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PR Tools: Understanding the News Conference

By Robert N. Lee and Margaret Anne J. Taylor |

You see them every day on the televised news:  A long table bristling with microphones and miniature tape recorders, an uncomfortable corporate president or politician explaining something, and a gang of reporters and photographers on the other side of the table firing questions and banging away on their auto-wind Nikons.

It's the news conference. To the outsider attending one for the first time it's a pretty impressive show.

News conferences are common where news is being created regularly such as a provincial capital or large city dominated by company head offices.

The electric atmosphere of a news conference is revealed to a greater extent to an unfamiliar public if it is being televised live.

As impressive as this scene may appear, a news conference is only one tool among the arsenal in a public relations strategy to deploy an important message to a reading, watching and listening public.

But here's the kicker:

Nine times out of ten a news conference is not necessary.  The message can be dispatched more subtly and with greater effectiveness through one-on-one contact with media, special events, distribution of reports, paid advertising or other more inventive schemes.

News conferences (once called press conferences when print media dominated daily news gathering) are not always embraced by the media.

In fact editors and reporters are suspicious of such events when not attached to a major story that is developing in the community. Journalists sometimes even boycott them altogether, preferring to make a simple telephone call for the information. Or they rewrite the news release.

An amateur arranger of the news conference may feel a charge of adrenaline at the thought of scribes and videographers hanging on every word, but in truth, media will not be receptive of the event unless it is of high news value.

Nothing will sour relations with media quicker than misleading its practitioners into thinking there will be something major to report when, to their criteria, nothing could be further from the truth.

For unseasoned non-profit organizations, corporations, and individuals with an agenda to call attention to themselves, always consult a professional communications company for advice on creating a favorable relationship with the public.

Even the smallest communications firms--and this can be one person--will have the background to advise on the wisdom of holding a news conference.

The first point they will make is:  Hold a news conference only if such a thing is appropriate. The first rule of thumb they will make clear is:  venture into such unfamiliar territory only if there is something major to announce.

Major could be a change in top officers, major funding of a local initiative, explanation of a problem that has aroused community interest, candidacy in a forthcoming election  (or dropping out of the race) or anything else guaranteed to lead the evening news or create a headline.

If the communications advisor gives the go ahead, there will be plenty of work to do.

The company will:

  • Chose a convenient place such as a downtown hotel or convention hall.  NOT at the PR Company or even the office of the principal who's making the news.
  • Chose a time that will allow most of the media to easily meet daily deadlines. Mid morning is best.
  • Make available maps, schematics, photos and other exhibits to help explain the story.
  • Provide a backdrop for the speaker.
  • Create a fact sheet backgrounder or kit for handing out as media arrive or available at a table.
  • Write a news release summarizing basically the same thing being said. This will be distributed at the event, or faxed or E-mailed earlier with a date embargo.
  • Provide a refreshment table.
  • Telephone each of the media the previous afternoon to remind them of the event.

There are a number of other chores a communications company will take care of under the heading "important details". Tasks such as seeing that the news conference does not clash with another event in town, ensuring that there are sufficient electrical outlets for the camera crews, providing extra chairs, and dozens of other points will be tended to.

Added together, they will make for a good day at the office.

The company or individual in charge of the event will provide important advice for the newsmaker facing the media. This will probably be the head of the organization—the individual allowing himself or herself to be quoted extensively and be willing to deal with the impact of coverage.

Advice will also include what not to say. This could be in the form of nervous babbling which could create a whole new set of problems--another reason for second thoughts when considering a news conference.

Despite such drawbacks, news conferences will always have their place in daily journalism.   

Well executed and used responsibly, this tool will build goodwill, recognition in the community and most importantly, credibility.

Look for our next column, which will appear on in November, were we will look at the importance of professional conduct when dealing with the media, and the role of a good PR person.

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