The Crisis Press Conference: How? – planning and execution

By Andy Cuerel

Last month we considered the ‘why and when’ of crisis press conferences – this week we consider the ‘how’.

Assuming your organisation has met the criteria for holding a crisis press conference what happens next? You will often only have a short timeframe to plan and execute the conference and there are a number of things to consider, whether logistically – physical environment, equipment etc, and delivery i.e. rules of engagement for speakers and facilitators.

First let’s consider the physical environment, the requirements of which are:PressConference

  • A room which can comfortably hold the expected number of participants (colleagues and visiting media) with at least two means of access – one for attending media, the other to allow your speakers an unimpeded exit at the end of the conference! The room must also be secure and completely private once the conference is under way.
  • Power – outside broadcast units in quantity will require a large number of power points
  • Positioning of speakers – accepted wisdom for panel type interviews is to sit behind a full width table, thereby providing a degree of separation from the media as well as the practical benefits of somewhere to park papers, water glasses etc. If a spokesperson is flying solo, than a lectern should be used in the standing position, to maintain a degree of authority over the room when outnumbered.
  • Positioning of media – theatre style seating (chairs need not be too comfortable!) arranged with a slight curve to keep the audience equidistant from the speakers is also appropriate.
  • Standing room for camera operators, sound technicians etc
  • An adjacent ‘quiet’ room for journalists to upload information after the conference or undertake 121 interviews as appropriate to your strategy

Avoidance of own goals – No.1 – your conference room will ideally be located near the building entrance, such that (escorted) visiting media are not exposed to multiple areas of your business. If that is unavoidable, ensure that the chosen route is free from accessible privy information, which may tempt the unscrupulous!

Next on the list of preparatory actions…props, specifically:

  • Clear name cards in front of each speaker – including their full title.
  • Press packs/fact sheets handed out to journalists either as they arrive or placed in advance on each seat
  • Diagrams, models and other visuals are helpful to convey facts. Consider reproducing them in a smaller version in the press packs.
  • Backdrop – nothing too commercial and desired logo prominence may depend on the nature of the crisis.
  • Make-up for speakers, if attendant media includes broadcast channels.
  • Microphones and amplification for the speakers if room is large
  • Refreshment for the spokespeople – water or non-carbonated juice is fine – mugs of tea are not, conveying a rather informal attitude not in keeping with the situation

Avoidance of own goals – No.2 – road test all aspects of the environment before the media arrive – prefacing a response by tapping the microphone looks unprofessional, worse still if doing so reveals it has not been switched on.

Finally the moment arrives and the media begins to amass – all representatives must be in place BEFORE the speakers enter the room and you must ensure sufficient ‘shepherds’ are on hand to achieve this quickly. Unless the lead speaker is highly experienced, a facilitator or chairperson should be employed to welcome attendees, introduce the conference and the speakers and crucially, set the rules of engagement e.g. duration of event, whether they will receive questions and direct each to a particular speaker and generally advise on expected etiquette and other conference specifics e.g. whether their exists the facility for follow up interviews.

The Chair should also open the conference by reading a written statement outlining a summary of the situation, including the most recent developments and the key actions undertaken by the organisation to date – alternatively this can be undertaken by the Lead speaker.

Once the conference is underway, the interaction between speakers and media bears many similarities with one-two-one media interviews, for which available techniques are extensive and beyond the remit of this feature. Some specifics for conferences however are as follows:

  • If the Lead speaker has chosen not to employ a Chair to triage questions (rare), it must be clear across the wider panel who is responding to which subject area, thereby avoiding hesitation or the tendency to trip over one another – an additional benefit of utilising the Chair in this way, is to afford the speakers an extra few seconds to compose their answer
  • When a speaker is not responding to a particular question, they should not regard it as a break – all speakers must maintain eye contact with the questioner and remain alert throughout
  • Irrespective of whether the Chair has stated a duration for the conference, a balance needs to be struck with satisfying the media that their questions have been given a fair hearing, whilst curtailing the event once the organisation’s key messages have been discharged
  • If any point is seemingly not clear to the questioner or wider attendees, the chairperson, in summarising and closing, should clarify a point, or call on one of the speakers to do so.

Avoidance of own goals – No.3 – whilst time before a crisis press conference may be limited, a practice session with an internal audience is invaluable in preparing speakers for the most likely questions and raising abilities and confidence before the event.

In summary, the logistics and methodology of a crisis press conference are not complex, but structured rules of engagement are vital to ensure event objectives are met and the organisation emerges in a better place from where it started.

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