com and MittRomney.com earn an A+ with daily press releases, video postings and blog updates. HillaryClinton.com scores an A. While JohnMcCain.com did supply high-resolution photographs, the site posts fewer photographs than any of the others, earning a B grade.

 

This report shows that all four candidates’ online newsrooms employ new media communication tools well. While the ballots still have to be tallied, our vote for best candidate online newsroom goes to MittRomney.com with an A. BarackObama.com comes second with an A-, followed by JohnMcCain.com with a B+, and HillaryClinton.com with a B. You can view the complete report card at http://www.tekgroup.com/marketing/reportcard.

 

No matter an organization’s size or industry, all communicators can learn from this exercise. The tools are available to create, manage, distribute and monitor your news and interact will all publics. Are you using them? Does your online newsroom make the grade? Go through the Online Newsroom Survey at http://www.tekgroup.com/marketing/surveyresults_prsa and run your own analysis.

 

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Steve Momorella and Ibrey Woodall are with TEKgroup International, Inc. They can be reached at 954.351.5554 x105 or www.tekgroup.com.

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