Impress the press

It’s no longer enough to put on a press conference with a few talking heads: you need imagination, writes Steve Hemsley

At the Labour Party’s former press centre on the ground floor of Millbank Tower in July, the British Olympic Association unveiled Britain’s team for Athens. Athletes such as Kelly Holmes, Steve Backley and Phillips Idowu were at the press conference, which was broadcast live on BBC News and Sky News and attended by more than 50 journalists.

The event was organised by Lewis PR, which has a 10-year lease on the refurbished media centre at Millbank, with its 200-seat auditorium, broadcast media links for BBC, ITN and Sky newsrooms and impressive translation facilities. The venue is likely to be used again by representatives of London 2012 in the next few weeks, when it is ready to disclose more details of its bid.

Of course, not all organisations and press conferences have such a high profile as London 2012 or can entice busy journalists to their events quite so easily. In an age in which editorial teams are stretched and news is available 24 hours a day, companies increasingly need PROs to advise them on how to get journalists to leave their desks.

Changing needs

Press conferences remain a useful tool in a PRO’s armoury but they are no longer the enticement they once were. Institute of Public Relations (IPR) national vice-president Tony Bradley, a partner at Bradley O’Mahoney Public Relations in Newcastle, says journalists’ needs have changed and events must reflect this.

‘For generations the press conference in a swanky hotel followed by lunch was an efficient way of ensuring good media coverage, but things are different now,’ he says. ‘Unless there is a regulatory or legal reason why nothing can be said outside a set time and venue, it is easier to accept that everyone is looking for their own angle on a story and to work with them to meet their aspirations and their deadlines.’

Bradley cites the example of a press conference he organised in September for Teesside Airport, which was being renamed Durham Tees Valley Airport. It was a contentious subject and local journalists were demanding exclusives. Although nothing was said on the record before the conference, Bradley allowed the morning paper to run with a preview piece, and the evening paper had the new logo and an artist’s impression of the new terminal building. The press event itself included a chartered flight around the area to encourage journalists to attend, even though the story was broken in the morning before the official press conference.

Editors are inundated with invitations, so any event must be planned meticulously. This means choosing a convenient date, time and venue and ensuring the client’s spokespeople can talk authoritatively about their subject and answer questions confidently.

PROs must be more innovative these days if they are to woo journalists to press conferences. Venues should be unusual and invitations creative enough to stand out from the rest of a reporter’s morning post.

Cookware company Meyer Prestige regularly hosts press conferences to unveil new products. Marketing manager Alison Senior instructs her PR agency EHPR to be as imaginative as possible. To promote its Anolon professional cookware range, it hired Raymond Blanc’s cookery school and restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons so journalists could witness the chef using the products.

‘There must be a good reason for a journalist to be there, so we usually have a product demonstration or offer exclusive interviews,’ says Senior. ‘It is important that writers, especially those working for the home press, get the products in their hands. Meeting a journalist face to face also means that our PROs understand the type of information he or she needs.’

Common complaints arise about press conferences. One is when the story journalists were promised turns out to be much weaker in reality; another is when an event clashes with another conference or a magazine’s deadlines.

The contents of the traditional press pack can also miss a trick. Editors want copies of a presentation, a press release and other relevant information, including photography. Promotional gimmicks such as branded mouse mats, pens, note books and mugs they can live without, they claim.

‘My advice would be to ensure there is always a good story and never to spin out an event over a day or weekend for no reason. A couple of hours should be enough,’ says The Grocer editor Julian Hunt. ‘PROs must understand and be sensitive to the competitive rivalries between magazines. We also need as much notice as possible. If Tesco calls to say it is announcing a merger tomorrow, I will be there; if a food manufacturer is opening a factory, I would expect to be told a few weeks in advance.’

Of course, for national and international news stories, press conferences are often hastily arranged.

Porter Novelli head of media relations Ben McCarthy worked for 15 years as a broadcast journalist for BBC, ITN and Sky News. He attended numerous high-profile press conferences, including those for the Soham murder inquiry. When a big story breaks, he says, a conference is the ideal vehicle to reach all the media at once, while the people involved can control the flow of information.

‘Journalists will attend at short notice if the story is important enough, and questions from the media can provide new leads for the police and prompt public responses,’ he says. ‘A press conference can add to the drama of a story, so it can be disappointing for broadcasters if hardly anyone comes.’

Get the feedback

It is important to receive feedback from journalists. Ask them how an event could have been better and if they spoke to the people they needed to. Did they get the angles they wanted? ‘Before investing in any event you must ask what the story is, who it will be of interest to and whether a press conference is the best way to get the message across,’ says Twelve Consultancy managing director Graham Smith. ‘PROs must also ensure their client has realistic expectations.’

If PROs do their homework, getting journalists to attend a press conference does not have to be a case of crossing fingers and hoping for the best.

Top ten Tips

  1. Although a large number of journalists may have agreed to attend your press conference, remember to telephone them a few days before the event to remind them about why they should come. This call will also give editors enough time to delegate covering the event to another member of their team if they need to.

  2. Always check that any conference you run does not clash with the copy deadlines of key publications or any other press events that might overshadow yours.

  3. Choose an unusual venue, ensuring senior company executives are there and, if appropriate, use a celebrity in some way.

  4. If a venue is in a major city make sure it is easily accessible by public transport.

  5. Decorate the room with the company logo and have enough seats for everyone who is likely to attend. Keep some seats at the back and on the aisles free for latecomers.

  6. Make sure that you complete setting up the press conference in plenty of time. The sight of a person still rehearsing their presentation or struggling to make the audio and visual technology work when journalists are starting to arrive will convey an unprofessional image – and that’s something no organisation can afford to have.

  7. After the presentation and questions, allow journalists to speak to key people on a one-to-one basis if they want to, and make sure there is enough time for a photocall.

  8. Keep a record of which journalists have attended so that follow-up calls can be tailored and press packs sent to those who did not make it.

  9. The press pack itself should contain as much factual information as possible and, if an event is to announce a new product, always include quality photography.

  10. Promotional gifts can be a nice touch but make sure the choice of item is not seen as naff.

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