With more and more journalists turning to the web for research, story ideas, and “after-hours” access to critical information, increasing your investment in proactive, online media relations simply makes good sense.

According to Michael Lissauer, a senior executive with BusinessWire, 93 percent of all daily newspapers and magazines have a web site, while 21 percent of dailies and 25 percent of magazines allow their web sites to scoop their hard-copy editions.

Not content simply to post a laundry list of news releases, major corporations and nonprofits are creating online press centers that offer a full range of services, from logos and 24-hour contact information to video clips, quotes, and the kind of detailed statistics and background information typically found only in slick press kits. It’s time for school communicators to get in the game as well.

“If you, as a communications professional, are not currently building an online multimedia strategy for your clients, you’re not doing your job,” says Lissauer, noting that 80 percent of all Americans believe online news is just as reliable as traditional news.

Recent studies show that while the vast majority of reporters now use the web every day for research and story ideas, 52 percent are dissatisfied.

“Just posting news releases isn’t enough,” says Kay Bransford, vice president of corporate communications for Vocus Inc. “Reporters want to know about your history, who your leaders are, and what they have to say.”

Speeches, quotes on issues and new programs, and easy access to experts rank among reporters’ most frequently requested services, according to Bransford.

While public education budgets obviously don’t match private-sector resources, savvy public information officers and school web masters can use this concept to build better relationships with the journalists who cover education in their communities.

Given the current state of online PR for schools, most journalists I know would be thrilled if more of us simply would remember to give complete contact information, including telephone numbers and pager numbers, as well as eMail addresses.

Nothing is more frustrating for a reporter with a deadline than scanning an entire web site without finding someone to contact for more information–or being unable to reach school or district officials after hours.

Other basics include gathering updated statistics and facts about the number of students, teachers, schools, class sizes, student-teacher ratios, average teacher salaries, per-pupil expenditures, test scores, and SAT/ACT results, and putting them all under one “Press Center” link that is prominently displayed on your web site.

Aim for an online placement that equals being “above the fold” on Page One in the local newspaper. In other words, on the left-hand side or across the top of your home page, before site visitors have to start scrolling down to read more.

As you build your press center, make sure you also include short, easy-to-download biographies and photos of the superintendent, school board members, and key administrators.

Invest in an inexpensive digital camera ($400 or less), and you can start posting photos, cutlines, and credits that can be used by media outlets. When it comes to photos, make sure you provide different options for print and online journalists. Print journalists require a higher resolution (600 dpi minimum), while online journalists want photos in the 70-to-120-dpi range or in JPEG format.

Provide EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) and JPEG versions of your logo and any visuals you create, such as charts showing increases in student achievement. Called media slates, these can be created quickly and easily in Microsoft PowerPoint or Adobe Photoshop. This strategy allows time- and budget-pressed reporters and media outlets simply to click and post your content into their publications and broadcasts.

Journalists also look for feature ideas and local angles regarding national trends, news, and issues. If you’re short on staff (and who isn’t?), enlist student journalists and parent volunteers to write mini-features on outstanding students and staff members and to “cover” school events and activities for the press center. Acknowledge your volunteers’ work with bylines and photo credits, and send them hard copies for their portfolios; you’ll be amazed at the assistance you can get by simply saying “thank you!”

Next, ask your teachers, media specialists, school nurses, guidance counselors, and food-service managers to develop “Top 10” lists of tips for parents, with links to other appropriate web resources. Topics can range from encouraging reading at home, to fostering healthy eating habits and building self-esteem, to understanding the warning signs for asthma and knowing when to take a sick child to the doctor or keep him home from school.

Then, when Back to School mania, Asthma Awareness Week, or some other news hook rolls around, you can simply eMail reporters with a hot link to the prepackaged content available on your web site. Providing “news you can use” will pique reporters’ interests and will keep them coming back for more.

Thank-you letters, cards from students, parents, and alumni, and other testimonials can be posted in your press center, using Adobe Acrobat. Banner ads and logos from corporate and community partners can be added to this section as well, along with the latest news and results generated by the funded programs.

Archive your news releases by month and year, and back your archive with a database whenever possible, so reporters can search by key word to locate previously published items. You’ll also want to post news from, or link to, other outlets in a “What Others Are Saying” section.

These third-party endorsements can be extremely powerful; however, make sure you get permission from the outlet before adding any content to your web site. Conversely, ask media outlets to credit your site when using your content or photos.

As always, the immediacy of the web dictates frequent updates. If you can’t muster daily or weekly updates on your own, you might want to invest in Vocus’ eNewsRoom software, which makes it easy to archive and search press releases and press coverage by headline, text, and date, as well as recent media coverage. Vocus also will help you track your media relations results.

If you have creative staff members, create and post some eCards that parents and students can send to teachers, bus drivers, secretaries, and other school employees on staff appreciation days, Thanksgiving, and other special times of the year. This service can become a news hook in and of itself. The fact that parents also may respond by saying “thanks” to well-deserving staff members is an added bonus.

Keep in mind that even though press centers are designed for the media, all members of the school family (as well as far-flung grandparents and relatives) will enjoy seeing photos and reading about people they know, while keeping track of current news and events. The lure of something that’s designated specifically for the media, in many cases, will be too strong to resist.

Finally, once your press center is running, don’t forget to market its availability to reporters, community leaders, parents, and staff. The “if you build it, they will come” theory only works in Hollywood.

Resources for online press centers

Looking for strategic advice or great software to help you manage your online media relations? Check out the following resources:

  • eNewsRoom (http://www.vocus.com). Provides proprietary software for creating and managing your online press center. Also offers a free white paper, “Better Access, Better Information, Better News: The 10 Essential Elements of an Online Newsroom.”
  • PR Newswire (http://www.prsnewswire.com). Offers a full range of online PR services, from distributing news releases electronically to archiving photos and monitoring news and internet outlets.
  • PrPowerBase (http://www.pat.com). Developed by Public Affairs Technologies, this innovative software package helps you manage your media contacts, distribute your press releases, and track and analyze your clippings and coverage.

For great examples of nonprofit, media-friendly web sites and effective press centers, check out the American Association of Retired Persons (http://www.aarp.org) and the American Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org).