News Conferences: Tips for Success, Part 2 of 3

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on holding successful news conferences. Covered here: timing your news conference; gate-keeping at the event; press kits; the speakers’ panel; scrums and interviews; equipment; room set-up; and evaluating success.

Today’s post continues my three-part series on smart, high-impact news conferences.

Embargoing your news release
On the morning of the news conference, send out the news release – a one-page, pithy, well-crafted version of the story.  In most cases, you will want to ensure the release is ’embargoed’ until the time of the news conference. That means you’re asking reporters and editors to NOT publish or broadcast the actual story until the news conference itself (for more on the risks and benefits, see Part 3). Otherwise, if the story is already out there on the airwaves, it might not be worth a reporter’s time to cover it; unless the story is huge or the speakers wildly compelling, it may already be considered ‘old news’. To ‘embargo’ a news release, simply write “Embargoed until” with the time and date (e.g., April 3, 2010, 10:00 PST).  In brief, the release should detail highlights of the news you will release, one or more strong quotes from your spokespeople with their titles, and clear contact information.

Gatekeeping at the event
At the news conference itself, be sure to assign a ‘greeter’ at the door, and keep a sign-in sheet for reporters to record their names, titles and outlets. Ask for their cards if you can. This tracking of who attends is so important – it allows you to identify faces to names (again, the relationship-building), track who may be covering the story, and identify reporters who may have a particular interest in similar stories in future. It allows you to screen out uninvited non-journalists – if you have well-organized opponents, they may send people to plant hostile questions or disrupt the event (regrettably, this does happen). Tracking also allows you to identify which outlets did NOT attend. Be sure to follow up those outlets afterward; you may even have another staff member or volunteer doing this during the news conference. And be prepared to re-send the news release to them—many still will not have seen it.

Press kits or backgrounders
For those attending the conference, ensure you have copies of the release and additional background information (speakers bios, maps, graphs, fact sheets, possibly an FAQ, images in digital format etc.) available for them on site. Ideally, provide a CD with high quality, high contrast head shots for each of your speakers.  If you have B-roll or background footage available for them, provide clearly-labelled DVDs; they may be able to use it. A few years ago I worked with the Raincoast Conservation Society on a new study about threatened, unique coastal wolves. They provided high-quality, hard-to-get footage of these rare wolves in action, footage no outlet would have been able to obtain on their own. The story ran on every major TV outlet throughout the day. Pharmaceuticals regularly provide background or “B-Roll” footage of scientists and doctors in white lab coats measuring tests tube and monitoring patients, or gel capsules being filled with medicines in factory conveyer belts. It all looks very impressive and once again, add colour, life and ‘stickiness’ to a story, making it that much more likely to both run, and have an impact on your audiences.

There are a number of issues to consider with your spokespeople:

  • It’s a good idea to have two to three speakers, each one fulfilling a different role (eg. main spokesperson; technical or policy expert; person suffering effects of story, etc). More than three is generally overkill – it will take too long, people will get bored, and your message could get lost or confusing – it can be very challenging to keep more than one or two speakers ‘on-message’. Make sure that each one is a genuine expert on the subject being addressed; don’t put people up there just because they have status in your organization.
  • Ensure your speakers avoid reading notes. Speakers reading from their notes are almost always monotone, stilted and less engaging (and therefore less quotable) than those who speak directly to their audiences.
  • Keep each individual presentation short (1-2 minutes per person).  Practice these in advance.
  • Ideally, keep the overall presentation portion of the news conference to a maximum of 15 minutes, allowing plenty of time for questions.
  • Keep the entire conference to 45 minutes or less, including reporters’ questions.
  • If possible, and depending on your region and your target audiences, it can be extremely useful to have a spokesperson on hand who knows the issue well AND can speak to media outlets in other languages, such as French (in Canada), Spanish (in the US) or Mandarin.

Scrums and one-on-one interviews
If your story is highly newsworthy, be prepared for a news scrum right after the conference, where reporters may throng around your most engaging speakers to seek direct comments and quotes. This can be frenetic if you have also arranged individual interviews; make sure your speakers have rehearsed answering anticipated questions thoroughly. Also be prepared to arrange individual interviews following the conference. Make sure you have at least one staff or volunteer member to handle this; it can get frenetic for a high-profile conference. If your speakers are bilingual, this is where you should line them up with your priority non-English speaking reporters.

Provide a decent sound system or at least a clearing and/or table on which reporters can set microphones and mic stands. You may want to have all speakers trade places to be in front of the microphones, or have one mic for each speaker; if the sound quality if poor, the story may not  run.  If you have the budget for it, equipment you may want to consider renting  includes:

  • Media consol
  • Mixing feed
  • Mics and mic stands for one or more speakers
  • Lights are optional; most camera operators and photographers will bring their own
  • You’ll also want to ensure that there are tables for holding these items.
  • Display table (if you don’t have one already) for posting mounted images or banners.
  • VCR and TV monitor (if you are showing 5 minutes of B-roll footage, for example, and are offering copies of it to the TV outlets that attend)

Room set-up
Make sure there is a sufficiently large clearing in front of the speakers – reporters and camera operators need space to set up their equipment. You might also want to set up 10-20 chairs theatre-style behind and slightly around that cleared area.  It’s a great idea to have a side table or two for:

  • The media sign-in sheet (unless that’s right at the entrance
  • Copies of  backgrounders or press kits (see above)
  • Coffee, tea and water (optional, but always appreciated)

Avoid placing your presentation area against a window (for photo and video). You may want to invest in branded materials, such as a large banner for the backdrop, a sign with your organization’s name and logo for the podium, and/or clear high-quality maps or images off to the side.

Two to three days after the event, review your media sign-in sheet, monitor the coverage you received from attendees and non-attendees alike, and evaluate success of the press conference in relation to the time, energy and money it took to hold. Ask your team, “what did we learn here? How can we do it even better, with less energy and more powerful results, next time?” And please, do the work around documentation. Be sure to go through and update your media list here; don’t rely on peoples’ memories to track who showed up, how they covered it and who might be worth following up with next time for similar stories. This is a vital part of the learning and relationship-building process for any media practitioner.

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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