I dislike media conferences with a deep, abiding passion that is reserved for nothing else in my profession.
I still inwardly tremble when I remember the first media conference I ever managed for a client. It was windy that day, and our nametags blew off the table as guests were arriving. The only one we couldn’t find? Of course, the CEO’s – and he made sure to announce why he was wearing a handwritten nametag from the podium.
I’ve had my share of sound systems that won’t work, laptops with forgotten cords and hard-to-find venues. I can’t begin to count the number of empty chairs after an eleventh-hour crisis diverted the media. Seems like 99 things out of 100 can go right when planning a media conference, but there is always that one thing – like losing the CEO’s name tag – that negates everything that went right and sticks with the client.
Companies are still enamored of the media conference, even though the media are not – and have never been. When I was a reporter at The Grand Rapids Press, I hated media conferences – all my competitors were lined up in a row hearing the same voices I was hearing. From a client standpoint, it offered great consistency – but from the media’s viewpoint, it robs you of the chance for unique reporting to a story that differed from your rivals.
Today’s media environment, where staffs are skinnier and competition for attention is greater than ever, adds an extra layer of challenge when planning for media conferences. One good shooting, car chase, announcement from Pres. Trump – fill in the blank, if it’s significant enough, media will chase that and forget about you.
Confession: I hate lima beans. Always, have, always will. They are the one vegetable I cannot abide. Yet I would rather eat lima beans every meal for a solid month than host a media conference ever again.
But the media conference is a necessary – albeit occasional – evil in my profession, so I have borrowed some advice from “Dr. Strangelove” in my attempt to stop worrying and love the media conference. And it worked – last week’s roll out of Smart911 technology in Kent County was a textbook-perfect case in how to host a successful media conference. What were my secrets?
- Manage client expectations. When we begin considering whether or not a media conference is the appropriate vehicle to share news, I always ask my clients a question: What do you want to accomplish? If the answer is, we want the news in every media outlet possible, as it was with Smart911, I ask a second question: Who else needs to know about this news? In the case of Smart911, which allows all Kent County residents to create an enhanced safety profile that 911 dispatchers can access in an emergency, the answer was everyone. So we decided that a media conference would be the kickoff to our communication efforts about this new, free service being offered. We invited all the public safety and emergency response professionals who serve our community to also hear the message, so our room was full of men and women in blue and brown – rather than empty chairs.
- Keep it short – but not too short. We had scripted and timed the event, making sure we had voices represented from all key players. My goal was to be in and out in under 30 minutes – and we were, with the actual announcement clocking in at just under 20 minutes. The only thing worse than an hour-long press conference is one that is five minutes – hardly worth the media coming out and setting up for.
- Do a run of show and share scripts in advance. We put together a timeline of who was speaking when, giving all presenters a run-of-show timeline and verbal cues as to when they were due at the podium. We had scripts out more than a week in advance, followed up after sending out for review, and then followed up the day before the event to field questions or last-minute concerns. On the day of, we shared full scripts for all presenters with their sections highlighted so they could follow along and know when they were expected to speak.
- Scout your location and do a tech run-through. Sabo PR team members went out to the Kent County facility where we hosted our media conference twice before the actual day. The first time was to check on the size, location and technology available, and the second time was for a run-through of the technology we planned to use day of. Both paid off. On the first run, we realized we needed way-finding signs to help get the media and our guests up to the fifth floor location. We also realized it was a small enough room and wouldn’t require us to rent a mult box and sound equipment. On the second run, we were able to plug a lap top into the county’s system and see how the graphics we planned to display actually looked – and how much time it would be to set up on the day of.
- Plan for the unexpected. In the Smart911 case, we wound up with two last-minute scrambles. The custom cookies we planned as giveaways at the end, complete with a custom sticker on each bag that showed how to sign up for Smart911, were not bagged when they arrived late Monday afternoon. We spent the first hour of Tuesday morning bagging and tagging cookies. Our second delay was a traffic accident that backed up 196 and 131, delaying our intern’s arrival from Big Rapids and lengthening our travel time to the county.
- Plan for media no-shows. Our videographer, T.J. Hamilton, was on site and able to provide a menu of same-day choices for media who were unable to attend: a photo gallery of professionally shot stills, sound for our radio friends and video for our broadcast friends. We also had a full press release written and teed up to send out just as the media conference was ending. Even though only two of our three local television stations showed up for the announcement, all three ran stories about Smart911 that night thanks to the additional assets we were able to provide.
- Be social. We also shared a link from our Smart911 website with nearly 100 public safety and emergency responders, encouraging them to help us spread the word. Our social media campaign was approved, in place and just waiting for the media conference to end before launching. We’re investing in a digital campaign and Facebook ads to further help us get the word out.
- Hire people who like different things. We’re fortunate to have added two new team members in the last six months who both like media conferences. Michaela Eagan took a big role in helping to plan and execute last week’s event – and she enjoyed doing so. It’s great to have a team whose strengths and skills complement your own. You may even see us doing a few more media conferences in the coming months, now that I won’t have to eat my words – or those lima beans.