Be forewarned. News conferences can be fraught with danger. Demonstrators
or hecklers can steal the thunder of your message and grab the spotlight
on the 6 o'clock news. A reporter with an axe to grind may dwell
on negative issues, which will then be reported by the other journalists
in the room. Or your "news" conference may not be sufficiently
newsworthy to attract the media.
So before you decide to call a news conference, make sure that
the circumstances meet ALL of the three following criteria:
- The media will require some form of contact with you -- to ask
questions, to take photographs or video or to interact with a
new product or piece of equipment.
- AND a large number of media want to cover the story.
- AND the media must cover the story right now -- it can't wait
Unless all three criteria are met, you can satisfy the needs of
the media by sending out a news release and setting up one-on-one
interviews. This will minimize the risk of losing control and it
will give each reporter an opportunity to develop his or her own
unique approach to the story.
If all the criteria are met and the decision is made to proceed
with a news conference, then do it right. That means setting up
the room to prevent reporters, photographers and videographers from
getting in each other's way.
Here's what to do:
- Put the head table on a raised platform.
- Place the reporters' chairs in a single block (that is, no centre
aisle) with the front row just two or three feet in front of the
platform. (This will prevent photographers from rushing directly
in front of the platform, where they will obstruct the view of
reporters and video camera operators.).
- Place a long, narrow table along the right or left side of the
room, perpendicular to the head table and about three or four
feet from the reporters' chairs. If it's a really big news conference,
you might want to place a table along the right and left sides
of the room. Put a few chairs behind the table or tables.
- Put a single microphone in front of each person who will speak
from the head table, and connect the microphone(s) to audio feed
boxes stationed on each of the side tables and on the floor in
the back of the room.
- Set up flood lights for front and back lighting of the head
With the room set up in this manner, print reporters can sit in
the chairs in front of the head table. If they want to record the
news conference, they can plug their tape recorders into the audio
feed box on the table. Radio reporters can sit with the print reporters
or behind the table and also plug their tape recorders into the
audio feed box. TV reporters can sit with the print reporters. Photographers
can roam along the side aisles, where they won't get in anyone else's
way. The video camera operators can set up their cameras behind
the reporters' chairs and plug their audio tape recorders into the
audio feed box on the floor. They will be able to get an eye-level
shot of the speaker (who is perched on the raised platform) over
the heads of the seated reporters. And because you've set up the
lights, the photographers won't have to use flashes and the video
camera operators will not need to turn on the harsh spotlights that
jut from the top of their Betacams.
Now everyone - radio, print and TV reporters; photographers, and
video camera operators - will have their needs met without getting
in each other's hair.
Conducting the Conference
Now that you've set up the room properly you can turn your attention
to the main event - conducting your news conference. Here's what
Distribute a prepared media kit.
The media kit is an indispensable part of the news conference. It
tells your story the way you want it told. It answers many of the
questions you anticipate the media will ask. And it provides background
information that will add credibility to your messages and gives
reporters the opportunity to develop more deeply into the story.
A good media kit ought to contain a news release, the full text
of any prepared remarks, relevant fact sheets and backgrounders
and possibly a photo and bio of the speaker.
Welcome the media.
The media are there as your guests; they represent a golden opportunity
for getting your key messages across to your vital publics - so
treat all media people with respect. Try to make their job easier,
and if need be, do it for them. This will give you greater influence
over the media's handling of your story. To provide an effective
welcome, set up a table by the entrance. The PR person at the table
will greet all arriving reporters, photographers and video camera
operators by giving each of them the complete media kit. You may
also ask the media people to sign a register or drop their business
cards in a jar. But you may not get upset if they refuse. And you
may not withhold the media kit.
Many executives and some PR people argue that giving out the media
kit before the news conference is a bad idea because "then
the reporter might leave without hearing what I have to say."
So what! If the media kit is all that the reporter needs, then why
hold the news conference in the first place? Indeed, if all the
reporter wants is your media kit, then you will actually have more
influence over the published or broadcast news item, since the media
kit - upon which the reporter will now rely - tells the story the
way you want it told. And finally, when you withhold the media kit
until the end of the news conference, you simply irritate the media,
make their jobs much more difficult and thereby increase the likelihood
that the resulting stories will be inaccurate or biased against
Just bear in mind that your purpose is not to get the media to
attend your news conference, it is to get positive media coverage.
Start the news conference.
When the appointed hour of the news conference arrives, the PR person
goes to the head table, briefly thanks the media for coming and
immediately introduces the speaker, who then enters the room and
walks to the head table. There are two reasons for this walk, as
short as it might be. First, it adds a pinch of movement to the
usually static news conference (there isn't much dynamism in a talking
head), thus increasing the likelihood that the evening news will
carry a sound bite. Second, it keeps the speaker under wraps until
the start of the news conference. You don't want the speaker informally
dodging probing questions from reporters milling around room. Once
introduced, the speaker delivers a three to five minute speech that
contains the news and key messages that prompted the news conference.
He or she then opens the floor to questions. The speaker recognizes
a reporter, answers the question, recognizes the same reporter again
if there is a follow-up question, answers that and then recognizes
the next reporter to raise a hand.
Ending the Conference
Ideally, a news conference ends itself. That is, the reporters
just stop asking questions. When this happens, the spokesperson
- or the PR person, if he or she is acting as "host" or
"hostess" - thanks everyone for attending.
Life, however, isn't always so accommodating. A reporter or two
may continue on the same topic, question after question, in what
seems like an endless merry-go-round. If that happens, the person
acting as host or hostess should politely say that the hour is late
and there is time for just a few more questions. That in itself
may stop the flow of repetitive questions, in which case the host
or hostess just thanks everyone for attending. If not, allow two
or three more questions, then thank everyone for attending.
At this point, many of the reporters will make for the nearest
exit. But for a few, the formal end of the news conference is just
the beginning of the information-gathering process. That's because
the really good reporters will wait until after the news conference
ends to pose their most poignant questions. After all, why would
a creative reporter want to share his or her unique approach to
the story with other less enterprising but nonetheless competing
Well, they won't. And the result is the "scrum" - that
mad dash to the podium to catch the spokesperson before he or she
disappears into the shadows. Since trying to outrun the media will
only produce embarrassing footage for the 6 o'clock news, the best
thing is to stand your ground, greet the oncoming reporters with
a relaxed and accommodating smile and remain until all their questions
are answered. Regard the scrum as nothing more than a natural extension
of the news conference.
Ed Shiller is President of Toronto-based Shiller & Associates
Inc., which specializes in media training, media relations, crisis
communications and strategic public relations. For more details,
visit his Web site www.edshiller.com
or contact him directly by phone (416-496-2243) or E-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).