Managing a Press Conference
Press conferences are media events. They are designed to either get positive press coverage of an announcement by your organisation, perhaps of a new policy, product or service, or to limit negative coverage of a problem or disaster.
Press conferences are unlike any other presentation opportunity, and the repercussions can be serious if you mess up, so it is well worth finding out how to manage them well.
When to Hold a Press Conference
There are many ways to get media coverage. A press conference should only be used under three circumstances:
1. When you have big news to communicate
Press conferences take a fair bit of organising, and they are not easy events to manage. You therefore only want to hold one when you have really big news to communicate, and want to get it out to a large audience as fast as possible.
2. When the news is about to break
No journalist worth their salt will turn up to a press conference if the news has already broken. It has to be ‘new’ news. The only exception is if you’re responding to a disaster but, even then, the press conference has to be the first time that you have given a formal response, or you have to have something new to share with the media.
3. When journalists want to know
If nobody’s asking, then probably nobody wants to know and the press won’t turn up at your press conference. The time to hold a press conference is when you can’t manage the phones because so many journalists are seeking information.
The Logistics of Press Conferences
Larger organisations may well have a press office whose job it is to arrange press conferences and advise you about doing so.
If not, there are several areas to consider:
24-hour rolling news has rather changed the landscape of press conferences, but it’s still worth remembering that news organisations may be aiming at specific television slots.
A mid-morning press conference gives you the best chance of hitting one of those slots. Mid-week is also generally considered better, as it is quieter for news.
You don’t have to go anywhere fancy to hold a press conference.
A meeting room will do, provided that there is a suitable ‘top table’ and plenty of room for the press. But if you do go elsewhere, don’t forget to visit to check the venue is suitable, and also make sure that you have a ‘plan B’ in case there’s a problem.
If you’re responding to a disaster, it may be a good idea to be at the location of the problem. If nothing else, it will demonstrate that your top team is on site and not 500 miles away.
The important point is that your venue is easy for the media to get to, and also kitted out with all the necessary equipment for them.
You want professional sound equipment, so if necessary rent it from a PR company who can advise you on what you’ll need.
Also make sure that you get a technician who can resolve any problems. At the very least, you’ll need microphones so that everyone can hear what your speakers are saying.
It can also be helpful to video the event, just in case breaking news elsewhere means that some press teams don’t attend. Also, make sure that there is a strong mobile phone signal and a wifi connection, with the access code freely available.
You will need to provide a folder of information, including a press release, details of attendees at the press conference, quotes from senior managers in the organisation, and any partners you can persuade to say something positive, plus details of any plans. Also include a website with further information.
You need to consider who should attend. Who is best from your organisation?
Pick people with high credibility who will be able to speak well and articulately, including in response to questions.
Should you also include representatives from stakeholder organisations? Are they going to speak, or just be available to answer questions and give interviews afterwards?
Ideally, you want just one or two speakers, but make sure that everyone who is attending can stay to give media interviews afterwards, as this will ensure that any journalists who get diverted can turn up late and still get the story.
Make sure that the area behind your speakers is blank and/or has your organisational logo.
You don’t want your speakers to be shown on television with pipes apparently sticking out of their heads, or anything distracting going on behind. If possible, include details of your organisation’s website on the backdrop and/or podium or table.
Consider using a moderator to run the event, for example, introducing speakers and directing the questions to the appropriate person. You could, for example, bring in an experienced PR person to moderate, or even a friendly journalist.
Inviting the Press
It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to let local and, if applicable, national press know that you’re holding a press conference!
Managing the Press Conference
There are two main areas to consider here: presenting your information, and responding to questions.
There is really only one important rule here: keep it brief.
Say what you need to say and then stop. If you have more than one speaker, brief each one to make three to five points, over no more than about three to five minutes. The whole press conference should last no more than 45 minutes, including questions.
Do not use PowerPoint, or any other visual aids.
Focus on the story that you want to tell. Journalists are busy people: if you can give them a story that they can use, it makes their lives much easier. This makes it more likely that they won’t go looking for another angle, but will use the one that you’ve given them.
If you don’t give them a story, they will find their own and you may not like it.
Responding to Questions
This is probably the hardest part of managing a press conference, because you don’t know what’s going to come up.
Prepare as much as you can beforehand by working out what might be asked, and putting together a good response to each difficult question. It’s a good idea to practise with someone pretending to be the journalists. If you have more than one person speaking at the press conference, agree beforehand who is going to answer which types of question.
Also make sure that your moderator is alert to questions that are outside the scope of the press conference, especially if they are hostile. They need to be ready to jump in and say something like:
“I’m afraid that question is outside our scope today. Would anyone like to ask a question about the material that we’ve discussed?”
Beware of journalists tempting you to use certain phrases by ‘infecting’ you. They may want quotes that they can use out of context, because those make great headlines.
Example: Infective Text
At a press management training event, a team of students was pretending to be the board of large supermarket chain holding a press conference. One journalist said:
Can you tell us more about this poisoned food that’s been found in one of your stores?
The group looked at each other, aghast. The briefing for the exercise hadn’t mentioned poisoned food and, in fact, it was just the journalist playing games to see what would happen. One of them spoke up.
We’re not admitting to any poisoned food.
As soon as she said it, she realised that she had been caught out. A quote out of context and a headline for the paper the next day, had that been a real press conference.
Press conferences around bad news, and especially accidents or disasters, are a special case. See our page on Crisis Communications for more.
After the Event
It’s a good idea to follow up with local and national news teams to make sure that they got all that they needed.
Particularly if there was another event on the day, and some press teams didn’t make it to your press conference, call and let them know that you have a recording, and send a media kit by email. They may be able to use some of it even if they weren’t there. You can also offer to set up interviews with the participants later if necessary.
It’s also good practice to share news coverage yourself, via social media and your own website, for maximum publicity, and also to review your press conference and the resulting coverage to see what you can learn from it.