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RSS Connects PR Shops With Journalist Desktops

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The next hot trend in public relations is RSS (Really Simple Syndication), a technology that allows journalists and others to receive constantly updated news on their computer desktops from any content provider on the Internet. The first large PR firm to jump on board is Interpublic Group's Weber Shandwick, which last week began offering clients the benefits via its new RSS Press Kit and RSS Media Alert. But it won't be alone for long—many other top shops are developing their own ways of tapping into the trend.

Delivered free of charge in ticker form, RSS gives PR professionals a way to talk directly to journalists in real time. Today, only 5 percent of Web users use RSS to get news or other information from blogs and content-rich Web sites, according to a January survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Still, small as it is, Pew described it as an indication that RSS is "gaining an impressive foothold."

"Reporters are beginning to utilize RSS to receive a lot of their information, and we want to make sure our clients' announcements and press releases are distributed in this efficient way," said Adam Brown, director of Omnicom Group's eKetchum, Ketchum Public Relation's digital media strategy group, which is "aggressively working on" developing RSS-based media materials, according to Brown. "I think without a doubt, this is changing the traditional way PR professionals share information with reporters."

RSS was first created in 1997 by Netscape and was further developed by Dave Winer, founder of Userland Software and editor of the blog Scripting News. RSS has become increasingly popular in the past few years since blogs on everything from politics to punk rock began to proliferate on the Web. Bloggers use the technology to easily track what's going on with fellow bloggers by subscribing to numerous feeds.

Although blogs were the first content providers to adopt RSS, most news organizations (including CNN and MSNBC) now display the option on their Web sites. Last month Microsoft began offering press releases and stories via RSS, and Yahoo! also uses the technology.

How soon will RSS take over? Its proponents claim very soon. "I think this will become commonplace within a year to 18 months," said Steve Rubel, director of the Micro Persuasion practice at independent CooperKatz & Co. in New York, which helps clients craft communications strategies using blogs, RSS feeds and podcasting within larger marketing plans.

Weber Shandwick's electronic press kits and media alerts now include an RSS news-feed option that allows journalists to learn about RSS and receive a client's news directly on their desktops in real time (much like a typical news ticker). A special newsreader software is required to subscribe to the RSS feed.

"Subscribers are opting in to this service, so if the quality of a particular feed were to decline, they could simply remove it from their reader and no longer receive information from that source. It's content they control," said Robert J. Ricci, director of Web relations at Weber Shandwick in New York.

Said Ryan May, marketing communications coordinator at United Defense in Minneapolis, a Weber Shandwick client that last week adopted the new technology: "All it takes is one reporter, one time, to make RSS worth it."

Still, some experts say RSS is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of PR professionals fully taking advantage of emerging technologies.

"I think what Weber's doing is important, but the bigger opportunity for the PR agencies is to help their clients understand the massive impact that citizen journalism and blogging will have on clients," said Rubel. "I think offering RSS feeds for clients is a beginning; the next step is to work with the clients to help them understand what citizen journalism means to them."

Despite the heat, not every practitioner is ready to jump on board just yet. "It's definitely worth testing as a concept, but ... the skill that's most treasured is to be able to tell a great story," said Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Havas' Euro RSCG Magnet in New York. "And you can't do that through e-mail or an RSS feed."