News Conferences: Tips for Success, Part 1 of 3

Today’s post is the first of a three-part series on smart, well-organized news conferences that can generate high-impact media stories and build relationships with key reporters. It covers why your organization might want to invest in a news conference, and when not to; timing; the media advisory; and pitching or ‘selling’ the event to key reporters and assignment editors.

Last week, when I was facilitating a media training session for the Center for Progressive Leadership, a couple of the participants wanted more information on news conferences. Now’s as good a time as any! Today’s post is the first of a three-part series on smart, well-organized news conferences that can generate high-impact media stories and build relationships with key reporters.

Why invest in a news conference?
Let me count the ways….. A successful news conference can launch your story into dozens of media outlets – and into the hearts and minds of thousands of potential supporters – in one fell swoop. A news conference driven by a solidly newsworthy story is an event; it can help create the news. Once the ball starts rolling and enough key media are convinced they need to attend, then you have a golden opportunity to shape the message by choosing the right location, backdrops, and spokespeople, as well as preparing solid background materials anticipating tough questions afterward.  As well, by bringing reporters and your people together face to face, a live news conference can take you and your spokespeople one step closer in the ongoing quest of any smart communicator to build relationships with key reporters.

There are a host of considerations and several steps to planning and carrying out a successful news conference.

Risky business
A news conference is the way to go when you have a really, really newsworthy story with clear hard news value.  But be warned: They are risky.  I have always been very conservative about choosing news conferences. Here’s why: First, news conferences are time and energy-intensive to do well. In some cases, they are also very expensive.  And they are a gamble; even if you think your story constitutes “hard news”, you can’t ensure the press will attend.  An unattended press conference is not only demoralizing – it may also send the message that your issue is not worth covering. It can make you, your organization and your cause look weak. And of course, it can end up feeling like a waste of time and money.

Timing is everything
If you can, first try to find out whether any other major stories are taking place on the date on which you plan to hold your news conference.  If you have a relationship with local reporters, one or more may be able to tell you if another event is already scheduled for that day. Of course, there’s no guarantee some more dramatic unexpected story will supercede yours (war breaking out, planes full of world leaders crashing etc), but best to plan where you can.  Generally, it’s best to hold the event at 10:00 am on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday for daily print media,, whose daily story meetings are typically around 9:00 am each morning.  TV and radio outlets will have several news segments throughout the day, but the 6:00 evening news typically reaches the widest audience. If you hope your news conference will create follow-up stories, never hold it late in the day or late in the week.  Sometimes weekend press conferences can generate stories in the thin news of Sundays or Mondays – but it is a gamble.

Setting the bait: the media advisory
People (even a few journalists I’ve met) are often confused about the distinction between a media advisory and news release.  So here’s the deal: the media advisory is a short “ teaser”, sent usually 2-3 business days in advance of the actual news conference.  It’s aimed at convincing editors and reporters that there IS a story and they need to be there to cover it – without giving too much away. If they knew the whole story beforehand, why would they come?

Some more notes on the media advisory:

  • Timing: Send the media a media advisory 2-3 business days before the event.
  • Content: Keep it short – one page or less. Include the 5 Ws (who will be there, when and where, what the topic is, why it matters). Include the name, titles and credentials of the speakers.
  • Images: Highlight any photo or image opportunities; this can make the difference between an outlet sending a camera or photographer or not. And you definitely want the cameras. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words – the more images that accompany the story, the more likely it is to both run, and be remembered by your target audiences.

Distributing the advisory
For stories aimed at a large number of media outlets, it may make sense to invest in a newswire service, like Canadian Newswire or PR Newswire in the U.S.  But even if you do, it is essential that you maintain your own media list with phone numbers and email addresses. That’s because “pitching” the advisory afterward – that is, calling and/or emailing your target reporters and assignment editors to sell the story to them – is an essential part of the process. Ensure that your media list includes key non-English media as well, such as French, Mandarin, Tagalog or Spanish, depending on your key audiences. If you’ve got speakers who are bilingual, note this in your advisory and/or follow-up calls.

Pitching the media advisory
I’ve found that typically one-third of the editors and reporters I’ve contacted afterward say they haven’t seen the media advisory, especially if I didn’t send it directly to their personal email boxes. Following up directly ensures they receive it if they are interested. It also helps gauge the level of media interest in your story; and of course, may help build a relationship with that reporter just a little bit more. If they aren’t interested, you can always ask – politely – why (versus challenging them or getting offended) and use the opportunity to learn.

Author: Suzanne Hawkes

I'm an organizational effectiveness consultant, facilitator and leadership trainer based out of Vancouver, Canada, and working across Canada and the USA

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