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Renovating ''This Old Press Conference''

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PR disasters have a way of providing fuel for how-to and how-not-to articles, and this story is no exception. Not long ago, I was waiting calmly for the media to arrive at a press conference where a federal big shot was to give my client more than $2 million to create jobs.

While I have gotten tons of media coverage for lesser stories, a funny thing happened on the way to this media forum. Two blocks away, a just-captured suspect in a major murder case was being arraigned as we waited for the camera crews to arrive. While this did not sidetrack the print and radio media from coming to our event, the live perpetrator walk at the jailhouse derailed any possibility of local television coverage.

I assume the last thing the suspected murderer wanted to do was steal our media thunder, but in local television news (a medium with a chronic attention deficit), the key is location and timing. In this case, we were simply too close in time and geography to a breaking crime story.

Perhaps the biggest lesson regarding press conferences is one I learned long ago. Only hold a press conference when the story is likely to generate a good deal of media interest anyway. Then hold the press conference as a matter of convenience and efficiency for both the client and media.

With this in mind, the old-fashioned press conference is becoming less common. How many stories do you now see on television news where the visuals are of dignitaries, podiums, and backdrops?

When I see press conference coverage, it is usually of coaches and players after games, politicians responding to the latest crisis, or lawyers for the likes of Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson making their cases in the press.

Otherwise, local news is mostly full of fires, car accidents, and crime reports, along with weather, traffic, and sports updates.

So, if the old approach to press conferences seems to be on the wane, what does the future hold? Perhaps some "Trading Spaces"-style renovation? Consider the following:

Don't call it a press conference. Most reporters and TV news producers think press conferences are a boring waste of time. Call your event a press briefing, reception, site tour, or photo opportunity. Even better, make your event a rally or open to the public. When you involve the public, you may give up some control over the story, but it's just that uncertainty that may draw TV cameras.

Don't conduct your event in a traditional corporate setting. Instead of setting your event in a conference room, take it into the plant or the community. A Pennsylvania politician has made a career out of this technique. When he's talking about transportation, he prefers to do it at an interstate off-ramp. When you need to publicize a consumer product, think about where it's sold and used.

Manage expectations. It's unrealistic to think that the communications professional has total control over all decision making regarding press conferences. Sometimes a client or executive makes the decision to hold a press conference before you are even involved. When your client or boss has already made a firm commitment to move forward with a press conference, make sure you do everything you can to manage expectations of the outcome. Regardless of whose idea it was, if something goes wrong, you know who will be blamed.

Think visually. Whether you hold your press event in a conference room or nontraditional setting, it pays to think visually. Do you want your representative in a suit or in attire that helps you tell the story? Can you use props? Should you involve an end user in the press event? Is there a visual way to demonstrate your product or message?

Never guarantee coverage. Sometimes an event can yield tremendous coverage over a period of a few weeks after the event thanks to the presence of a single wire reporter or photographer. Still, the event is nearly always judged by how many reporters you put in the seats. Even if a TV reporter agrees to come, you shouldn't make any promises. Anything can happen from the time you get off the phone until your representative approaches the microphone.

When all else fails, keep your head up. Press conferences are notoriously dicey situations for all PR professionals. If you're in this business for any length of time, you're bound to have your own press conference nightmare stories. Understanding that you can't control the media will make it slightly easier to maintain your cool when unexpected challenges present themselves in the final minutes before your event.

Meanwhile, the best thing you can do is cover the myriad of details, make all of the media contacts you need to make, cross your fingers, and hope there's not a three-alarm fire within two blocks of your event.

Copyright PRSA. Reprinted with permission by the Public Relations Society of America ( Tim O'Brien is principal at Pittsburgh-based O'Brien Communications and can be reached at
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