29 April 2005

Online journalism is closer to broadcast than print

About 90 mins ago I got an email from airline PR about a new air fare to Beirut. I was just preparing a couple of special offers for the Travel Lists site, RSS newsfeed and mobile feeds, so I thought I'd add it in. As I began editing it I realised it didn't actually say that this fare was better than the one it replaced! So I fired of an email reply asking them to confirm, parked what I had done so far, and got on with something else.

An hour later there was no reply so I phoned. Answer machine. I didn't bother to leave a message. I dropped the story instead, and found something else to take its place.

As it happens, the PR had popped out for something. As soon as he got back he phoned me and confirmed the item. As a result, I've added it to the feed.

My point is a lot of PRs still move at the pace of print, which means I wind up dropping the story. Because if I try to follow up a story lead, I want the answer back that same morning or afternoon. The next day is usually too late.

Shameless plug for my hosting company

Received this month's newsletter from Hostway this morning. It had an item about a survey they've done in the USA about blogging.

I fired off an email to the Editor - who doubles as Hostway UK's marketing manager - asking when he was going to start his own Hostway blog, and had a nice exchange of emails which started off with him asking what's new with Travel Lists .

I must say it's one of the things I like about Hostway... it's a big international company with tens of thousands of clients but at local level it remains small & personal. Like everybody else, they are not perfect but when something goes wrong (IE my site goes down. Doesn't happen often.) I phone the support team (in Germany I think), and usually get hold of Chris... who knows me and my site.

By contrast my ISP, Blueyonder, (who provide a brilliant and mostly reliable service) are big, impersonal and efficiently clinical. Technical Support starts with a low-level operator who starts with all basic 'reboot, CPconfig & ping' options and if they can't tick you off their checklist they pass you up the line to someone more senior. It is undoubtably efficient but I'll leave you to guess which company you are more likely to want to shout at when it goes wrong!


Spotlight on search engine paid-for listings

Good news for me. There seems to be a growing awareness these days of the issues surrounding search engine advertising. This article by Jason Miller in Webpronews.com is the latest example. It talks about the well-known survey conducted in 2002 in the USA which revealed that almost two-thirds of internet users were unaware that search engines display paid-for listings.

It goes on to say that Consumer Web Watch, the organisation that commissioned it, is hosting a series of high profile conferences in the USA to discuss the question of search engine ethics.

The more that internet users realise how little independent information they are shown, hopefully the more they will turn to sites like mine.

27 April 2005

Ah! That would explain the lack of coverage!

Hadn't expected a four-hour maiden flight! (Why would we? There were no releases about what they were going to do) Nobody was talking about Airbus because it wasn't safely back on the ground yet!

The price of independence

How depressing!

I had an email yesterday evening from the MD of a new hotel accommodation website who's noticed that I list them on Travel-Lists. (They are new this month so I don't suppose they get many referrals in their stats yet!) He emailed to thank me for the listing and to offer an affiliation deal - a commission on sales to people refered by us - quite a good deal actually.


It's a fairly regular occurance, and I always have to bite my tongue when I turn it down!

We've had an exchange of emails and I had to explain my policy on affiliations is because I'm swimming against the tide. In order to claim total editorial independence from the travel companies that I list...

  • I don't do affiliations
  • there are no paid-for listings
  • I don't take submission review fees
  • and, worst of all from my point of view I don't do reciprocal links... which really hurts my search engine rankings!

The 'upside' is that I get to legitimately claim that travel-Lists is "the only truly independent travel directory on the internet".

Sometimes (times like these!) I wonder if it's worth it. Charging visitors a subscription to access quality content instead of charging companies to advertise themselves in a directory is definitely 'swimming against the tide'.

(In some quarters it is seen as offence against god and the Internet! Two years is not an unusually long time to wait for a listing in dmoz, particularly in a popular category, but I've long suspected that the reason Travel-Lists is not listed, and not likely to be, is that that Open Source Movement find the subscription business-model too distateful. Ironic really, because I consider dmoz to be the only other fully independent directory, but not quite as independently aloof as me when it comes to inclusions policies!)

It is certainly nothing like as profitable, as just caving in and taking the money like every other professional (non-hobby) directory on the net. Never mind if the public only ever get shown clients, members, or advertisers when they research their holiday options on the net...rant! rant! rant!




Airbus - not much coverage

Another post on Airbus

I gather the world's largest airliner has now taken off for the first time.

Expecting it to happen this morning I went to take a look at the airbus website, which now has the dedicated Maiden Flight section..... with nothing in it. There's a guest book full of appreciative comments from people around the world who saw the live tv of of the first flight, so we know it's happened.... but still no press release (?!).

I went to take a look at the satellite tv news channels. No mention on Sky, Bloomberg, CNN, BBC etc. Finally after 20 mins there's a studio item on BBC News 24 about how big the Airbus is, which mentioned it had flown, but no footage of the flight.

I return to the web and look through the newsfeed aggregators. There's very little news or no news about it. Even on Aviation industry sites. Right now there's no mention of it on Airwise or, AVweb or Air Transport World Online! (to be fair the latter two are US-based and probably not yet had their first cup of coffee)

I expect it'll be covered quite well in the evening news, but I am surprised at how little excitement it seems to have generated so far. That may be because the news in the UK is rather dominated at the moment by the election... but I suspect it may also be because the Airbus Press Office has been treating the first flight as some sort of state secret. In which case they only have themselves to blame for the lack of interest.

26 April 2005

U.S. extends its authority to Benin

Just been sent an open letter from guidebook writer Stuart Butler, would-be author of the new Bradt Travel Guide to Benin, to his editor, Hilary Bradt. As excuses go for missing deadlines, this one is not bad!

So I am finishing up in Cotonu and have a problem. I was arrested today, not by the Benoise who are far too nice to do something like that, but by our friends, the good old US of A... Did you know that by taking notes on a restaurant 100m away from a US embassy (which I did not know was there) you can be arrested by a bunch of yanks with machine guns!!!! I spent the entire day being interrogated about why I should be making notes and maps of restaurants near the embassy. Admittedly I wasn’t very cooperative, but they kept saying that their were certain restrictions I should be aware of and that lingering near a US embassy for more than two minutes was one of these. I tried asking how in the land of the free it could be forbidden to record your opinion of a restaurant and they said "In any free country there are restrictions." The irony of the comment seemed lost on them...

Anyway to cut a long story short they clearly think I am a threat to their security and have confiscated all my notes on Cotonou and the maps!!!! I still have my notes from elsewhere but I need to start again in Cotonou and I only have three days left. I don’t see it being a problem but I am going to be very careful about revealing any maps (oh, they kept telling me it was illegal for me to write anything about the city without their permission and that I was not allowed to take photos anywhere in Benin - quite what gave the Yanks the right to decide this wasn’t made clear). And Bush wonders why he is hated!


There is a another irony. As I remember Hilary B. telling me, the US army was was one of Bradt Travelguides' biggest customers for their guide to Iraq... there not being many alternatives at the time! You'd think they'd be more appreciative!

Golden rules for writing a press release

Oh yes, I was going to list a few of the rules - well, mine anyway.

Rules:

1) Date it
2) Check you've dated it.
3) Make sure you've answered the big five - who, why, what, where, when.
4) Give contact details for further info
5) Make sure the contact person is available (don't write a release and then go on your hols!)
6) Make any embargo clear.
7) Go back and check again that you've dated it.


Guidelines

1) Write the whole story in the first line or paragraph
2) Try to avoid writing anything longer than a page
3) Quote somebody saying something that adds to the story. Not bland PR puffery.
4) offer images (or AV) if you can.

Sure there are others but can't think of them right now.


The not-so-easy art of writing press releases

You'd think that writing a press release would be a pretty simple thing to do. After all, there are a well-recognised set of golden rules and guidelines to follow (examples below). You just have follow the template.

But it's amazing how often people who should know better, get it wrong. Even the No.1 goldenest (sic) rule of all - date it!

However, I was reminded this morning that it really isn't as straight-forward as you'd think and I shouldn't be surprised or get irritated when it happens so often.

I was marking up a press release written by a colleague in the British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW) to go on the website, and found two minor errors (the release was dated, but something refered to wasn't, and there were a pair of slightly conficting sentences).

The guy who wrote it is a highly experienced journalist, and I know - because I was copied in on the emails - that it was reviewed before being distributed by the entire committee of the Guild - again, all extremely experienced authors, editors, broadcasters and journalists!

So if they(we) can't get it right, it's hardly surprising that a junior account exec churning press releases out at your average PR agency is going to slip up from time to time.

Note to self: cut them some slack


24 April 2005

Airbus... as predicted, Malcolm has the lowdown

Following on from the Airbus post this morning.

As predicted, Malcolm Ginsberg has the latest on the A380. He says that the maiden flight could happen tomorrow, but they are waiting for the right weather.

... why couldn't Airbus say that??

Times Online restructure their travel pages

My heart sank when I opened Travel section of the The Times yesterday and read the intro column by their Online Travel editor, Steve Keenan (good bloke, Steve. He helped me out once by covering for me on Travel News Organisation site which I used to run before Travel-Lists).

He's spent the last six months re-organising the Times Online Travel section (www.travel.timesonline.co.uk) into a comprehensive travel information resource. I thought for a minute he/they were straying into direct competition with me by creating a directory - with their resources, a battle I could never even begin to win.

But I'm off the hook. He has structured their back-catalog of travel articles (over 1,000 of them) into a searchable database of travel information. It is an excellent resource but thankfully it doesn't do what I do - attempt to give readers a definitive/comprehensive list of operators and agents who cover specific destinations or types of holiday.

In his column, Steve does point out what I've been talking about for the past seven years, that the volume of online travel research is enormous - second only to sex. "One million travel pages will be read on Times Online this month" is his headline.

Iknow! Iknow! That's what I've been banging on about all this time; for every person who books travel online (endless reports/stats about how this figure keeps going through the roof) there are are at least eight trying to research it!

In fact, since with absolutely no marketing budget I clock 67,000 page views a month, I'd say their 1m estimate is a little low!

Policy change

Time for a change of policy on this blog.

I've been mulling over something I read on Jeremy Pepper's blog several days ago; his advice on serious blogging. Or rather, his 'ABT' rule. Always Be Transparent.

When I set this blog up, it was just somewhere where I could let off steam or refine ideas - useful when you are working online and there isn't a suitable forum to engage with - and by keeping my identity anonymous & not allowing comments, I could be more relaxed about what I said.

The downside is, if I wanted to maintain anonymity, I couldn't really talk specifically about what I do... which sort of defeats the object!

So I've decided to 'come out'.

(I've also started removing a couple of posts that I was more comfortable about when I was anonymous!)

Good job they makes planes not websites

The golden rule of emails is: never fire one off in anger. But I've just broken it.

I've just left a message on the Airbus Media mini-site telling them just how useless they are and told them that if they want to see how to run a media section to look at www.boeing.com!

I probably shouldn't have done it and I expect I'll wind up having eat humble pie, but I'm just so irritated that it's a Sunday and the word is the giant A380 will be making its first test flight within days... but the media section has no information or updates on the A380 since the January 'reveal'.

I knew the test flight was almost upon us. That's why I registered on the media section a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised then that I could find absolutely no up-to-date information anywhere on the media site or the main airbus site about the A380.

I don't want a seat at the event, I don't even want a 'first division press' relationship with the Airbus press office, I just want to be able to write a short paragraph about the fact that the historic event is almost upon us.

Oh well, I'll probably be able to find out what's planned when Malcolm Ginsberg dispatches his weekly aviation newsletter this evening. The other good aviation source is the forum on airliners.net, but I let my subscription lapse a few weeks ago and I haven't decided whether it's worth paying the annual $55

22 April 2005

And Royal Caribbean...

Oops, been a busy week for cruise lines!

It turns out another cruise ship has bumped into something. This time it's the the turn of Royal Caribbean International's press office to get it right.


On Weds Grandeur of the Seas got it badly wrong and tore a gash in her hull while coming alongside in Mexico. We got a full 'bells & whistles' statement on their website very quickly...

  • Detail on what happened for the press (including the key 'who,where,what,why,when' info on where the ship had been, where it was, where it was going, how many were aboard, etc)
  • Reassurance on well-being and safety for concerned friends & relatives.
  • As much forward scheduling, alternative transport arrangements, compensation, and estimates of repair time for all those clients and travel agents with bookings on the next cruises.

Again, a perfect example of how it should be done. Well done RCI.


21 April 2005

PR latency in action

Here's classic example of online PR latency... and surprisingly it's an airline.

The weekend before last U.S. authorities turned back a KLM jumbo jet flying from Amsterdam to Mexico City because it was routed through U.S. airspace and the Dept of Homeland Security identified two 'no fly' names on the passenger list.

It was an expensive incident (see Simon Calder's column in the Independent newspaper) and you would expect KLM to have published their thoughts on the matter.

However, if you look at the media page on KLM's website today (21st April) you'll find the most up-to-date press release was posted on 7th February
(reporting their monthly traffic figures for Jan).

Clearly their "Press Releases" are in fact "Shareholder Newletters". So KLM are making two mistakes here: 1) they are not using their website for media communications 2) they are not keeping their shareholders up-to-date.


20 April 2005

RSS - What does it stand for?

And another thing....!

While I was talking about it...

It's not important. In fact it's better the way it is. But it still niggles me every time I see it.

RSS.

Every reference you see says the same thing... that RSS stands for 'Really Simple Syndication'.

Well, that may be a really good description of what it is/does, and it may be what it stands for nowadays, but that's NOT what RSS stood for when it was created.

RSS stands for 'RDF Site Summary'

It was Netscape's development of the xml-based Resource Description Framework (RDF).

Ok, it's nothing like as catchy or explanatory as 'Really Simple Syndication' ... but I'm a pedant!




PR latency - the ones who get it right

This morning, as I was writing the blog entry about PR latency I ran into an example of good practise.

In this case it was P&O Cruises.

Transport companies are generally better at using their websites than most other types of business. This is largely because they have learned what a crucial tool they are for crisis communications - for example when a ship breaks down or a train comes off the rails, or there's an air disaster. Indeed most airlines have a web pages already prepared for instant deployment.

This morning, flicking through urls on my browser, I spotted P&O Cruises' ship Aurora out at sea on her bridgecam. She had to abandon her world cruise in Feb because of engine problems and has been at the shipyard ever since. In the last few days she has been sea-trialling the repairs, but now the caption on the picture said she was returning to her home port, Southampton.

It raised two obvious questions: Are they happy with the repairs, IE is she working properly? And, where is she in her sailing schedule, IE is she picking up where she would be be now, at the end of her world cruise, or does she have a new itinerary?

No press release on the media page - groan! - but somebody has stuck a little link on the Aurora info page with a pop-up answering exactly those points - hooray!

(In fact I called the press office thinking it wasn't there and by the time they got back to me I had found the pop-up, written the item, published it, and was able to tell them as much, if not more than they knew)

The info should have been on their media page, but at least it was on the website. Good for them!

Like I say, transport companies do tend to be better at this than most others. Last week it was Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). One of their ships got beaten up off the Bahamas by a freak wave. Not only did a statement appear on their website within a few hours, but the latest news was updated two or three times a day as the story unfolded (she had to put into Charleston for quick repairs and a checkover). It's not the first time NCL have got it right. A few years ago one of their ships had part of her bow torn off in a collision in the English Channel. Again, within hours there was a rolling update service on their website.

It's not just press who want info in those crisis moments. Think of all the passengers' families who want to know if they are safe; all the passengers and their travel agents with bookings on the next cruise, and the cruise after that; and all the other interested parties (victuallers, suppliers, crew, etc) . When the phone lines get swamped, the website is a company's best communication tool. The companies who recognise that tend to be the ones who make the most effective day to day use of their website for PR.

There is one latency problem that is difficult for PRs to deal with, and that's the global effect. As all online journos know, if you want to find up-to-date releases, the bestplace to look is at the regional home of the company. IE if you looking for what's happening at Qantas, got to qantas.com.au not qantas.co.uk. Usually if you pick up a story on the net, particularly from the far East/Asia/Middle East, it's no good asking a PR in London about it because your question will be the first they've heard of it. I regularly get news items first thing in the morning from Asian newsfeeds, that I don't even bother to chase in the UK. It's very hard for UK PRs with clients or head offices in the Far East to be 'on the ball' and it's not fair to expect them to be. The plus side is that at least you can make long-distance calls early in the morning and know that there'll be somebody there to answer!

PR latency

I read an interesting article in WebproNews yesterday by PR and blogosphere man, Jeremy Pepper. Called, "It's about Content, Stupid!" (you can read it on his blog) , it argues that PR companies and PR depts in large corporations are not making enough of RSS to get their message out. He points outs that for most journalists whose in-trays are overflowing with emailed releases and spam, RSS newsfeeds are the perfect vehicle for marketing communications teams to get their message across in a non-pushy format.

I've posted a comment about the problem of latency and how better use of RSS feeds would help. It drives me mad that only a handful of large companies in the travel sector and their external PR companies make realtime use of their digital distribution assets.... or in other words, post their statements, briefings and releases on their websites immediately.

On a daily basis I come across travel industry news stories that seem worth investigating. Quite often a search reveals variations on the story from different outlets but with large chunks of almost identical copy - a sure sign that the company involved has issued a press release - but if you look on their corporate website (the first port of call) the most up to date item turns out to be a product launch or financial statement from two months ago! So now you have to start phoning the press office to chase it. Which means you are now working on their timescale. My short item could have been half-written and just waiting for a quote or something before being published in an hour's time. Sadly, their press office is still working at 20th century printing press speed and doesn't get back to you or email the info till last thing in the afternoon or next day....!

PRs have to get better at this. Posting information promptly will become increasingly important if companies are not to be viewed by the media as lumbering dinosaurs. RSS feeds won't directly solve the problem above - unless I happen to subscribe to that particular feed - but it will help to re-enforce the idea that information has to be immediately available.

12 April 2005

Could it be more easy?

For an example of a PR company who make it as easy as it gets, look at Nick Redmayne's Travel Media. They have the PR accounts for major specialist tour operators like Dragoman, Peregrine Adventures, Trek America, Walks Worldwide, Wildlife Worldwide, Naturetrek, Voyages ilena, Encounter, Equine Adventures, Lakes & Mountains Holidays, etc etc.

They regularly send out emailshots to journalists with 'latest news' press releases, but when they do, and it beeps into your intray, Nick himself is live online at his site. You can click on the 'live chat'/'customer support' button on his site and initiate a live chat (messaging).

If you want to follow something up, ask a simple question, or you need pictures or something... how quick and easy is that!