Impacs from the communications centre: Tips, tools, techniques and training

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Tips, tools, techniques and training

** THERE ARE NO SILLY QUESTIONS: real-life examples

Q: My not-for-profit organization is thinking seriously about holding a news conference on a local health issue next month, but we aren't sure whether that is really the best route to take.  What are the pros and cons of holding a news conference?  How do we decide?

A: The benefit of a news conference is that media and your spokesperson are together at one time.  If there is controversy of any kind in your news, a dialogue between the two is simple.  And media coverage from a well-attended news conference can be extensive.

A news conference is good when you have one to three speakers (no more).  They may be experts on the issue, well-known credible spokespeople, or people that can eloquently speak to their personal experiences of on-the-ground impacts of the issue.  Good locales, related to the issue, can also be helpful; IMPACS once organized a news conference on child care issues at a local daycare centre, and organized agreements with parents and teachers so that cameras could shoot 30 minutes of "B-roll" footage of children playing outside, to serve as a backdrop for the story.  The media came in droves, and the story was covered across Canada.

But the most important consideration with a news conference is this: are you certain your story has "hard" news value?  And are you certain that there is nothing else going on the day you choose for your news conference that might lure reporters and cameras elsewhere?  Because there are downsides to news conferences.  They can take a great deal of time and energy to pull off.  They can be very costly.  And they are a gamble; even if you think your story constitutes "hard news," you can't ensure the media will attend.  An unattended news conference is not only demoralizing, but may result in wasted efforts and money. Perhaps equally important is the danger that, to those few journalists that do show up, poor attendance may send the message that your issue is not worth covering. 

It's sometimes difficult to judge the "hard" news value of an issue that is close to your heart, but worth taking a long objective look at your possible story before calling a news conference.  Ask yourself: is there any real news here?  Has something new and noteworthy happened?  If you are only trying to gain attention for your issue, without a hard news hook, you shouldn't have the conference.

** WHAT? ME WORRY?  Communications Feature

News Conferences: the tantalizing lure of "leaking" your own story...

We are frequently asked by not-for-profit groups, and by the media, to release news stories in advance, before a scheduled news conference.  When you think your story is "hot news," the response is easy: don't do it!  But if you aren't sure, it can be extremely tempting to yield to the pressure to "leak" or "advance" a story, even if it is "embargoed" until the news conference time.  Wait a minute, wait a minute! Embargoed?  Leaked?  Advanced?  OK, we admit it: we're using confusing jargon.  But in this case, the distinctions can be helpful to understand.  So let's look at the terms, and the issues, one by one.


An embargo simply means that you are requesting that the story not be aired until the embargoed time.  If you've written "embargoed until 10:00" (or whenever your news conference is) on the top of your news release, for example, then you're asking reporters to honour the embargo, and to not air or print the story until the time of the news conference.  If your news release is distributed on the newswires at exactly the time of the news conference, you don't really need to embargo the story.  But if you're sending out the release a few hours before the news conference, then it is important that you embargo the story for the time of the news conference - otherwise, the story might be broadcast or printed in advance, and there will be few incentives for other outlets to attend your conference: the story will already be out.


Many groups consider offering a strategic leak or "advance" to one reporter (usually a newspaper reporter) the day before.  The key consideration here is whether you are asking the reporter to honour the embargo.  They get more time to work on the story, but still promise to not release the story until the agreed-upon time.  This is what we are calling an "embargoed advance."  There are pros and cons to this approach.

Pro: allowing a trusted reporter to have earlier access to the story allows them to build a richer piece, include more elements, and to develop a deeper understanding of the issue.  The story may be larger or longer, and it may have more images.  A second advantage is that you may develop a better relationship with that reporter, becoming a valuable "source" for future stories. 

Con: the more time a reporter has with your perspective, the more time she or he may have with the perspectives of opponents, if any.  It is the reporter's job to seek other perspectives on an issue.  By giving she or he more time to do this, your reporter may then contact the "other side" for comment.  Not only does this mean that the very first story on the issue is more likely to portray different arguments (rather than just yours), but your opponents (if you have any) may be "tipped off" about the story.  A second risk is that the reporter, or even their editor, may not honour the embargo.  We'll talk about this more below.


If you are "leaking" or "advancing" the story, but not requesting that the reporter honour the embargo, the story may appear on the morning of (or even day before) your news conference.  Often radio stations or TV outlets will ask to release the story that morning, before the news conference.  And if your story is newsworthy, there is almost always pressure from news outlets to allow them to cover and release the story before the news conference.

This is what it means: if your story is "embargoed," but you then allow a reporter to release the story before the news conference, you yourself are breaking the embargo.  There are potential benefits and some hefty risks to this approach.

The advantage: your early-release story may whip up even more excitement among the media and generate more news coverage than it otherwise would.  Or, if the news conference itself doesn't draw that much attention, you may be lucky, and end up with at least a single (hopefully large and favourable) story in the outlet to which you advanced the story. 

But reporters don't always deliver.  Sometimes their editors kill the story before it is printed or aired.  Other times they themselves determine that it just isn't that newsworthy, compared to other news priorities that day or week.  And other times, the story may appear - but it might be small, buried in the back pages, or be unfavourable in terms of how the issue is framed or your group is portrayed. 

Deciding on what to do can be nerve-wracking.  It's kind of like a game of "chicken."  Often, groups doing news conferences are anxious to know they will get some coverage.  If a reporter seems genuinely interested in a "scoop," it is extremely tempting to consider offering one, in hopes that this reporter will indeed be able to deliver a major story.

But there is a tremendous risk to both you and your organization.  In breaking your own embargo, you may well damage your credibility both as a communicator and as a source.  You may anger reporters who did not have the benefit of the leak or advance.  And if reporters are sufficiently disgruntled, they may choose to not honour your embargos in the future, or worse, they may ignore your story ideas altogether.  Conservation and some social justice groups are sometimes accused by reporters of being unprofessional and unreliable, often because they have a track record of breaking embargoes, so your organization may already be behind in terms of credibility. 

If you do decide to take the risk and offer an advance to a trusted reporter or editor, then we recommend that you don't give away every element of the story (unlike an exclusive, see below).  Decide exactly how much information you are willing to part with in advance, and stick to that.  Keep the interview very short.  Make it clear to the reporter that you are withholding some information.  What you are really doing is trying to get the reporter to raise interest in your story, not lower it by making subsequent stories by other reporters "old news."  For example, if you're releasing a report, don't give this reporter the full report.  Offer only some key findings: just enough for them to write a 300-word story or do a 30-second news item and make sure there's something else for them to report the next day.  Also, make sure the reporter knows that you are giving her or him an advance.
And next time, if you again decide to offer an advance, consider offering it to a different news outlet. 


Finally, a word on "exclusives."  Giving a reporter an exclusive means you are giving her or him the whole story, including all the elements you have at your disposal.  Generally, if you are offering a key reporter an exclusive, it does not make sense to then hold a press conference.  It will usually guarantee that other outlets will be reluctant to show up at a news conference to hear the same story, and who can blame them?  An exclusive should be regarded as a stand-alone media tactic, separate from a news conference.  As such, it can be very effective.  For example, if your target audience is federal policy makers, an exclusive in a national daily can be an invaluable way of delivering your message.

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