Experiments with RSS

6 July 2005

One of the reasons for creating this blog was to provide a way of covering changes in the way that the press and the PR industry interact. There are a lot of PR-related blogs talking about the death of the emailed or posted press release now that RSS has arrived on the scene. But not many from the journalist's side of the fence, so this is my two pen'orth on the subject.

I have been experimenting with RSS for a couple of weeks now, so I'm well behind journalists such as Danny Bradbury in that regard, who has been using the syndication system for some time according to his web journal. Bradbury has noted one downside of using RSS: it's apparent one-size-fits-all nature. Most RSS feeds currently come from US-based operations and a common complaint among UK-based hacks is that US releases are well-padded drivel.

Some PRs in the UK like to do a bit of surgery on the releases before they send them out, whether by post, fax or email. Stuart Bruce, apparently, is one of them. Some simply don't bother to relay all of them on the basis that a good many press releases are drivel, no matter where they come from. They only process the important ones, although PR companies differ on what gets classed as important. Often, releases that are useful to me (but are bad news from the client's point of view) often don't get sent out whereas the releases about incremental improvements to obscure products are given the once over and then sent out with covering notes.

This pre-editing process means that it can take several days for a UK version of a release to appear after it has gone out on the wires in the US, although some manage to get them out at roughly the same time. Personally, the way make sure I don't miss things is to simply use the US RSS feeds and stop worrying about the padding.

But, doesn't this make the role of the UK PR for a global company a bit superfluous? I, and others, simply have to pull the relevant feeds into an aggregator and the local PRs are then out of luck.

Yes and no. The problem with RSS is that it was never designed for distributing press releases, although there is nothing in the protocol that stops anybody for using it for that purpose. The RSS model assumes that the audience for written material is larger than the number of sources, at least within a given area of interest. With press releases aimed at the media, it is the other way round. You have a large number of sources trying to aim at a small audience, the journalists working on the various news media. Those outlets will serve a larger set of readers, often providing RSS feeds from their own websites.

Potentially, journalists could end up dealing with hundreds or even thousands of individual RSS feeds to be able to cover all of the areas and companies that they need to. This is, of course, assuming that a lot more organisations pull their respective fingers out and actually do something about RSS. The reality is that the wire services such as Businesswire and PRNewswire will act as sources for much of the material that arrives by RSS feed, at least in the short term. That cuts down dramatically on the number of feeds that I need to subscribe to at the moment. The good thing about RSS is the aggregator. I use NetNewsWire and that does a pretty good job of letting me organise the feeds I need to deal with in a useful way. I have a folder that contains all the press release sources that I have identified so far. It basically acts as a super-newswire.

In there today is Businesswire's RSS feed, the one from Sourcewire, and a smattering of large technology companies such as Intel. I haven't added PRNewswire as yet. That is not because PRNewswire doesn't have an RSS feed. It is because the one it offers to hacks today is the entire output of the wire. Businesswire provides a personalised feed based on my preferences. PRNewswire has said it has a personalised system in beta, but until I can gain access to that or the company goes live with the service, the PRNewswire RSS feed is useless to me.

This is what will solve the problem for the local PRs, as long as they are able to embrace the necessary technology quickly enough. Most companies active in this field today are only providing one RSS feed for everything, from financial releases through to the most obscure product releases. Multiply that by a few hundred companies and you have something far worse than the email distribution we rely on today. For RSS to be a genuinely useful tool for journalists, PR companies and their clients will need to offer personalised RSS feeds in the same way Businesswire does now: customised through a web interface.

With personalised feeds, local PRs can continue to do what they are doing now and make use of RSS as an alternative distribution scheme to email. They will also get much better feedback on the material journalists actually want, because they will be able to see which options they select on the web form.

3 Comments

Chris, if "This pre-editing process means that it can take several days for a UK version of a release to appear after it has gone out on the wires in the US" then someone is doing something wrong. The way we would try to handle it is by ensuring that all versions of the releases are developed in advance and made available at the same time. It's not just about producing UK versions but also translating for different European countries and making sure that journalists have the choice of a 'parent company' spokesperson or a local one.

Unfortunately not all American companies appreciate that there is culture beyond the USA so don't always want to do what they should.

I agree with much of what you have to say about RSS feeds for news releases, but another factor is that you will find customers etc will also subscribe to the feeds. The personalisation is something I've discussed but the technology to do it easily doesn't really exist at the moment.

Chris, you say "For RSS to be a genuinely useful tool for journalists, PR companies and their clients will need to offer personalised RSS feeds in the same way Businesswire does now: customised through a web interface."

If every PR companies and their clients do this, won't you still just have hundreds of feeds to subscribe to, read, and maintain your preferences for?

Surely it would be better if there was a single service that everyone could use?

Stuart,

I agree that customers will want to subscribe as well, and that is, I believe, one of the things that is going to make the press release change over time...but I'll come back to that in another entry.

From the personalisation perspective, the IT investment will be painful for many in the PR sector, as it is made up of a lot of SMEs and they will need to continue sending out emails, paper, carrier pigeons or whatever the journalists at the other end want. So, anything that deals with the RSS feeds needs to take into account the other delivery mechanisms. And few are going to be able to afford custom development for: this is maybe an opportunity for someone to do an Outlook add-in or a bolt-on to whatever app people use to handle release mailings and general hack contact.

Some companies I know have implemented web-service type things they use for client signoff and approval. I can envisage something like that extending to distribution.

Niall,

Yep. I really do mean lots of individual feeds: I can't see the market moving the other way. If you had asked me five years ago what I wanted from a wire the answer would have been: "one". But that was because I and others were surfing to BW, PRN and a couple of others or scrolling through the three emails a day from each (but I was running a weekly with a daily newsfeed then). I wouldn't have been bothered which one became the one true newswire, just as long as there was one. But it's a free market and I'm not paying for release-wire services, so we have a couple of biggies with some smaller players and companies doing it themselves because that is the way the market works.

The one thing that RSS has going for it right now is the aggregator. I can dump all the PR feeds into one folder in Netnewswire and just have it refresh once in a while. BW is on a short cycle, company feeds refresh maybe twice a day at most. But now, I find I am looking at more of the stuff that is coming from the few smaller players (like Sourcewire) because it is interleaved with the stuff that comes from BW, Eurekalert, IBM, Microsoft, Intel and a number of others. It means I spend less time overall on vetting releases, which is a good thing.

Having hundreds or thousands of feeds potentially gives me more control. If individual feeds are not providing anything useful ever, I can wipe them. I can't wipe them so easily from the BW feed for example because it is difficult to create such specific settings. If a feed that comes via a PR company proves to be more useful than one from the client direct, I'll use that.

Now, I can imagine there will be problems with a situation where an aggregator has to deal with so many feeds. The aggregator software might just collapse under the weight. But by the time lots of companies have jumped on the RSS bandwagon, I expect the software will be able to cope.

Managing that many feeds from my end will have an overhead: but I have that anyway. If I am covering a sector, I will want the Regulatory News Service material for specific companies. Right now, the most efficient way to do that is to use Edgar for US companies and some other sites for UK and European listed companies. Having the ability to tune RSS feeds for that lot would save a lot of time.

There will be a bandwidth consumption issue: pinging sites every 30 minutes for a thousand feeds is going to take a while, especially if I am on the road. However, I expect the way that releases are distributed to continue for a while. BW and PRN will deliver most releases, we will have direct contact with a bunch of blue chips and the rest will be about dealing with the long tail. But only a small percentage of companies in that long tail will matter to a particular hack. And the PRs will still have the job of trying to get us to care (and subscribe to the RSS).

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Journalist Chris Edwards has an interesting post that is essential reading for any PR thinking of using RSS to provide news release feeds. His main point is that he only wants it if the feed can be personalised to give him just the releases... Read More