What is press conferences?
Press conferences are occasions when someone with something to say which they believe is newsworthy calls reporters together so that they can tell them all at once. The person calling the press conference usually makes an announcement or statement first then allows reporters to ask questions.
The terms, media conferences or media calls, are also used, though usually about an event to which a company invites the media in order to promote a product, performance or a celebrity.
All sorts of people organise press conferences for all sorts of reasons.
- A politician may call one to announce a new policy or to deny an allegation. ÿ A scientist may call one to reveal a discovery.
- A police chief may call reporters together to give details of a crime or to ask for public help in solving a case.
Advantages of press conference
The main advantage of a press conference to the person calling it is that they do not have to repeat themselves to several different reporters at separate interviews. It also means that their announcement will have maximum impact by being in all the media at the same time (assuming that all the reporters think it is newsworthy).
The main advantage to the journalist is that it reduces the chance of individual newspapers or broadcast stations missing the story. It also allows them to share the workload of questioning the interviewee. If one reporter forgets or overlooks something, another reporter will probably think of it.
Disadvantages of press conference
There are disadvantages to the media in press conference, the major of which is that it is more difficult to get an exclusive story from press conferences. When every reporter hears the same words from the interviewee, they cannot keep secrets from each other.
There are ways of getting round this problem which we will discuss later.
Press conferences can also give false importance to the topic being promoted. Promoters try to convince journalists that by getting them all in the same place at the same time the topic is of great importance, when often it is nothing more than free publicity or advertising.
It is usual for the person who called the press conference to say what they want first then allow the journalists to ask questions. The speaker controls the situation from the start. They even control where and when the press conference takes place, although if journalists do not like the place or the time of the press conference they should let the organiser know.
Many journalists regard press conferences as gifts from the organiser, not to be questioned. Remember, if someone calls a press conference it is usually because they need the publicity you can give them. That gives you some control over the situation.
Preparation to press conference
- Never go out to cover any story without knowing roughly what to expect
- Do some research, it is vital. This can range from asking your editor or chief of staff what the press conference is about to a full-scale search through your local reference library for background material.
- Ask other people in the newsroom. If a politician calls a press conference and politics is not your round, go to the political correspondent for advice.
- Use your contacts outside the newsroom for background information.
- Prepare some questions in advance. These should be good enough to provide you with a story if the announcement itself is not very newsworthy. Remember, people who call press conferences will not always have your skill in recognizing a news angle.
Your questions do not have to be on the topic the organiser of the press conference wishes to talk about.
For example, if a public figure has been accused of corruption then calls a press conference to announce a new move in foreign policy, it is quite fair to ask them questions about the corruption allegations. They may not wish to answer them, but that should never stop a good journalist from asking questions.
Many people are suspicious of reporters’ questions, and may ask you to provide written questions in advance. This is acceptable if their sole purpose is to give you more accurate answers. It may, however, be an attempt to stop unpleasant questions. If you suspect that this is the case, you should try to get a promise that you will be allowed to ask other questions at the press conference itself. These are called supplementary questions. If they will not agree, you must ask yourself (and your editor) whether the press conference is worth attending.
- Arrive in good time.
- Positioning is quite important, especially at large press conferences. You should always sit near to the speaker, so that you do not miss anything said. If there are many journalists present, sitting in the center of the front row will ensure that you are not overlooked at question time. It is important that you hear questions from other reporters. If you are seated at the front and you cannot hear the question, you can be sure that the interviewee will not hear it either, so it will have to be repeated anyway.
- If you work for radio or television, or wish to record the press conference to support your notes, arrive with enough time to set up your microphone in front of the interviewee. For recording question time, you should either sit beside the interviewee holding the microphone so that you can point it towards questioners at the right moment, or use a tape recorder which has two microphones, one positioned in front of the interviewee, the other pointed towards the questioners.
WHEN THE CONFERENCE STARTS
Establish straight away whether what is being said is “on the record” (in which case everything can be quoted); “background” (in which the information can be quoted but not the name of the informant); or “off the record” (in which neither the information nor the informant can be quoted). “Off the record” information is for the reporter’s personal information.
Too much “off the record” information will undermine the credibility of your story, so try to get the interviewee to make statements “on the record” whenever possible. You should also establish at the start who the speaker represents on this occasion, if it has not already been made clear.
A statement may not be clear or may raise an interesting question. Make a quick note of anything you will want to ask at question time.
Always try to ask at least one question, if only to show your presence.
Phrase all your questions either
(a) to clarify statements you did not understand or
(b) to get new information. Avoid asking friendly questions simply to cover up an silence.
It is difficult to get an exclusive story from a press conference, because every reporter hears all the questions and answers. If you have gone to the press conference with some information which you think will give you an exclusive story, do not mention it during question time. Wait until the other reporters have left then ask your questions.
If speakers are unwilling to give a private interview, tempt them with a statement like: “There is something important I want to ask you that I don’t want anyone else to hear” said.
If you go there expecting a certain announcement and it is not made, don’t shrug your shoulders and leave. Ask about the topic. They may have something to hide.
AT THE END
- Do not be in a hurry to get away, unless you are facing a tight deadline. Hang around on the chance of getting background information, picking up a bit of gossip or simply developing contacts.
- If you have arranged a face-to-face interview, remind your interviewee and take them somewhere quiet to conduct it.
- If you work for a newspaper or television, you should ask for any pictures you think you might need.
For example, if a police chief says they are hunting an escaped criminal you should automatically ask if they have a picture of the man for publication. Also, if you want to illustrate your story with a picture of the speaker, think how you can get a better picture than simply a shot of him at the press conference.
For example, if the Health Minister is launching a campaign to test people for chest cancer, will he pose for pictures with an X-ray machine – preferably being x-rayed himself?
WRITE THE STORY
There are several things which you must include in your story. These are:
- The names and identities of speakers
- The key points of any announcements, denials or questions, necessary background details – Plenty of strong quotes.
- Do not include details such as the time and place of the press conference.
- Do not mention the fact that the news came from a press conference at all unless that is of significance to the story as a whole.
Don’t include the fact that it was a press conference in the intro, unless that is significant. Such a case would be if a minister was expected to announce a major policy change and then cancelled the scheduled press conference at the last minute.
The Foreign Minister today cancelled a Press conference at which he was expected to announce new sanctions against South Africa. It is understood that the last-minute cancellation was due to a disagreement in Cabinet over the sanctions.
A police chief today told a Press conference about the theft of a light aircraft from Jacksons Airport.
- Press conferences are a useful way of getting information if you use them to your advantage.
- Always prepare yourself before attending a press conference. Find out something about the possible topics and the people holding the press conference.
- Arrive with enough time to settle in before the conference starts.
- Always ask at least one question.
- If you think you have an exclusive story, do not reveal it to other journalists at the conference.
- Radio and television journalists should try to record an individual interview after the conference.
- In newspapers, do not include your questions in the story – only the newsworthy answers.