Module JP030

News Conferences

Module author

Stephen K. Dishart

City University of New York
USA and

Crisis Management Consultants

Learning objectives After you have worked through this study material, you will be able to:
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Study points 2
Reading extract News Conferences


Why Open School of Journalism believes that skills in organizing news conferences are important

Whether a student decides to take a purely journalistic career path or gets directly into a public relations job, news conferences are an inevitability. At first blush, many students don't see news conferences as complicated; a PR professional sends out press releases followed by media alerts, reporters and interested parties show up at the appointed venue and an orchestrated question and answer exchange ensues. Mission complete? Not so fast. Planning, organizing and staging a news conference is a complex, detail-rich task that requires orchestration if everyone involved is to declare it a success.

What is a news conference? It's a pre-planned event staged in a public venue or via electronic media to provide press and/or interested parties with information about a noteworthy topic, breaking news or a marketing strategy or introduction. Since the news conference gathers a large audience in one place, it's a cost-effective way to disseminate information.


Why study this course module?

Why are news conferences important for journalists and public relations professionals? Because they give organizers an opportunity to control the message or objectives in real time. Press conferences regularly result in free publicity in the form of electronic and/or print media if a story is picked up. Press conferences are timely ways to grab the attention of people capable of spreading the word about a cause, issue or product.


Overview of the Module

Students will be expected to achieve the following outcomes as a result of studying the theory and practice of news conferences. All aspects of planning and staging these events will be covered in detail and the student will be required to put together an action plan that includes all information on the class syllabus. After successfully completing this module, students can expect to be well versed in everything from the history of news conferences to possessing skills necessary to handle post-conference follow-up. Students can anticipate learning about media content distribution resulting from press releases that include, but are not limited to, print, broadcast and Internet. Further, students will learn how to integrate news conferences into a comprehensive public relations campaign on behalf of clients, organizations and businesses so they understand how news conferences impact public opinion via multiple platforms, including web, print, mobile, electronic, radio and social media channels.


Chapter 1: Background.

Historical development of news conferences. Students will be exposed to curricula that covers the history of the first presidential news conferences held by Woodrow Wilson's staff in 1913 through the evolution and expansion of these events, now used by everyone from presidents to corporations in the interest of generating media buzz. Further, students will learn to recognize subtle shifts that have taken place over the past 100+ years and will be asked to compare and contrast aspects of this evolution. Contemporary application of skill sets will prepare students for everything from a simple corporate product introduction to a sophisticated, lavish media event.

Chapter 2: Time and Place is everything.

From the origins of news conferences traditionally staged only on the White House lawn to today's "on location" style of producing media events, students will learn how the right backdrop and environment has the power to advance causes, movements and impacts the delivery of timely news and announcements. Students will learn how to pick a time and place that won't conflict with other breaking news—a cat-and-mouse game that requires knowing the community, the players and news events surrounding media calendars.

Introduction to the news conference. Is it worth spending the time and money it takes to produce a press conference? That depends upon many circumstances, thus students will learn to identify and evaluate criteria that includes prevailing opinion, social or business climates, the availability of venues and an evaluation of how to stage the event in such a way that media will turn out to report on the informational message. Incentivizing media is of particular importance, so students will learn ask this question before proposing one: If there's nothing in it for a reporter, why waste the time to attend?

Financial significance. As a rule, expenses associated with holding a news conference may require a budgetary line item if a venue, podium, risers, audio-visual equipment and/or furniture must be rented. Students will learn how to creatively source such necessities to minimize the overall outlay required to stage the event.

Location and scope. Controlling the environment is important to anyone working behind the scenes to stage a successful news conference. Students will learn how to search for appropriate locations that are compelling, effective and in keeping with the reason for the news conference. Thinking out of the box and beyond hotel ballrooms and civic centers is important, thus students will learn to link messages with locations (e.g., a new environmental law introduced by a spokesperson and delivered at a wildlife refuge to which media has been invited).

Timing. News conference times are set in stone. If the press release and media advisory announce a 2 p.m. start time, that doesn't mean 2:05 p.m. unless mitigating circumstances intervene. Students will be expected to learn broadcast and print deadlines that can impact the distribution of timely information. Knowing the news cycle plus producer deadlines is critical. For live news, particularly, deadlines are sacrosanct.

Chapter 3: Content is King

Reputations are built and destroyed by badly staged news conferences that promise too much and deliver too little. Just as journalists must build reputations over time, so must the public relations professional build a reputation, thus students undertaking this module will learn how to position an issue, make an announcement or deliver a product introduction that contains enough newsworthy information to make attending a news conference worthwhile for attendees. Shaping content is an art that also requires students to evaluate what works and what doesn't.

The media advisory. Next to the press release, the media advisory has assumed an important place in the cycle of notifying press about upcoming news conferences. As part of a media kit, the advisory is a relatively bare-bones document encapsulating the "who, what, where and why" of a press conference that has already been announced via a formal press release around two weeks in advance of the event. Students will learn how to write media advisories that get results.

Event decision making. Not every news conference that's scheduled sees the light of day, so students must learn how to recognize signs that signal the potential cancellation of the event in the wake of controversy, social media rumors and accusations. Students will learn to build "back out" dates into pending news conference plans that allow for cancellation, even at the last minute. For example, a celebrity press conference scheduled to launch a new movie may justify cancellation if negative headlines surrounding the star are splashed across media channels.

Media savvy. Having reporters on speed dial—those who will actually take calls or return them promptly—is an art every student must learn if they hope to get press coverage for their events. Students are expected to gather tips, techniques and advice from working press and public relations professionals that they can put into immediate practice once they begin working.

Chapter 4: Organization

Juggling incoming reporter's questions leading up to the news conference requires a particular skill set. Students will learn to walk a fine line centered on a single message that requires a high degree of diplomatic skill, fast thinking and enough pre-organizational policies, position papers and backgrounders to avoid spur-of-the-moment surprises that can sink a press conference once it begins.

Event announcements. Once upon a time, clever public relations experts used gimmicks, incentives and special relationships to entice news media to cover news conferences. These days, social media, targeted e-mails and communications are used primarily to entice attendance to news conferences. Students will learn to shape these communications so they are timely and relevant.

Agendas. No respectable reporter who's overly committed will look favorably upon (or attend) a news conference with no specific agenda. Therefore, students will learn techniques for writing lean and mean agendas that channel attention toward the main message, giving attendees essential information needed to help them ask relevant questions and flesh out their stories after the news conference is over.

Technical matters and other preparation. At the heart of communication efforts is the all-important media list; a PR specialist's access to the right people at the right time and for the right reason. Students will learn how to build and categorize proprietary lists for quick retrieval when contact is made, focusing on sorted lists that can be pulled by zip code, beat coverage and journalistic priorities. Additionally, logistics are central to planning. From functioning audio-visual equipment to podiums, Internet access and bottles of water, no detail is too small, which is why students will learn to develop their own checklists so nothing falls through the cracks.

Chapter 5: Preparing spokespeople

Some people are natural orators. Others are intimidated by being put on the spot. But proper preparation can embolden a speaker, which is why students learn the art of preparing the person in the hot seat for what to expect at the upcoming news conference. Students will be asked to put themselves in the shoes of reporters and draw up questions to be directed at the spokesperson as well as being put on the spot as the spokesperson for experiential reaction.

Preparation. Students will learn the value of and techniques associated with formal media training, including tips for conducting question-and-answer drills that are videotaped and played back for critiques so performance can be refined and improved. The PR professional often winds up as a coach and confidant—particularly if the spokesperson has been tapped for multiple appearances.

Rehearsal. Just as no lawyer puts a witness on the stand without preparing her for lethal questions posed by the other side, so no public relations professional exposes their spokesperson to the media without fully vetting his performance. Toward that end, students will learn how to set up mock news conferences complete with microphone, dais and "reporters" prepared to direct rapid-fire questions at the spokesperson to identify weaknesses before the big day. By controlling every aspect of the rehearsal, students learn what to expect when the full weight of this responsibility lands in their laps.