ANALYSIS: Is this the end of eye-to-eye contact? - The launch last month of the Media Forum was designed to bring together journalists and PROs in an age of rare face-to-face contact. Andy Allen on the death of the press conference

In the drive to bring maximum efficiency to the PR industry,

personal contact between PROs and journalists may be falling by the

wayside - and with it an essential element of trust.



The main casualty is that old industry staple - the press

conference.



Ten years ago barely an excuse was needed to gather hacks together and

bombard them with information from the platform. Now press conferences

are old hat in all but a few circumstances.



Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson knocked another nail into

their coffin when he blew the whistle on Man Utd's weekly press briefing

last month - ostensibly to spend more time with his players but

reportedly because of tension between him and the media over United's

performances.



Ferguson's decision has little in common with the factors that have seen

the press conference increasingly sidelined - he has frequently

expressed what he feels to be the futility of talking to the media.



But elsewhere, the rapid growth of communications technology enabling

quicker and cheaper dissemination of information has played a greater

role than acrimony in governing whether or not press conferences will be

held.



So has technology made face-to-face meetings redundant to such an extent

that personal contact is becoming a thing of the past? And should

attempts be made to bring journalists and PROs together when a click of

the button could save time and money?



News release distributor na europe thinks so. It launched Media Forum

last month with the aim of ensuring the two can still rub shoulders in

the real as well as virtual world. Chairman David Davis says the forum,

which will run seminars and discussion events as well as informal

gatherings, has 100 members from within PR - journalists are invited to

forums without requiring membership. The first forum was held two weeks

ago in association with the European Journalism Centre.



Davis says the rapid distribution of information puts a premium on

efficiency and reaching large numbers at the expense of relationships.

He is not the only one - most people canvassed for this article believe

they could benefit from increased personal contact and the trust that

goes with it.



'Relationships are at the core of good PR, but they're increasingly hard

to develop,' says Davis. By providing what is essentially an excuse for

two parties to get together, he hopes that rare element of contact can

be revived.



Davis's view on the death of the press conference is backed by those in

this niche sector. Tim Harris, owner of conference producer The

Presentation Factor, says: 'We are asked to stage a lot fewer press

conferences now. There's been a climate change - people just don't

automatically attend a jolly the way they might have done a few years

ago.'



Rather than attributing this decline to technology, Harris says people

are simply too busy to attend such events and need better justification

for going to the required time and expense.



Graham Goodkind, Frank PR chairman and a former Lynne Franks aide with

experience arranging press conferences throughout the Nineties,

concurs.



He puts the decline of the press conference down to new moods within the

media industries.



Extra pressure on journalists and deskbound editorial staff mean all but

the most justifiable events are likely to be poorly attended. From a PR

point of view, Goodkind cites the decline of the Ab Fab mentality of

endless wining and dining at clients' expense. 'Why spend £20,000

on an event, when info can be circulated to hundreds of journalists

electronically?' he asks.



But like Davis he sees the drive towards efficiency at the expense of

personal relationships as potentially damaging. 'It will separate us

over time and that is going to be a problem,' he warns.



Although one-to-one meetings are still common, and off-the-record

briefings continue to thrive, there are areas where press conferences

still have a role to play. In sport, for example, the departure of a

footballer from one team to another is invariably heralded by a

flashbulb-heavy press conference at which the opportunity for the player

to meet the local press corps of his new employer is exploited to the

full.



Crisis management likewise benefits from old-style conferences, where

reporters' questions can be dealt with in one swoop and the legs of the

story controlled. This is particularly true of government work at the

moment, since technological advances make press conferences both more

watchable for reporters and more efficient for government briefers.



And in the financial sector - especially in IR - press conferences

remain a way of life, according to The Financial Times diarist Sundeep

Tucker, who claims that he and his colleagues are out and about as much

as ever.



Despite this, agency PROs accept technology has damaged the utility and

viability of press conferences. But according to David Hargreaves,

Firefly Communications deputy MD, the solution to estrangement may be

more technology, not less. As broadband connections become more

effective, video conferencing will make electronic communication more

personal and more interactive.



The Presentation Factor, for example, has held its first virtual

conference attracting 250 people - Harris claims a similar event in the

non-virtual world would have been lucky to attract 30.



As industry sources point out, virtual conferences are only likely to

provide a substitute for personal relationships if a relationship

already exists.



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