No one likes press conferences. No one. Reporters prefer to complete their assignments any other way than answering a cattle call to get exactly the same info that everyone else gets. The people at the lectern would rather be doing anything else – maybe even their day jobs – than be shepherded into a crowded room of faces that clearly would rather be anywhere else.
PR people who host them loathe the events because they know the aforementioned will never be happy at the outcome and will blame PR. Even the sound techs in the back of the room dread being there because they know at least one speaker will try to swallow the mic despite being shown just minutes earlier that it was unnecessary to have the device that close to one’s mouth.
So why have them?
A cursory search didn’t turn up much in the way of press conference history, except that Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential presser in March 1913, reportedly an accident. His private secretary invited a small gathering of 100 or so “newspapermen” to chat with the new president. Wilson wasn’t ready for a formal speech and, to everyone’s delight, didn’t give one. That was the last time that happened.
We had a brief moment in the early days of social media when many in PR thought the whole construct of mass media, including news outlets as the conduit, would radically change and we would leap over reporters to issue news directly to “the people.” What fun! People will love us!
But people didn’t love our corporate-videos-labeled-news. They liked the videos – they just didn’t consider them news. And no matter how many articles were published about the death of the press release, it didn’t die, and we still needed to talk to reporters. And have press conferences.
Is it possible to have a presser that doesn’t suck? Yes. The first step is to look at ourselves in the mirror, raise our right hand and pledge to do better. Then, vow to assume control of any meeting where someone raises the idea of a press conference by asking the following four questions (loudly and with authority) before going any further.
Be warned. When you ask this, people will look at you with horror. That’s good. Follow with a softer, “What is the point?” Okay. Maybe that’s not softer, but you get it. This feels like the place one might fill in the blank on a planning document that’s titled “Goal” or “Objective” except you don’t want to do that right now. That assumes the decision to hold a presser has been established and it has not. It also opens the door to hours of closed-door, writing-by-committee sessions and endless routing of review documents through chains-of-command who should be concentrating on their supply chains instead. Avoid that.
2. Who talks?
This is not the same question as “Who’s in charge?” or even “Who gets to stand up behind the speaker at the front of the room?” Those answers come later and, frankly, aren’t important right now. The first question informs this one but be careful this doesn’t become participation trophy time. Press conferences today often have enough people on the podium to perform a Broadway musical – and they all get time at the mic. This is painful for everyone. See first paragraph above for reference. While multiple speakers are necessary in some cases, more is not better. Ever.
3. Who’s invited?
This question will elicit smirks from your colleagues and the occasional eyeroll. The press, of course. But attendee-creep is a real thing. They didn’t make the cut to stand, quietly, up front so maybe they could be in the audience. We might need them to answer a question (never). Before you know it, your room has more company people than reporters. Looks matter and that looks bad. Pretend it’s a wedding dinner and every seat is a $100 plate. Third cousins twice removed don’t make the list.
4. When do I hold the rehearsal?
Carefully note how this question is put. It establishes two important points: There IS a rehearsal and YOU, the comms professional, are in charge of it. You are not a dictator, of course, so you will take input from others under advisement, but one person – ideally the pro in the room – is in command of the message and the people delivering the message. This is no one’s Woodrow Wilson moment to wing it. Watching a recent, much-covered presser with local elected officials, I found myself talking to only to the phone in my hand with increasing volume and irritation, “Stop. Stop talking. Really stop talking. Stop. Talking. NOW!” I was not the only viewer who felt that way. Believe me, you do not want to spend the days following your press conference issuing “clarification statements” because someone wanted Improv Night.
I cannot guarantee your next press conference won’t suck. Asking the questions others are too polite to ask, however, will greatly change those odds in your favor.