PR TECHNIQUE: E-CONFERENCING - Right back at ya: making the online press conference interactive. An increasing number of PR pros are turning to the Internet to conduct press conferences, which allows them to use all sorts of media tools to foster back- an

The reasons for doing e-conferences seem obvious: because no travel is necessary, more reporters can ’attend,’ and e-conferences add a visual element not possible over the phone, allowing for product demonstrations and the like.

The reasons for doing e-conferences seem obvious: because no travel is necessary, more reporters can ’attend,’ and e-conferences add a visual element not possible over the phone, allowing for product demonstrations and the like.

The reasons for doing e-conferences seem obvious: because no travel

is necessary, more reporters can ’attend,’ and e-conferences add a

visual element not possible over the phone, allowing for product

demonstrations and the like.



As e-conferencing has grown in popularity, vendors have found ways to

increase interactivity between clients and the media. ’You cannot be

successful on the Internet if you treat it like a television program

that you sit back and watch,’ says Sally Jewett, president of On the

Scene Productions in Los Angeles.



One way to achieve interaction is allowing reporters to ask questions

during the conference. While this capability has been around since the

introduction of the e-conference, Patrick Pharris, president and CEO of

Electronic Media Communications in Irvine, CA, says that it’s just now

gaining prominence. He believes that most e-conferences should include a

Q&A session, even when a client is announcing bad news. ’I can’t think

of a reason why you would want to limit the interactivity of the

Internet,’ says Pharris.



’It’s a good thing to do for press relationship purposes,’ adds Jeff

Schulz, VP of marketing and corporate communications for New York-based

MediaOnDemand.com. ’It signifies that the company holding the conference

is interested in two-way communication, not just broadcasting an

idea.’



There are several ways companies can hold Q&A sessions, with text

methods the most popular. Those include e-mailing questions to the

conference moderator, chat boxes that allow people to type in questions

to the moderator (and in some cases, other conference participants) and

online forms where participants type in a question. In general, chat

room technologies rely on standard plug-ins that come with the browser,

so if a person can see and hear the e-conference, the

question-and-answer session won’t pose any other challenges.



Audio options include having participants dial into a toll-free number

to pose questions, which everyone can hear, or asking questions through

microphones on their computers. For those looking to interact through

audio and video, another option in the future may be two-way

Webcasting.



Pharris says that the capability to stream two audio and two video

windows simultaneously does not currently exist, although he believes

that it will be possible in the future.



According to Linda Zimmer, e-conferencing and e-business specialist for

On the Scene Productions, companies should stick with text-based

capabilities, because it’s something that everyone will be able to use.

However, she predicts that eventually all computers will come off the

shelf with audio and video capabilities, including video cameras.

Regardless of which method companies choose, Pharris says that there

should always be a place to contact conference moderators via

e-mail.



Nathan Bieck, director of corporate communications for E-Conference in

Boulder, CO, cautions that companies should ’use what works today, not

what’s available today.’ For instance, when E-Conference client MapInfo

was introducing a product to a new vertical market, the company

insisted, against E-Conference’s advice, on using IP streaming instead

of the telephone to provide the audio portion of the conference. ’People

had trouble hearing, and it shook the leader of the show,’ says

Bieck.



Experts recommend having a high-ranking PR pro screen the questions to

ensure that only pertinent ones get through. While companies can have

any length Q&A session they choose, Marc Newman, associate VP of special

services for Medialink, says it should generally last between 20 and 30

minutes. As for costs, most vendors say that adding a Q&A capability is

minimal. For instance, Medialink estimates that its question-manager

feature adds 5% to the project’s total cost.



This can vary, however, according to the technology used. For example,

for a December 9 e-conference on intrusion-detection systems, Pete

Cafarchio, technical program manager for software security firm

ICSA.net, researched various Q&A options. He says that using a

conference-call bridge would have been ’ridiculously expensive’ and

impractical for a group larger than 60 to 80 participants. Instead, he

chose to go with streaming audio, and he was very happy with the

results. The conference drew 300 attendees, included a 20-minute Q&A and

continued to receive hits for months afterward.



Giving reporters the opportunity to ask questions isn’t the only way to

make e-conferences interactive. On the Scene and E-Conference both tout

the value of polling to get feedback from participants, which can

instantaneously be tabulated into a pie chart or graph. Marc Church, VP

of business development for E-Conference, says that conference

moderators can use polling to ask reporters how familiar they are with

the company or product being discussed in order to determine how much

background information they need. Since the technology is fairly new,

Zimmer estimates that On the Scene has only done polling during about

20% of the conferences it has worked on.



In addition, E-Conference offers a technology called Placeware, which

allows for online presentations for smaller groups and includes voting

and polling. It also has whiteboards and a mood chart so that

participants can express confusion or let it be known when they think

the presentation is moving too fast.



As companies search for more ways to interact with the reporters who

cover them, these options may be just the beginning.





DOS AND DON’TS



DO



1 Have a few questions prepared in the event that participants are

initially hesitant to pose any.



2 Have a senior PR pro screen the questions to determine whether they

are pertinent.



3 Leave enough time to properly answer the majority of questions without

having to rush through them.



4 Make sure that you give people an e-mail address to direct

questions.



5 Use this as an opportunity to not only answer reporters’ questions,

but to gain feedback from them, when appropriate, through polling.





DON’T



1 Get too fancy. For example, not everyone has a microphone, so IP

streaming would prevent a lot of people from being able to ask

questions.



2 Decide not to do a Q&A session when the news being released is

negative.



Answering tough questions could aid in restoring a company’s

credibility.



3 Forget to archive the Q&A session, along with the rest of the

e-conference.



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