Monday, October 29, 2007

what makes a press conference real?

In use by U.S. presidents since Woodrow Wilson's day and first televised live by President John F. Kennedy, true press conferences by most folks other than administration officials have fallen by the wayside in Washington. Until last week, we'd have said you could blame that on two factors: too much information all around, and the demise of news in the news conference. Reporters have too many new duties--blogging, web reports--and too little time to come across town just to fill a room.

Then FEMA threatened to kill press conferences altogether when it staged one populated with staffers and called too late for reporters to attend, except by one-way phone line for "listening in" purposes. Decried as "dumbest" by senior agency officials and the White House, the move already has had repercussions for those involved. It's especially sad, since the federal government has more reason than most organizations to ask reporters to show up for a press conference. FEMA has come up with "new" procedures for its press conferences in a memo issued yesterday:

These changes include providing reasonable notice for press events, permitting reporters who participate in press events telephonically to ask questions, and transcribing press events when possible for public release. Finally, under no circumstances will anyone other than media be allowed to ask questions at press events.

Yes, indeed, and, we might add, reporters must be present--no matter how few--for a "press conference" to qualify as such. This week, while FEMA discovers how much more coverage you can get for a blunder than for the original announcement, make sure you don't get caught losing the forest for the trees when it comes to choosing a press conference for your next announcement. Bear in mind how rarely they're used these days. Ask yourself who's the real audience. If it's internal--and the event is just a chance for folks to feel engaged and important--find an alternative. (See our "instead of a news release" list for ideas. Trust us, you have lots of options.) Finally, consider the utility to reporters: Will it make sense for them and aid their coverage? These aren't "new procedures," or shouldn't be. Please, communicators, make sure you're not part of the erosion of a useful media relations tool.

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