Bring back the press conference

In this guest post journalist Renai LeMay calls for the return of the press conference.

When Michael Dell came to Australia for a couple of days in mid-2006, his public relations staff organised an open press conference where the tech billionaire could field questions from journalists and make his views known about the local market.

The event was a success for both sides. Several dozen journalists walked away with some great quotes and video, while Dell achieved blanket press coverage in both mainstream and niche media for the cost of booking a small room. If you followed Australia’s business or tech press even in the slightest, you couldn’t miss the fact that Dell was in town.  

A few years back, Vodafone used to do the same thing. Every time the mobile telco would upgrade its network or come out with a new flagship product, the company would invite journalists to its Chatswood HQ, where then-chief executive Russell Hewitt and other staff would take questions from media, who would frantically make notes while lying on relaxing, Vodafone-themed beanbags.

But fast forward just a few years, and how things have changed.

Nowadays, physical press conferences appear to be becoming more and more scarce, with many large companies eschewing them for emailed statements, frustrating teleconferences, or luxurious two-hour lunches at ritzy locations, where the message can be more carefully massaged over drinks.

Most of the press conferences I get invited to these days are held by either companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, which tend to be more communicative than their multinational peers, or by politicians who still believe in the power of facing the press head on and perhaps getting a chance to get their mug on TV or their voice on radio.

In February, Vodafone announced it would replace virtually its entire mobile network, an event which will affect millions of customers and shake up the whole industry. But there was no press conference – not even a group teleconference with the CEO. Instead, the company buried the news in paragraph 12 of a broad release, and trotted out its chief technology officer for individual phone briefings when queried on the matter.

When Michael Dell hit Australia this week, he conducted just two interviews, to my knowledge – with newspapers The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. The rest of the technology press was left with only third-hand access to the great man. And thus, the coverage has been stunted.

It’s hard to say precisely why the humble press conference seems to be slowly dying in my niche field of technology journalism. However, I have to say that it’s a sad thing, as there is much to be said for these events.

Press conferences offer journalists the chance at an open dialogue with sources you may not otherwise be able to speak to directly. In addition, many journalists in 2011 are starting to integrate audio photographic and even video content into their text-based articles, for which press conferences are ideal. Live press conferences also offer journalists a chance to pass questions from readers directly to sources in real-time via social media over mobile broadband.

Also, in an age where journalists’ time is very limited, press conferences will usually deliver a story. They are normally fairly brief and to the point – no three course meal – and so you can usually justify the time investment required to attend in person.

Of course, with the possibility of increased coverage from a press conference, there also comes the risk of negative coverage – if a journalist asks your client a tough question, and they can’t answer it in the right way in front of the cameras, then things can go downhill very quickly. This may be one reason why the humble press conference is out of favour these days. Another reason may be the declining numbers of journalists across the board,

But overall, I still believe in the power of the press conference as a positive medium for both sides.

If we step away from this most fundamental venue of reporting and shift everything into the land of long lunches, emailed statements and remote teleconferences, we may lose something which I believe to be fairly core to our societal concept of the fourth estate.

Beyond all the pragmatic reasons why press conferences are good, there is something thrilling about seeing a powerful politician, CEO or leader facing the press – including their critics – and debating issues with them. Press conferences are one of the most visible places which the public associates with journalism being done.

Readers/customers also like to see companies engaging in public. Social media is teaching us that organisations which engage honestly and openly are more likely to earn the trust of their customers – and their quick forgiveness when they screw up. Open press conferences are a part of this process.

So let’s try and keep that ideal intact. I like an expensive lunch or a juicy press release as much as the next journalist. But I like a robust debate held in the open air, in public, much better.


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