Have you ever turned on the news and seen a person speaking to members of the press about a new product, a new player just signed to your home team or the president announcing a new policy? Maybe you saw Michael Vick apologize to fans and dog lovers after he pleaded guilty to the dogfighting charges brought against him. If so, then you've seen a press conference in action. A press conference is a staged public relations event in which an organization or individual presents information to members of the mass media.
Along with the press release, public relations professionals use press conferences to draw media attention to a potential story. Press conferences are typically used for political campaigns, emergencies and promotional purposes, such as the launch of a new product.
Presidents have been using press conferences since the Wilson administration to alert the country to their stance on issues or to calm public fears. Political activists hold press conferences to state opinion on proposed legislation, and candidates use them to communicate their stance on important issues.
Emergency press conferences are held in response to a crisis or disaster. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana and the president all held multiple press conferences to keep the country abreast of events that occurred, as well as the steps being taken to resolve the situation. Emergency press conferences serve a dual role as both public service and public relations, since those responsible for the crisis can use the press conference to regain public trust.
Promotional press conferences are among the most common. Public relations professionals use press conferences to make important announcements to gain coverage in newspapers, magazines, blogs and on TV news broadcasts. Reasons to hold a press conference include:
- Introducing a new product
- Revealing a new scientific breakthrough
- Unveiling a new advertising campaign
- Announcing a charity event with a featured celebrity
- Acquiring a new player on a sports team
- Releasing company financial statements
Promotional press conferences offer several advantages, such as the ability to reach all media outlets at the same time while controlling the message. A press conference also can build excitement or anticipation about an event.
Press conferences can waste time and money if the story isn't newsworthy or the press conference is poorly organized and executed. In this HowStuffWorks article, we're going to explain the ins and outs of planning a press conference, walk you through the key steps, and then explore the emerging trend of Web conferences.
Read on for step-by-step instructions on how to plan a press conference.
Planning a Press Conference
Step One: Choosing a Story
Not every news or event announcement deserves its own press conference. Press conferences require journalists to travel and set aside time from their busy schedules, so they should be reserved only for stories that are compelling and newsworthy.
For a story to be newsworthy, it should satisfy one or more of the following five requirements:
- Timing -- It's happening right now
- Significance -- It's affecting a lot of people, especially the target audience
- Proximity -- It's happening locally or to people with whom the audience relates
- Prominence -- It's happening to a famous person or organization
- Human Interest -- It's emotional, such as homeless pets or children living with cancer.
- A dramatic location that adds to the story
- Strong visuals and good photographic opportunities
- Having all the key players in one location to make statements and answer questions
- Opportunity for individual, post-press conference interviews with key players
Step Two: Choosing a Time and Location
Journalists work under tight deadlines. If you hold a press conference too close to when a reporter must file his story, he won't be able to attend. It's important to research the deadlines of local journalists and plan accordingly. Avoid Mondays and Fridays, because these days are likely to be the busiest for journalists. Mornings are always preferable, since it gives daily newspaper and broadcast journalists more time to write their story.
A press conference location is equally important for attracting journalists and serving their professional needs. On-location press conferences can add a dramatic, visual backdrop for an announcement. For example, if a company is donating money to clean a local river, it could hold the press conference at a scenic spot next to the water.
Some locations make it difficult to meet the technical and logistical requirements of the media. Some of these are:
- Having enough parking for important people and media, including room for large TV production trucks
- Availability of a stage, podium and audiovisual aids to present information
- Adequate seating for journalists and guests
- Enough electrical outlets to plug in computers, cameras and audiovisual equipment
- Ample room for TV cameras to set up their shots; perhaps on a raised platform in back
- A mult-box that allows media to receive direct audio feeds from one microphone
To meet these requirements, it's sometimes easier to hold press conferences in dedicated conference rooms, either at an organization's headquarters, a hotel or in a local press club.
Putting Together a Press Conference
Step Three: Invitations
Journalists are typically assigned a "beat", or particular news area to cover. Target press conference invitations to journalists and publications that have a proven interest in your news or event announcement.
Once you've narrowed down your list of journalists, write a press release and/or media advisory. The press release should explain the news or announcement without giving away the entire story. It should also list which key spokespersons will attend the event and their availability for one-on-one interviews.
Shorter than a press release, media advisories function as an invitation, detailing the date, time, location and other logistical information for attendees.
Press releases and media advisories can be sent by e-mail or fax, depending on the journalist's preference. Both should be sent out at least a week in advance of the press conference, and it's a good idea to make a reminder follow-up call or e-mail to the journalist a day before the event.
Step Four: Deciding Whom Will Speak and What They Will Say
Press conferences need a moderator or facilitator to introduce speakers and run the Q-and-A session. Choose the speakers carefully: informational experts who are well trained on working with the media.
Here are some media training tips for speaking at a press conference:
- Statements should take 10 minutes or less and be built around key "talking points."
- Speakers should be prepared with short, clear answers to expected questions.
- Limit press conferences to two speakers so the message doesn't get confused.
- Consider using visual aids such as posters or multimedia presentations to make your message clearer.
- Rehearse statements on camera, including mock Q-and-A format sessions.
Step Five: Assembling a Press Kit
A press conference's main goal is to make the journalist's job easier. Supply good sound bites and photo opportunities. Give journalists any additional pertinent information in a press kit, which should include:
- A press release summarizing the story, important facts and key players
- Bios and photos of the key players
- Fact sheets including copies of any graphs or charts presented during the press conference
- Contact information for follow-ups and interview requests
Many journalists now work in a digital environment, so it's helpful if the press kit includes digital copies of documents and photos, perhaps on a CD-ROM. The CD-ROM could include other promotional materials like TV commercials, video and audio files, and official logos and images.
Now that the planning stage is through, let's find out how to make things run smoothly on the day of the press conference.
Running a Press Conference
On the day of the press conference, everything should be designed to make life easier for all involved. Organizers need to arrive at least an hour before the press conference begins to double-check the physical and technical set-up of the room and to help camera crews get their equipment in place.
Make sure parking is easy to find, close to the location and free (or at least validated). If you expect TV coverage, arrange for special places to park satellite trucks. Direct journalists to the room in which the conference will be held, making sure that all routes are wheelchair accessible.
A greeter should direct journalists to the media check-in table. At the table, staff members can check press credentials, answer questions and hand out the press kit, including a program of who's going to speak and when. The staff can then direct the journalists to a clearly marked media area with seating that can accommodate laptop computers. Food and drink are optional, unless the press conference runs through lunch.
Start the press conference on time, even if only a few people have shown up. This shows respect for reporters' deadlines and the care they took to arrive on time.
The focus should always be on giving the journalist what he needs to do his job. The moderator should keep things moving, never indulging in lengthy introductions or re-hashing material that's stated in the press kit.
The press conference shouldn't run more than 30 to 45 minutes, including the Q-and-A format session. The moderator should ask reporters to identify themselves before asking a question and might want to repeat the question so everyone can hear it.
After the conference, it's a good idea to send press kits to journalists who showed interest in the press conference, but couldn't attend. However, with the gain in popularity of Web press conferences, journalists can attend virtually. Let's look at how Web conferencing technology brings press conferences right to a journalist's desktop.
Web Press Conferences
Web press conferences are a type of Web seminar, where an organizer invites a group of attendees to watch a live, streaming, online video presentation. The greatest advantage of a Web press conference is that journalists don't have to leave their desks to attend.
To hold a Web press conference, you'll need a digital video camera and a contract with a third-party hosting company. The hosting company takes the video feed from the press conference and compresses it into a digital codec like MPEG, Windows Media or QuickTime. The transmission is then encoded for playback over an IP network.
Here are some features of Web press conferences:
- Presenters can use desktop sharing to show documents, graphs, slideshows and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations
- For interactivity, presenters can give journalists chat capability or the option of instant messaging questions to the presenters.
- Web press conferences can be recorded and archived so journalists who couldn't attend the live presentation can download the video later.
- Journalists can register and check-in online so press conference organizers know who attended and who to follow-up with afterward.
Web press conferences also have their limitations. Bloggers and print journalists can get quotes from presenters and ask questions, but there's no opportunity to take photos. And TV news journalists can't use online video for their broadcasts because the quality of the video stream is too low.
To get around these limitations, consider holding a regular press conference and stream it online at the same time. Print journalists could get their photos, TV stations could get their video, and those unable to attend can watch from their office. Or, they could watch it later on the company's Web site.
For additional information about press conferences and related topics, check out the links on the following page.