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2HRS2GO: Foggy PR is a fact of business life

    COMMENTARY--I hate to doubt one of the most-quoted Web usability gurus--especially when he's trying to help journalists--but I suspect his words will go largely unheeded in this case.

    Jakob Nielsen gets a lot of attention for his views on Web page creation. He has been railing against fancy sites for years. He wants fewer graphics, fewer multimedia effects, fewer words in text--anything and everything to make the viewing experience simpler, more streamlined and more productive.

    His assertions have made him famous. ZDNet's AnchorDesk once called him the smartest man online, which I find amusing, given that the graphic-heavy, ad-infested layout of ZDNet--parent of ZDII--violates any number of Nielsen's principles.

    In any case, being smart doesn't mean people will listen to you.

    Nielsen's design consultancy last week released another report critical of certain Web site designs. Specifically, the Nielsen Norman Group targeted corporate public relations Web sites, in a piece entitled "Designing Websites to Maximize Press Relations." The consultants asked 20 journalists (15 from the United States, five in Denmark) to find information from the online pages of 10 organizations.

    That included six publicly traded companies--Merck (NYSE: MRK), BMW, Nokia (NYSE: NOK), Philip Morris (NYSE: MO), Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT) and the United Colors of Benetton unit of Benetton Group (NYSE: BNG)--a government agency (the U.S. Patent Office), a Wall Street powerhouse in the form of Fidelity Investments, and a pair of technology start-ups, Tellme and SeeItFirst.

    Co-authors Nielsen and Kara Pernice Coyne minced no words. "Most of the PR sections of sites we have studied fail to support journalists in their quest for facts, information, and points of contact that they can use when they write stories about companies or their products," the pair writes.

    No disagreement from me on that point. 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.

    Since we're talking about a Jakob Nielsen study, let's be blunt ourselves: Corporations are lying. It is not always in their best interest to make information easy to find.

    The point of corporate inscrutability isn't lost on Coyne, who ran the project.

    "I would say it's entirely possible that they were doing it on purpose," she told me this morning. "But I don't know that. And I wouldn't recommend it."

    In the view of Coyne and probably most journalists, companies are better served by accessibility because it means fairer, more thorough coverage. 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, Coyne notes.

    "When journalists don't find a PR number, it does impact how they view a story," Coyne said. "If you're going to have a press section, with press releases and information, don't just stick it out there. That annoys people."

    That's true, though I'd like to think professional reporters can keep their annoyance out of hard news stories. Whether that always happens hardly matters; the benefits of being open and available don't necessarily outweigh the disadvantages.

    Easily parsed financial data gives journalists and shareholders more ammunition to fire at company executives. Even worse, journalists--not a group especially noted for its ability with numbers--can misinterpret detailed income statements and balance sheets.

    A PR site with too much data could be a valuable source for competitors. Start-ups especially prefer a low profile, at least until IPO time.

    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, particularly if its management types are inarticulate, hot-headed, careless with their words, or simply boobs. And there are many of those executives occupying seats of power.

    The only time corporations want to be "open" is when it's to their advantage and in their control. Providing limited access to data may irritate journalists, but arguably--I don't agree with the argument, but I can see corporations believe it--making information hard-to-find winnows the field down to more competent reporters.

    As a journalist and a Web user, I wish more people would listen to Nielsen, Coyne and their peers. Unfortunately, it's not about what I want. It's not just about making my life easier.

    Nielsen would have all Web sites designed for maximum user efficiency, which runs counter to many designers' true purposes.

    A commercial Web site sells advertisements. You want to keep users on the site for as long as possible, not flush them in and out like people waiting to ride Space Mountain. You want to make sure people see the ads, read them thoroughly and make buying decisions based on them. That's how you stay in business.

    In the case of a corporate PR site, the goal is not to help journalists. It's to present as much information as a company is willing to release, in as positive a light as possible. It's not about being accurate, it's about looking good. Any other intent would be a disservice to the company's employees and shareholders.

    Business journalists don't have to like that part of a corporation's mission. But we have to live with it, and that's why we get paid. Part of a company's job is to spin; our job is to cut through it. 22GO>