Google News Alerts: Friend or Foe?

November 15, 2008

A friend in the PR biz called me last night lamenting his horrid day. He explained that his client called and was furious about a story that showed-up as a Google News Alert (GNA) regarding one of their competitors in the cellular handset space. The “coverage” wasn’t really coverage – it was a link to Yahoo Finance for a press release the “offending” company had released late last week about a community service initiative launched in their hometown. My buddy spent 20 minutes explaining to his client how the GNA was not something to be concerned with and that it wasn’t really coverage since Yahoo! simply posts all releases coming off the major wire services. When he inquired further, my pal realized that neither the client nor the Board member had even read the “story” and simply saw the first few lines of the GNA with the competitors name listed. And by the way – the same scenario probably happened about 275,000 times yesterday across the country – maybe more. So what’s going on?

At BPR we love Google and we have dozens of Alerts set-up for our clients, their industry, and if applicable – competition. The Alerts are a helpful tool and often the best way to identify coverage – especially if the publication is not readily accessible. The Alerts are however just that, alerts. They provide no analysis (not yet anyway), and they do not discern if something is simply a name mention vs. a feature story; nor should they. And while they help the PR industry they also cause a fair amount of grief. But don’t shoot the messenger. The blame can be equally distributed between clients, agency, and a company’s Board. Often what happens, like to my PR friend above, is that busy people, who frequently scan email on hand-held devices, do not take the time to actually READ the alert. Instead with “piss and vinegar” they forward to company executives, who in-turn forward to the agency like an electronic gotcha. Where the agency is culpable is when they see the Alert before the client and do not immediately send to the client with analysis. Chances are pretty good if we’re seeing it, they’re seeing it – and so the race begins.

There is no arguing the Alert system in combination with an always-connected culture has changed the PR industry. The key is to set the right expectation about what is and what is not coverage/news, and why clients should care. If a competitor announces a product that squarely positions them as a perceived threat – absolutely the Alert should be read, the story analyzed, and if appropriate, speaking points created. However – if the competitor is named in a local (hometown) paper because they’ve committed to providing donuts for a year at an old-folks home – it doesn’t matter. And that maple-bar story is exactly what my buddy’s client was calling about.

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