101: News Conferences

By George Merlis Monday, August 22, 2011

There are many ways to disseminate news about your achievements, your company, your projects:  you can write a blog, send out a press release, initiate a call-in to a radio talk show, pitch yourself to an individual reporter who covers your area of expertise.  Today, let’s deal with one of the most effective methods of communicating with the public through the media: the news conference.

Before you call a news conference, be sure you have something to say. I teach clients that news conferences should be reserved for truly big news or in response to media inquiries about a major event -- especially a crisis.  When you are busy doing damage control in a crisis, the news conference may be the most time-efficient way to handle large numbers of inquiries from diverse media outlets. Since news conferences allow you to reach many media outlets simultaneously, you can save a lot of time.

But  a news conference can be more challenging than a one-on-one interview where the reporter‘s questions offer clues to his agenda.   In a news conference reporters may have very different agendas - some of those will mesh with yours, others may conflict.  Dodge a question in a one-on-one interview and the reporter may or may not press the point.  Dodge a question in front of a dozen reporters and at least a few of them will be waving eagerly to get your attention so they can put your feet back to the fire.

Many news conferences involve media with somewhat varying levels of expertise and interest.  The Wall Street Journal reporter is likely to know more -- and ask more sophisticated questions -- than a radio reporter from an all-news station.  So you are often faced with the question of how sophisticated to make your answers. Your best bet is to stick to the basics so you don’t exclude the mass audience.  If a reporter needs more arcane information, he can often get it from the handout materials.

Which brings me to what you should display and hand out at a news conference.  I recommend making your presentation as graphically interesting as possible, using slideshows, videos, charts and the like.  I also recommend giving the assembled media supporting documentation and all the visuals you use on DVDs  You want to supply reporters with anything that will enhance your message.

Always begin a news conference with an opening statement.  If you don't take advantage of that opportunity, you are yielding control of the agenda. Also, deliver the first and last lines of your opening statement from memory.  This will go a long way toward engaging the room right from the start.   If you are looking down and reading, you are telling the reporters that, in effect, you don’t have mastery over the subject.

It’s important to establish command of the situation even before you speak. Stride in, face the audience and begin your remarks, looking right at them.  Don’t fish in your pockets for materials and notes, don’t grip the lectern to hold you up, and never rest your elbows on the lectern, it looks sloppy and insecure.

You do have control during your opening remarks.  The Q & A session is more challenging.  Introduce it with a line like:  “I'll now take questions for ten minutes.”  This serves notice the Q&A session is finite. Occasionally, reporters are slow to come up with questions.  If they are, ask yourself the first question: “I'm frequently asked about....” Always ask yourself a question that enables one of your agenda points.  In fact, you can even ask yourself one of the tough questions you anticipate.  Doing that shows the media you aren’t afraid of their inquiries and it also enables you to phrase the question in a milder form than a reporter who could ask the same thing in a far more prosecutorial manner.

If hands do go up, take your first question from a reporter  who has treated you fairly in the past, because chances are he will do it again. Keep an eye on the clock.  If you said ten minutes, at eight or nine minutes, say, “We have time for one or two more questions.”  Take a question from someone you know or from someone representing a reputable outlet.  If the question allows you to make one of your agenda points, don’t take a second question (you did say one OR two more questions, not two more questions).  If the first question didn’t allow you to make a positive point, take a second one.  If that one, too, puts you in the same bind, end it there; there’s no percentage in going on in the vain pursuit of a positive question.

When you end the news conference, that should be the end of your communication with the media for that period of time.  Don’t linger behind and answer stray questions.  For one thing, it is unfair to reporters who cannot hear your answers, for another it is a favorite trick of reporters to ask really tough questions once they think your news conference guard it down.  It’s a little like throwing a sucker punch at a boxer as he walks up the aisle to the dressing rooms after he’s gone 10 rounds with an opponent.  In this case you’re the boxer and you’re likely to sustain a lot more damage in the aisle than you did in the ring.


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