Why do we call a press conference?

I was recently asked by a CEO of a leading enterprise in Sri Lanka as to why journalists don’t ask questions at a press conference. This phenomenon is not uncommon, where a press conference attended by over a 100 strong audience might just end flat.

Whilst this might be gratifying for the organisers in terms of attendance, the complete lack of curiosity may also turn out to be quite annoying. It may well look like the journalists have absolutely no interest in what they have to say, especially after the trouble these corporates have taken in organising these media meets. I would have thought that if journalists do not ask questions at a press conference it was a good thing, but then again it could be awfully dull for those sitting at the head table when the audience goes dead on them. So why aren’t journalists asking questions?

For a start it will be good to find out actually how many journalists are there at these press conferences. In the case of most business conferences, there is a good possibility that 50% of the attendees might be from the marketing (advertising) divisions of newspapers. Although they do in a way represent the media, they don’t actually represent the news rooms where the editors hold sway.

Another factor why journalists don’t ask questions at a press conference could be because everything that needs to be asked has already been covered in the introductory speeches as well as the press release and nothing more need to be asked.

In this case, one must understand the psyche of the journalist who on any given day is suffering from information overload. The minute nitty-gritty detail of a product or service would not be of interest as the journalist would very well know that due to space constraints there would be an embargo on word count for each story – therefore asking questions would be an unnecessary exercise. There is an important fact that needs to be understood about these media conferences, i.e. that the whole dynamics of news dissemination and the order of priority in terms of what news is better than the other is decided by the top management of any news room – i.e. Editor-in-Chief, News Editor, Business Editor, Features Editor or Sports Editor. It is my belief that many of the press conferences organised these days by the corporate sector have very little in terms of ‘news value’ in the eyes of news room management. This is probably not because the matter presented at a press conference has no public consumption value, but because the corporate sector and those advising them have not given enough attention to what is being presented and weighed it for news value. Most often there is a lot of time and energy spent on what the journalists will be given to eat and drink and what the giveaway should be as opposed to considering whether the reason for calling the press conference is worthy enough or if a press release would have achieved the same results.

Although the entertainment part might be an interesting side to the event, it can also work towards being a distraction both for organisers and the media, if the concentration is more on that part and less on the content.

It would be good to remember that all journalists come looking for a good story and if this is not given, the whole purpose of the press conference is nullified. It’s also important when inviting a cross section of journalists that their individual needs are met. For example, if Sinhala or Tamil journalists are invited, it is important to have someone at the head table who could explain and answer questions in those languages. Press releases and background information sheets should also be in all three languages. Coming back to the problem of why journalists don’t ask questions at a press conference, this could also be due to the news room not being properly informed as to the purpose of the conference, which may result in the right journalist not being assigned to cover it. But above all, if press conferences are organised as a mere marketing/selling exercise as against meeting PR objectives, editorial management will take a dim view of them and class the distributed press releases under the ‘plug’ category, thereby relegating them to poor treatment in terms of priority. It is important to understand that public relations is primarily a perception tool and not a tool to be used directly by marketing to occupy editorial space. If matter given out at a press conferences strictly belongs to advertising space, then newspapers will feel cheated as, after all, the revenue of newspapers comes mostly from their advertisers. In conclusion, one must understand that we in PR must treat the editorial columns of a newspaper with some respect. When we send stories of little or no value to the newspapers, it would only cause us to generate ‘reader resistance,’ i.e. newspaper readers automatically scan for unnecessary information to avoid reading, which means that in the long run both the newspaper and the public relations arms of corporate sectors lose out.

(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)

Source : Daily FT (http://www.ft.lk/article/12910/Why-do-we-call-a-press-conference)

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