A news, or press, conference is way of imparting information to journalists in a rapid and efficient manner.
Instead of having to inform news organizations and reporters individually of something you can shotgun a bunch of them in a little less than an hour and move onto something else.
But don’t get me wrong. There is a very good reason for dealing with news outlets individually and the most important reason is that it is just about the most powerful method of ensuring that your view of events, your side of things, your message, gets out in a state that resembles something close to what you meant. I’ll deal with individual briefings and how to approach journalists individually in a later article.
A news conference however, can backfire terribly on you and your organization if it is set up and conducted improperly, or if you allow journalists to decide for themselves what it is that you are trying to say.
Control is of the essence in a press conference and immediately after.
Good journalists know about these issues and will endeavor to slip from your grasp during a press conference and set their own agenda. Poor journalists, and that unfortunately sums up the bulk of them, can be lead and influenced to an embarrassing degree during a newser.
While the seasoned, skeptical, suspicious, and mostly brilliant top five percent of journalists are an extreme danger if you are trying to hide anything or spin your way out of a mess during a news conference, they can be just about the most powerful supporters and promoters of your position or product if your news conference doesn’t try to play silly games with their heads and above all if you are honest.
That said, there are some specific techniques you can use, and specific rules to follow, that should allow you to come out the other end of the process with credit.
If you have been told by a superior to set up a press conference and perhaps even for your sins to run it, then these guidelines should allow you to keep your job.
Have a real and pressing reason to hold a press conference.
Give journalists at least a few hours notice but no more than two days
Hold it in the morning. The best time is 1030hrs.
Never hold it on a Friday afternoon.
Pick a location close to the central mass of journalists in your area. (A press briefing room, or some other location, where journalists are used to going for news conferences. Unless you are located close to the central mass of journalists do not use your company headquarters and especially not if it means more than 15 minutes of travel for reporters.
No more than two main presenters. By all means have your president and CFO at the table but don’t add in all the department heads.
Do not clutter up the background with lots of company officials, workers, kids, hangers on, etc. It looks like hell on camera and the assistant manager of shipping right behind the president will without doubt be trying to discretely pick his nose just at the moment when the cameras catch that essential :09 second sound bite of the boss.
Techniques and Good Practices
Provide a podium. If you must seat your presenters behind a table then raise the table and chairs at least 8".
Rent a professional sound system and the trained technician that goes with it so reporters, especially radio reporters, can get clean sound.
If you can’t do that then you can only have one presenter. Reporters will prop their microphones and recorders close to the presenter if there is no sound system. If you have a second person at the news conference then every time that person speaks all the reporters will rush up to the front and drag their equipment around to the new speaker. This ungraceful performance will happen each time the speaker changes. Get a sound system.
Assuming that you are the one who will be running the press conference then you must make it clear to the people in your organization that while the press conference is underway you control events in the room.
You must make it clear to the journalists as well that you are in charge. That isn’t so hard because if you have been doing your job you should know most of them and will have talked with them as they arrive and set up their equipment.
The general format of a press conference is an opening statement or announcement of no more than five, possibly ten minutes. Shorter is always, always better.
After the announcement, reporters are free to ask questions. The whole thing should wrap up in no more than 45 minutes, and even that is pretty generous. Reporters are almost always in a desperate hurry to get somewhere else, to file their stories, or move onto some other story.
At the end there are usually requests for "one on ones". These are more in the nature of private interviews and can be because a specialist reporter needs more specific information or perhaps from an ego conscious local television station that wants to make it seem during its supper our newscast that its television reporter pulled off some sort of "exclusive" interview.
During the Q&A’s and in the subsequent one on ones, you have to be in full control.
You decide which reporters get to ask the first, then second, then third, and so on questions. You do this by standing well to one side of your principal at the front and pointing directly at the reporter who has indicated to you that they want to ask a question. It is a nice touch if you can remember the name of the reporter and the organization. If you can’t then ask them to say who they are when they stand to ask a question.
The rule is, one main question and one follow up question from a reporter before moving onto the next. Once everyone has had a chance to ask their questions you can loosen things up a bit and allow some chained questioning from a reporter. But be alert and ensure that no one feels that they are being squeezed out of the questioning.
Reporters should be asked to stand when they ask their questions but not if by doing so they will block the cameras behind them. Unless you have provided a "riser" or raised platform for the cameras then don’t insist on people standing.
And here is a Big Fat Rule — Only real reporters get to ask questions, no company members, no lobbyists, lawyers, itinerant gadfly’s, shareholders, and NO FAKE JOURNALISTS.
If you break this rule your organization will pay heavily. While the bulk of journalists are lazy and marginally incompetent, they are no stupid and they resent being manipulate if. They get the final word in print, on radio, in television, and on the internet. Screw them around with cheap manipulative techniques at your peril because they have the power to break you.
If during the press conference it becomes clear that the questioning is starting to peter out, that things are getting a bit lame (questions such as: "What’s your dog’s name", and "How old are you" are indicators) it is your job to step forward and announce that it is time to wrap things up. "Well, thanks for coming out, if you have any further questions please give me a call or email later", and indicate to your main person to stand up and move away from the microphones.
If there are no "one on ones" to be done then get them out or the room as quickly as possible. If they want to chat with some old buddy in the news business move the two of them as a unit out of the room. To have your main person drifting about the room as the reporters gather their equipment like some fat defenseless cow in a field ringed with timber wolves is begging for nastiness.
And make sure that you remember the cardinal, golden, prime rule about microphones. Never even say anything around them that you don’t want reported on the front page. More people and companies have been ruined by unguarded comments near a supposedly "turned off" microphone than ever have been shot by a supposedly unloaded gun.
And indeed, in these days of subminiature recording equipment it is best to just say nothing in confidence or otherwise to a reporter or technician. (Check out the Rules of Attribution Article here)
Inevitably during this whole process there will be questions that couldn’t be answered. If an answer has been promised for later then make it one of your life’s goals to get it to the reporter as soon as possible. Reporters hate broken promises and they hate late information. No matter how innocuous or trivial the question seems take it very seriously
Unless you are blessed with senior management who truly understand the media process and have had proper media training you will be taken to task, gently or otherwise, when the precious press conference does not end up on the front page, or lead the national news.
There is not much you can do if your organization doesn’t have a communications strategy and on going media training.
You best response to management if the coverage isn’t as stellar as they wanted is to suggest that a proper strategy and training be instituted and then suggest some professional outside help.
All the more so if your invitation to the journalistic world to attend the press conference resulted in a top-40 radio news reporter, a local television cameraman without reporter sent to "gather tape" and a blogger with 13 readers.
There are ways of guaranteeing good attendance at just about any news conference and guaranteeing good coverage. But unless as an amateur you happen to strike it lucky it is always better to hire a professional communications outfit.