Press conferences have always been an artificial construct – but this week proved once again that they are also crucial messaging set pieces and opportunities.
Placing individuals at the front of a room and having a scrum of reporters and photographers hurl questions at them serves an important purpose, but can also be unsatisfying and potentially problematic – as tennis star Naomi Osaka pointed out recently at the French Open.
That led to Osaka withdrawing from the tournament after being fined for not attending a presser. She said she “suffered long bouts of depression” in recent years and attributed some of that to the pressures of being expected to field wide-ranging questions from the media immediately after coming off court.
The other side of this equation is that players sign up to fulfil press commitments as part of their compact of participation – and as a payback for the sponsor dollars that fund prize money and athlete endorsements.
At the European soccer championships this week, sponsorship and product endorsement was top of mind and almost garnered as much press coverage as the games out on the pitch.
Portuguese legend Cristiano Ronaldo kicked it off when he entered a press conference on Monday after his team’s 3-0 win over Hungary and contemptuously removed two bottles of Coca-Cola strategically placed on the table in front of him and replaced them with his bottle of water, muttering “agua!” as he did it.
Other high-profile players, such as Italy’s Manuel Locatelli, followed Ronaldo’s example at a presser after scoring twice in Italy’s thrashing of Switzerland. Talking of endorsements, Locatelli was immaculately turned out in an Armani suit provided by the Italian team’s official clothing supplier.
French superstar Paul Pogba, who is a practicing Muslim and doesn’t drink alcohol, was more diplomatic, but still quietly removed a bottle of Heineken beer from the table in front of him before starting his presser after his France team beat Germany 1-0.
The fact that Heineken is focusing on promoting its 0.0 non-alcoholic lager to headline its Euros sponsorship was probably lost on Pogba, who just saw a beer bottle. And maybe Coke could have considered leading its sponsorship with its Dasani water or another healthy drink option better associated with sports.
Indeed, Evian was quick to respond to the Ronaldo incident on Twitter with, "Couldn't have said it better ourselves!" along with a clip of the incident.
Scottish midfielder John McGinn, participating in a press conference that wasn’t under the aegis of the official organizers and sponsors, injected a note of humor into the debate when he joked “Nae Coke?” as he sat down for his appearance. And Russia’s head coach glugged down a big swig of the Coke in front of him at his presser.
As always, this story is much more nuanced than it initially appears on the surface.
Many reports from credible news outlets suggested Ronaldo’s action knocked $4 billion off Coke’s share price, though a report from sports business specialist Sportico notes that the timing of the press conference in relation to those particular Coke share movements make that impossible.
Coca-Cola replied to Ronaldo’s stunt by simply saying “everyone is entitled to their drink preferences.” Heineken responded in similar anodyne fashion: “We fully respect everyone’s decision when it comes to their beverage of choice.”
It will be interesting to see if the drinks at press conferences narrative becomes a feature of the whole tournament or if it dies down as the competition heads to its crunch stages and the focus on football takes over.
The old adage that all publicity is good publicity has some relevance here.
Both brands might be secretly happy people are talking about the sponsors at all given the limited opportunities they have at this tournament to activate in the way they normally would at large sporting events, via big fan-zone installations and interaction with spectators. These options have been severely curtailed by COVID-19 crowd-size restrictions.
It’s also worth noting that, earlier in his career, Ronaldo was once a Coke representative and happy to shill for the fizzy-drinks conglomerate in return for big bucks. He also did ads in the Middle East for fried chicken brand KFC.
Since then he has become even more obsessive than he already was about fitness and looking after his body, adopting a regime that has enabled him to stay at the top of such a rigorous sport at the age of 36 when most players are contemplating retirement.
There is also always conflict and a difficult dynamic when sporting superstars with individual endorsements join up with their national teams that may have completely different sponsors, especially around kit and boots (cleats).
In politics, press conferences were also front and center this week, as President Joe Biden continued his first overseas trip in Europe at a high-profile summit in Geneva with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at a time when both leaders acknowledge relations are at a particular low point.
The duo conducted separate pressers on Wednesday after their three-hour meeting concluded and the general tone was firm but respectful.
Putin went first and referred to Biden as a “moral leader” with whom he had “constructive discussions” and made “progress on cybersecurity.” He was quick to state that the West has been more involved in cyber-attacks than Russia, but that Russia was prepared to start negotiating with the U.S. on that. He added that he thought things could move forward in a positive way following the meeting.
For his part, Biden said he told Putin there would be significant consequences if Russia’s actions didn’t change. He laid out U.S. values but mirrored Putin’s statement that the tone of the meeting was good and positive. He said he would continue to hold Russia’s feet to the fire but that it wouldn’t be in either country’s interests to get into another Cold War-type situation.
His style was markedly different to the grandstanding style adopted by his predecessor Donald Trump in these settings. He would embrace the joint presser format with world leaders such as Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, which ended up being fantastic platforms for regimes that have repugnant elements that are unacceptable. That is presumably why the Russians were pushing for a joint presser in the pre-summit negotiations.
It was a return to traditional forms of diplomacy where most of the serious business is conducted behind closed doors by the leaders’ respective teams, rather than bantered about on Twitter and in sound bites. But the press conference plays an important role in wrapping up the messaging in a bow and signaling the big talking points to the whole world that is watching.
Biden did let himself down when he unnecessarily snapped back at a question from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins as he was leaving the conference, something for which he later apologized as he prepared to board Air Force One for his return journey to the U.S.
All these examples show the importance of the press conference in the communications process. But they also underline the need for evolved and smart thinking around these set pieces that reflects the changed media environment.
Placing bottles of product in front of the athletes seems like old-school thinking. Smarter social and experiential activations will result in better returns on investment. And, of course, once the world returns to some sort of normality all the usual location-based activities can return.
There also needs to be more consultation with the athletes, who are such important influencers in their own right. Many soccer fans now follow individual players rather than teams, and their commercial value has skyrocketed accordingly.
In tennis, the organizers of the Wimbledon tournament have already reached out to Naomi Osaka and other players and their teams to discuss press arrangements for the upcoming championships, which start on June 28.
Wimbledon chief executive Sally Bolton said: “We have started a consultation. Of course, that consultation needs to include not just the players, but the media and all of those engaged in that space. We are always striving to do things better.”
That’s smart. But let’s see how those negotiations pan out first.
The press conference is still an important vehicle for communication and many traditional elements of the playbook are as relevant as ever. But the environment has evolved considerably in this modern media world.
It’s more complicated.