How to Organize a News Conference
The Basics on News Conferences
Holding a news conference is one of the best ways to get news coverage, including print, TV, and radio, because a news conference allows reporters to come and get the basics of the story all at the same time. If you have enough signatures, you should consider combining your petition delivery with a news conference.
News conferences can be especially useful for generating TV coverage or pictures in the newspaper, if you can provide something visual for the cameras.
A typical news conference consists of 2-3 people reading brief (no more than 5 minutes) statements, followed by a question-and-answer period. The Q&A gives TV and radio an opportunity to get more conversational quotes, and frequently the “sound bites” that are used come from the Q&A.
What makes a “newsworthy” press conference?
It’s important to remember that just because you’re interested in your petition, that doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy. Here are the key elements of newsworthiness:
- Local: the vast majority of the time you will be pitching local, as opposed to national, media outlets. To get local coverage, you have to make sure you have a story that is very relevant to the local market.
- Timely: to be “news,” it has to be “new,” right? Reporters always want to have the latest scoop on whatever it is they’re covering. Often, if a story is even a day old, it’s not news.
- Conflict: the news media love a story with conflict, because it’s dramatic and engages readers. They especially like surprising conflict (“man bites dog” stories).
- Visual: it is absolutely essential for TV that you have something interesting to take a picture of.
- VIPs: media like to cover well-known figures, like local elected officials, business owners, and celebrities.
Step-by-Step News Conference Planning and Prep
1. Decide on a message
In order to communicate effectively through the media, you must have a single, focused, easy-to-understand message. Most people only notice the headline of a news story, so your message needs to be simple enough that it can be conveyed in a typical four- to five-word headline. You may get a longer story that gives you a chance to communicate more details, but most people won’t get that far. Once you know your message, everything else in your news conference should be set up to reinforce it.
2. Choose your speakers
When communicating your message through the news media, the speaker is nearly as important as the message itself. When people hear something from a trusted source with credibility, it’s much more persuasive. For instance, if MoveOn says that a bill will be good for the economy, that’s one thing; if the local Chamber of Commerce or labor union says so, that’s something else. Therefore, choosing your speakers is a critical strategic decision.
In order to ensure message discipline and keep your event from running too long, you should keep your speaker line-up to no more than three people in most cases, including yourself. Also, it’s important to make sure to thoroughly prep your speakers in advance by going over what they will say and making sure everyone knows the message.
Some good examples of good speakers to invite:
- Local elected officials
- Other local organizations, especially those representing a different constituency (like the faith community, small business, or labor)
- People personally affected by a problem (like someone who lost their health insurance, if you’re working on health care)
- Experts (doctors, scientists, economists, etc. Be careful though, they need to be able to speak in simple language)
3. Choose a location
The #1, #2, and #3 most important criteria for a news conference location is that it is convenient for reporters to get to. Media will NOT travel more than a few minutes to cover a story unless there’s major breaking news, which isn’t usually the case with a petition. Common good locations include the steps of city hall or a room in the state capitol, because media are familiar with these venues, and often their offices are nearby.
It is also great if your location has some thematic association with your message. If you are targeting a local legislator, you may want to do the event at their office. If your petition is about the effects of the health care crisis, you could do it in front of an insurance company headquarters or at a hospital.
Finally, an ideal location is visually interesting for TV cameras. For instance, on our health care example, a hospital with ambulances all around, etc., is probably better than a generic office building where an insurance company happens to be based.
If you are planning an outdoor event, it is essential that you have a back-up plan for your location in case of bad weather. Reporters will NOT go to an outdoor event if there is rain in the forecast.
4. Choose your visuals
Again, in order to get TV coverage or a picture in the newspaper, there must be something visual to take a picture of. Your location may provide that, but you also may want to have signs, props, or people dressed in relevant attire.
It is often a good idea to use a podium, if you can find or borrow one.
5. Prepare your materials
Here are the basic materials you will need for a typical news conference. Examples are at the end of this document.
- News advisory: the news advisory is like the invitation to your event. It should include a basic what, who, when, and where of the event. Be sure to emphasize why your event is newsworthy.
- News release: a news release is usually one page (maybe two pages max) and describes the news you are announcing. A news release should be written as if it could be printed verbatim as a news story. An example of a news release is below. Sometimes you can use one document as both your advisory and release.
- News statement: this is the brief “speech” that you will give at the event. A news statement should be no longer than a few minutes long. Remember, only five to eight seconds of your statement will typically get quoted in a news story, so you only have to communicate your basic message and any key context that reporters need to understand the story.
At the event, you will hand reporters a “press packet,” which should include the news release, background on your petition, your contact info, and any other basic materials for your event that they need.
6. Build your media list
You will need to create a list of the names, phone numbers and fax or email addresses of media outlets and reporters in your area. Be sure to include daily and weekly newspapers, all radio stations that do news (especially NPR and big AM news stations), all local TV networks, and local political blogs. Some areas may have local radio or print news networks as well, which can be a great way to get into lots of outlets at once.
Contact information and staffing for the news media change very often, so be prepared to update your list on the fly, but here are two great websites to help you get started:
For local AP contact information: www.ap.org/pages/contact/contact.html
Another source is http://www.usnpl.com/
Ideally, you’ll have a list not only of outlets but also specific people. But if not, that’s ok. At TV stations, the best person to speak to is usually the “assignment editor.” At newspapers, you can usually pitch reporters directly, as well as news editors. At radio stations, there’s often no more than one person in the news department, but if it’s a bigger station, there’s probably an assignment or news editor.
Be sure to include your local Associated Press bureau, and ask them to put your event on their “daybook”—the list of events in the area that other media outlets use when deciding what to cover.
If you can’t figure out whom to call from these lists, you can always just call a general number and ask the receptionist for whoever would cover a local news conference on your issue.
7. Pitching your event
First, send out your advisory. Most reporters use email, but some may still use fax. Then, call reporters to make sure they got it. Here are some keys for making great pitch calls:
- Take the most newsworthy elements of your event and condense them into a one- or two-sentence pitch.
- Practice it out loud before you call. You may want to write it down word-for-word.
- Introduce yourself with your first and last name.
- Be friendly but get to the point right away.
- Ask if they have a moment to talk before launching into your pitch.
- If they say they are “on deadline,” that almost always means they cannot talk at all. Find out when would be a better time and call then.
- Try to talk to people directly. Leaving a message isn’t nearly as effective, especially if you don’t have a relationship with the person you’re calling.
- Once you’ve left a message, don’t be afraid to call again every hour or two until you get them (don’t leave a message every time though).
- If you don’t get the person you’re looking for, pitch the person you get. News rooms are usually set up so that any reporter can field a breaking news story.
- The best times to call reporters are usually first thing in the morning (8-10 am) or later in the afternoon.
- Be prepared to have reporters be somewhat short with you. It might seem unfriendly at first, but don’t take it that way. They work in a very fast-paced, cut-to-the-chase atmosphere, and they assume you understand that.
8. The event itself
Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes early, earlier if you have visuals or other props to set up.
Assign one or two people to greet the media. They should be have plenty of reporter packets. The key thing is that the greeter is not someone who is speaking in the event itself. Reporters may not introduce themselves, but you can always just ask, “are you a reporter?” Television and photo journalists are easier to identify because they carry expensive camera equipment; print journalists, and some bloggers, may be taking notes in long, skinny notebooks. Make sure you write down their names and outlets.
Begin on time. It’s common for media to arrive late (sometimes very late), so don’t worry if someone shows up in the middle. Start by introducing all the speakers, and then deliver your statements.
After all the statements have been read (which should be no more than 6-8 minutes, and less is fine), open up for questions and answers. Use these questions to reiterate your main message. Don’t worry about repeating yourself–the goal is to get our message out, and the best way to do that is to repeat your message. Don’t worry about repeating yourself–the goal is to get our message out, and the best way to do that is to repeat your message.
After the formal Q&A, reporters may wish to do one-on-one interviews. Be sure to speak with the biggest and most important media outlets first. Again, use these one-on-ones to repeat your main message.
9. After the event
- Update your media lists.
- Collect all clips and send them to everyone who helped out.
News Conference Prep Timeline
Here’s a basic timeline to help you think through how long it takes to prep an event. It’s always better to start earlier, however, and these times are offered as suggestions. If you only have a couple hours a day or a small team working on the event, you will probably want to allow even more lead time.
Four weeks out:
- Choose your message, news hook, and finalize your overall plan.
Three weeks out:
- Begin contacting potential speakers.
- Begin looking for a location.
- Build your media list.
Two weeks out:
- Finalize and confirm your speakers.
- Finalize location, including the back-up indoor location if your event will be outside.
One week out:
- Finalize your press packets, including media advisory, release, statement.
- Walk through the message and exact statements with all speakers.
- Begin memorizing your statement and brush up on any other talking points that you need to know.
- Decide what you’re going to wear, go to the dry cleaners (if necessary), get a hair cut (if necessary), etc.
Two days before:
- Send out news advisory to all outlets.
- Make your first round of pitch calls to reporters.
- Gather your speakers together to role play the event, including practicing Q&A.
- Make your second round of pitch calls to reporters; make sure to personally speak with the reporters, and do not depend on left messages.
- Between 8-9, make one more round of calls to confirm the reporters who are coming and anyone else you didn’t contact.
- Be at your event at least 30 minutes beforehand.
- Hold your event!
- Collect all clips.
- Update your media list with any new contacts you made during the pitching.