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When & How to Hold a News Conference

By Ed Shiller

Be forewarned. News conferences can be fraught with danger. Demonstrators or hecklers can steal the thunder of your message and grab the spotlight on the 6 o'clock news. A reporter with an axe to grind may dwell on negative issues, which will then be reported by the other journalists in the room. Or your "news" conference may not be sufficiently newsworthy to attract the media.

So before you decide to call a news conference, make sure that the circumstances meet ALL of the three following criteria:

  1. The media will require some form of contact with you -- to ask questions, to take photographs or video or to interact with a new product or piece of equipment.
  2. AND a large number of media want to cover the story.
  3. AND the media must cover the story right now -- it can't wait until tomorrow.

Unless all three criteria are met, you can satisfy the needs of the media by sending out a news release and setting up one-on-one interviews. This will minimize the risk of losing control and it will give each reporter an opportunity to develop his or her own unique approach to the story.

Room Set-up

If all the criteria are met and the decision is made to proceed with a news conference, then do it right. That means setting up the room to prevent reporters, photographers and videographers from getting in each other's way.

Here's what to do:

  1. Put the head table on a raised platform.
  2. Place the reporters' chairs in a single block (that is, no centre aisle) with the front row just two or three feet in front of the platform. (This will prevent photographers from rushing directly in front of the platform, where they will obstruct the view of reporters and video camera operators.).
  3. Place a long, narrow table along the right or left side of the room, perpendicular to the head table and about three or four feet from the reporters' chairs. If it's a really big news conference, you might want to place a table along the right and left sides of the room. Put a few chairs behind the table or tables.
  4. Put a single microphone in front of each person who will speak from the head table, and connect the microphone(s) to audio feed boxes stationed on each of the side tables and on the floor in the back of the room.
  5. Set up flood lights for front and back lighting of the head table.

With the room set up in this manner, print reporters can sit in the chairs in front of the head table. If they want to record the news conference, they can plug their tape recorders into the audio feed box on the table. Radio reporters can sit with the print reporters or behind the table and also plug their tape recorders into the audio feed box. TV reporters can sit with the print reporters. Photographers can roam along the side aisles, where they won't get in anyone else's way. The video camera operators can set up their cameras behind the reporters' chairs and plug their audio tape recorders into the audio feed box on the floor. They will be able to get an eye-level shot of the speaker (who is perched on the raised platform) over the heads of the seated reporters. And because you've set up the lights, the photographers won't have to use flashes and the video camera operators will not need to turn on the harsh spotlights that jut from the top of their Betacams.

Now everyone - radio, print and TV reporters; photographers, and video camera operators - will have their needs met without getting in each other's hair.

Conducting the Conference

Now that you've set up the room properly you can turn your attention to the main event - conducting your news conference. Here's what to do:

Distribute a prepared media kit.
The media kit is an indispensable part of the news conference. It tells your story the way you want it told. It answers many of the questions you anticipate the media will ask. And it provides background information that will add credibility to your messages and gives reporters the opportunity to develop more deeply into the story. A good media kit ought to contain a news release, the full text of any prepared remarks, relevant fact sheets and backgrounders and possibly a photo and bio of the speaker.

Welcome the media.
The media are there as your guests; they represent a golden opportunity for getting your key messages across to your vital publics - so treat all media people with respect. Try to make their job easier, and if need be, do it for them. This will give you greater influence over the media's handling of your story. To provide an effective welcome, set up a table by the entrance. The PR person at the table will greet all arriving reporters, photographers and video camera operators by giving each of them the complete media kit. You may also ask the media people to sign a register or drop their business cards in a jar. But you may not get upset if they refuse. And you may not withhold the media kit.

Many executives and some PR people argue that giving out the media kit before the news conference is a bad idea because "then the reporter might leave without hearing what I have to say." So what! If the media kit is all that the reporter needs, then why hold the news conference in the first place? Indeed, if all the reporter wants is your media kit, then you will actually have more influence over the published or broadcast news item, since the media kit - upon which the reporter will now rely - tells the story the way you want it told. And finally, when you withhold the media kit until the end of the news conference, you simply irritate the media, make their jobs much more difficult and thereby increase the likelihood that the resulting stories will be inaccurate or biased against you.

Just bear in mind that your purpose is not to get the media to attend your news conference, it is to get positive media coverage.

Start the news conference.
When the appointed hour of the news conference arrives, the PR person goes to the head table, briefly thanks the media for coming and immediately introduces the speaker, who then enters the room and walks to the head table. There are two reasons for this walk, as short as it might be. First, it adds a pinch of movement to the usually static news conference (there isn't much dynamism in a talking head), thus increasing the likelihood that the evening news will carry a sound bite. Second, it keeps the speaker under wraps until the start of the news conference. You don't want the speaker informally dodging probing questions from reporters milling around room. Once introduced, the speaker delivers a three to five minute speech that contains the news and key messages that prompted the news conference. He or she then opens the floor to questions. The speaker recognizes a reporter, answers the question, recognizes the same reporter again if there is a follow-up question, answers that and then recognizes the next reporter to raise a hand.

Ending the Conference

Ideally, a news conference ends itself. That is, the reporters just stop asking questions. When this happens, the spokesperson - or the PR person, if he or she is acting as "host" or "hostess" - thanks everyone for attending.

Life, however, isn't always so accommodating. A reporter or two may continue on the same topic, question after question, in what seems like an endless merry-go-round. If that happens, the person acting as host or hostess should politely say that the hour is late and there is time for just a few more questions. That in itself may stop the flow of repetitive questions, in which case the host or hostess just thanks everyone for attending. If not, allow two or three more questions, then thank everyone for attending.

At this point, many of the reporters will make for the nearest exit. But for a few, the formal end of the news conference is just the beginning of the information-gathering process. That's because the really good reporters will wait until after the news conference ends to pose their most poignant questions. After all, why would a creative reporter want to share his or her unique approach to the story with other less enterprising but nonetheless competing reporters?

Well, they won't. And the result is the "scrum" - that mad dash to the podium to catch the spokesperson before he or she disappears into the shadows. Since trying to outrun the media will only produce embarrassing footage for the 6 o'clock news, the best thing is to stand your ground, greet the oncoming reporters with a relaxed and accommodating smile and remain until all their questions are answered. Regard the scrum as nothing more than a natural extension of the news conference.

Ed Shiller is President of Toronto-based Shiller & Associates Inc., which specializes in media training, media relations, crisis communications and strategic public relations. For more details, visit his Web site or contact him directly by phone (416-496-2243) or E-mail (