Calling a News Conference

As a PIO, you may want to hold a news conference for a staff scientist or physician with your institution, or you may be asked to arrange a personal media interview.

The news conference is always called by the news source, which also determines when and where it will be held and who will be invited. However, the individual interview is usually the result of a request by one or more writers. The news conference is associated with hard news, while the interview provides exclusive news or features.

Both are discussed further in the section dealing with media arrangements at scientific meetings.

A news conference should be called only if:

There are other exceptions to these rules. A conference may be called simply because an outstanding scientist is available locally. In this case, the news conference is the news itself. Importantly, be sure your principal is as important to reporters as he or she appears to be to you.

In setting the time of your conference, consider media preferences. For example, news conferences in the morning give television stations time to prepare their segments for the evening news. Morning conferences also give reporters for morning newspapers enough time to prepare their stories for the next day.

Notify the print media, television, and radio of a conference at least 24 hours in advance. Tell them the subject, who will take part, and when and where it will be held. It is best to give this information in writing — by mail, fax or e-mail. But if the conference must be called on short notice, make phone calls to specific reporters or editors, perhaps followed by a fax or e-mail to make sure the information was received.

Have packets of media material for those who attend. Packets should include a news release, background articles, copies of any reports to be released and a list of principals with titles, addresses and phone numbers. To avoid premature release of incomplete information, it is best not to send such material beforehand to reporters who do not attend.

The conference should start on time, even if some reporters come in late.

The principal should open the news conference with a brief statement summarizing the story and its significance. This statement should keep in mind that television and radio stations prefer "sound bites" no longer than about nine seconds.

A PIO should be in charge of the conference. The officer is responsible for introducing the principal(s) and for calling the meeting to a close. The PIO should begin by explaining any limitations, such as a time at which a principal has to leave.

After the principal(s) make or read their opening statement, the meeting should be opened to questions. Principals should be reminded to speak clearly into the microphones at all times; each microphone represents thousands, or even millions, of people.

Most questions should come from the reporters, but the PIO in charge can ask a pertinent question to bring out a key point that might not have been covered.

Always allow ample time for discussion, exchange of views, and clarification of obscurities. The conference should not be cut short when interest is high, nor should it be allowed to drag on when interest flags. The PIO in charge must sense when to end it.

Be prepared to meet the special requirements of television reporters and cameramen, who may need a special session of their own, at which they can do one-on-one interviews against interesting backdrops.

While the general news conference should be open to questions from reporters from all media, it should not be interrupted by the special technical requirements of any.

However, you may run into problems with speakers who do not want to do two news conferences. In that case, you may have to allow for the requirements of radio and television. In such a mixed news conference, you need clear-cut rules on procedures, including specific locations where television cameras may be placed.


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