Websites contain many things, but not the answer to all questions

1 August 2005

An irritating trend has started with PRs as some have decided that dealing with enquiries from pesky hacks is all too much trouble. The default answer among a growing number is to respond to any enquiry with a phrase along the lines of: "It's all on our/our client's website." And more hacks are getting ticked off with it.

One thing these PRs don't seem to have realised is that a good many hacks have embraced the web as a first-instance research tool when putting together the background for a feature. We know where the website is and we have a pretty good idea what's on it in general. There are a good many otherwise technophobe editors who have an excellent grasp of how to get the most out of Google searches. But the web cannot provide more than a part of what's needed. That's why we're ringing the press office: we need something else.

The first reason for ringing is the one that causes most irritation: the fact-check. This may come as a surprise to many but stories do get fact-checked. It can be simple stuff like, how many people work at the company? Where is its HQ? These are things that news editors and chief subs want on every story because that's house style. Making someone dig around a website - for information that may not actually be there - when they are on a deadline is not the way to make them happy. Especially when it is the sort of information the PR should have at their fingertips.

I've had the situation where the question was about whether the company was planning to appeal a legal judgment against it. I was told the response was on the website. There was, indeed, a response there: to a completely different case. I rang back in, got someone else who was about to tell me, "If you go to the we...", before I cut them off and told them exactly what was there and what wasn't. "I'll get back to you," came the not unexpected reply. It was better than the first answer they tried.

The second reason for calling is the interview request. Ideally, the hack will have someone in mind when asking for an interview and will probably call that person directly unless the company operates one of the increasingly bizarre etiquette schemes that demands that everything goes through central PR. But, it's often the case that you don't know who is the best contact for a given subject at the company. So, you ring the PR because you need someone to interview. You don't want to be fobbed off with the excuse that everything you need is on the website. You can't quote a website. You can't ask a website whether "leveraging synergies" means "doing things we're good at": you need a living, breathing human being for that. And the funny thing about websites is that they are often wrong, out of date and inconsistent.

So, if you like to see wrong, out-of-date or inconsistent information appearing about your employer or client, stick to the website defence.