Jakob Nielsen on Online Press Rooms

Earlier this month I commented on how many online press rooms fail. Well, according to noted Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, the news is even worse.

In NNG’s 2003 usability study of how journalists use online press rooms, at some point in every single test session journalists said that they would have to leave the online pressroom they were in because it failed to deliver what they needed. I realize this study is nearly a year old, but I think it’s worth mentioning in any discussion of online press rooms.

The page offering this study (cost: $248) includes some frank comments from journalists in the study, such as this:

“After having a difficult time on a site, one journalist said, ‘I would be reluctant to go back to the site. If I had a choice to write about something else, then I would write about something else.’ Another journalist described what he’d do when he could not find any of the facts he needed for his story: ‘Better not to write it than to get it wrong. I might avoid the subject altogether.'”

Harsh Words for Online PR from CNet

Commenting on the 2001 edition of this study, Sergio G. Non of CNet made some insightful points in his article “Foggy PR Is a Fact of Business Life.”

“…Generally speaking, corporate PR online is about as helpful as a second bellybutton. As a reporter, I wish corporations provided better information online. But perhaps that’s the point. Corporations will forever proclaim their desire to be open, accessible and helpful to the media, investors and the general public. The Soviet Union said the same thing.”

“…A writer on a tight deadline for a critical story might not bother getting in touch with a company if a PR contact isn’t readily available, and may even go with only a quote from a competitor, [Nielsen’s study coauthor] Coyne notes. …[But] points of contact are only valuable if you want to field questions from reporters. A company in many cases is better off not saying anything… The only time corporations want to be “open” is when it’s to their advantage and in their control.

I realize Non’s points will rankle many in the PR world. However, speaking both as a journalist who has wrangled in futility with many online pressrooms, and as a trainer who has instructed PR professionals on how to create useful online pressrooms, I think he’s dead-on right here.

For those companies and organizations who are trying to create a presentable fiction of openness and accessibility: You’re not fooling the journalists. Plus, you’re probably seriously undermining your credibility with the media and others. True, you may be achieving the goal of limiting/controlling media access to your information in some respects, but the fiction part of that strategy just won’t work. Journalists know when they’re getting information and when they’re not.

For those companies that truly wish to be more open and accessible to journalists: You might want to check out the NNG study, or ask journalists (including me) how you can serve them better online.

One thought on “Jakob Nielsen on Online Press Rooms

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  1. Much sympathy there, Amy. I have had terrible trouble with corporate press pages. On the other hand, many corporate web sites are still terrible full stop. They seem determined to keep Nielsen in business.

    One of the problems, however, is competition for menu space. There are design reasons for not putting too many items in an individual menu, and your management may view other functions as more important. I’ve only ever built one online press room – for ConJose, the 2002 World Science Fiction Convention (www.conjose.org). I managed to get it two clicks away from the home page, despite the fact that many of the organizing committee didn’t seem to want us to have anything to do with the media. I was quite pleased with that.