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Press Conferences and Briefings Require Planning and Preparation

Over the past few years, there has been an increased interest in press conferences by public safety agencies to release information; without proper planning and execution, the press conference can open a "can of worms" you that don't want to deal with.

Two tools that I use from time to time to release information to the media are the "Press Conference" and the "Press Briefing." Over the past few years, there has been an increased interest in press conferences by public safety agencies to release information. But without proper planning and execution, the press conference can open a "can of worms" that you don't want to deal with. What are the differences between the two?

Press Conferences

A press conference is usually held after an unexpected event has occurred, and for planned events, such as to promote events within your department. Here are the differences:

Unexpected Event - This is usually an emergency or disaster. It can also be any other event that has drawn media attention. Usually the media are the ones looking for a press conference so important information can be received and disseminated.

Planned Event - This could be something that is related to an unexpected event but you have requested the media to attend so you can release information.

Promotional Event - This is an event in which you invite the media to give information about a special event which is not associated with an emergency or disaster. An example would be recruit graduation, award ceremony, announcement of a new fire safety education campaign, or the opening of a new fire station.

Here are some vital questions to ask yourself before setting up a press conference:

  1. Is the press conference really necessary? Are other agencies involved, such as mutual aid departments? If so, what do they think?
  2. What do you hope to achieve if you have the press conference? Is it to release vital life saving information during an incident or to release information that explains a certain program or incident?
  3. What time should it be held and where? The place should be accessible to the media (and in some cases that could mean several hundred journalist and vehicles). What about the time? No matter what time you decide to have your press conference, after you have alerted the media of the time, stick to it. There is no excuse not to start on time. Give yourself adequate time and if that means several hours or days, use it. It is better to be right and correct than trying to back peddle and make corrections later.
  4. When selecting a place for the press conference, try to have it in a place where the speakers can come into and leave the room without having to go through the media. This way they are not bombarded with questions as they try to enter or leave.
  5. Decide how much time will be devoted to the press conference. If you are going to release information and there is no question and answer period, then when everyone is done speaking, it is over. But if you have a question and answer period, a time should be determined and when that time is reached, the PIO (with the understanding of the speakers prior to the press conference) should end the press conference by saying "last question."
  6. Make sure all of the media is notified; make an extra effort to ensure that all print, radio, TV and any other media is notified so that no one is left out.
  7. Make sure staff and agency officials are aware of the press conference. This way if someone asks when or where the press conference is being held, they can answer the question. Staff should be advised not to go into details about what will be released at the press conference.
  8. Put all of the information you are going to release during the press conference in a media release format and pass out to the media at the conclusion of the press conference. If you can post it to a website, do so, but after the press conference.
  9. It is better not to take questions from the media unless you are absolutely sure of your facts. Many times questions from the media go off track and take the emphasis from the main topic of the press conference.
  10. What to wear? Uniforms are best if you belong to a uniform agency, business attire is the alternative. If the press conference is being held at the scene of an incident, protective clothing may have to be worn.

Many times at press conferences the PIO is not the speaker, but the facilitator. Prior to the start of the press conference, the PIO should address the media and give an overview of how the press conference will be conducted. The PIO should name and spell the names and title of all the speakers for the media. They should be told whether questions and answers will be entertained and if a release will be released after the press conference.

I like to give the media a 10 minute, five minute and two minute warning of when the press conference will begin. This gives crews time to get their equipment ready, especially if the event is live either on TV or radio. This is the time the PIO should do several "mic checks" so sound levels can be adjusted by the media. The PIO should stand at the microphone(s) that will be used by the speakers and hold up a white piece of paper at the side of your face. This is used by photojournalists to adjust the iris of the camera and to make sure they are focused (when you do this, they know they are working with a professional).

At the conclusion of the press conference and the speakers have left, the PIO should be available to assist the media with any questions they have. The questions should pertain only to what was released during the press conference. The PIO should not speculate or deviate from what was released earlier.

Questions and Answers - More people are asking should there be a question and answer period during a press conference? It depends on the type of press conference, such as the opening of a fire station or the start of a new campaign, you already know all the facts and are usually quite comfortable on what you need to say.

But immediately after or during an incident, I usually do not take questions. The main reason is that usually all the facts are not known. If you open yourself to questions and you answer with something that is not accurate or changes, the media is likely to take the position that you are not sure of yourself. Questions and answers also opens the door for speculation and opinion. Speculation and opinions can land you in civil court with lawsuits. My advice is let some time pass to see if all that is known has been confirmed.

Many times the PIO will be briefing the speaker prior to the press conference on the subject manner. The PIO is the media expert and many times city officials and even fire staff will be seeking the advice of the PIO on what to say and how to say it.

Several years ago I was PIO at a large natural disaster which drew immediate worldwide media attention. As the situation was in progress, the fire chief decided we should have a press conference to advise the media of what was going on during a rescue incident we had in progress. The mayor was enroute to the scene and when he heard that we were going to have a press conference, he wanted to be involved and address the media. As the PIO the fire chief asked me to set something up. At a nearby hotel where the incident was occurring, I asked management if I could use a large room for the press conference since it was raining outside. The hotel provide a very large meeting room, set up a podium, microphone, set up folding tables in the back of the room and put several refreshments out, more than I expected.

Since most of the media was already there, I advised them that in 30 minutes the mayor and fire chief would be holding a press conference in the room with information about the incident. During that time, I assisted the media with setting up microphones, giving names of the mayor and fire chief, time of call of the incident, other information that I already knew which is standard on any incident.

When the mayor arrived, he met with me and the fire chief and we brought him up to speed on what was going on, what we were doing and what our future plans were.

When the press conference started, the mayor took the lead followed by the fire chief and then there was a brief question and answer period. As the PIO you should listen to what is being said by all parties. Because when the press conference was over the mayor and fire chief told the media if you have further questions or need more information, "please contact our PIO." That is you and usually from that point on, the PIO will be the lead unless further press conferences or press briefings are held. Usually during an ongoing event, press briefings are used.

Press Briefings

Press briefings are usually more informal than a press conference and are used to give updates. Press briefings are set up just like a press conference, but are usually set up to a schedule, such as once an hour or every three or six hours. It is up to the people who are in charge of the incident and how important they think the release of information is. For a large wildland fire a press briefing may be held every few hours, but if you have a large event like a large street party or race which has thousands of people at it, a press briefing every hour may be necessary.

One rule of press briefings is if you set up a time schedule, stick to it. Even if you do not have any new information to release, still have your briefing and advise that nothing has changed.

I also use press briefings for special events such as advance information before a heat wave or cold spell. I invite the media to our conference room and give safety tips and maybe have some props on display for pictures and video. The event is like a press conference but not as intense or formal. There is almost always a question and answer period during a press briefing.


Tim Szymanski is the Fire - Public Information Officer for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. As the Fire-PIO he is in charge of public information, public relations, fire safety education, Citizens Fire Academy and the Las Vegas Fire Corps program. He is also in charge of photo and video services and manages the "Fire Channel" which provides cable educational services to over 50 fire stations of five fire departments in Southern Nevada. He has been in the fire service for 35 years serving in every position from firefighter to fire chief. Nearly 20 of those years have been working with the media. He was the Fire-PIO for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He is a nationally known speaker on media relations and is now teaching public information and media relations at area colleges in Las Vegas and host a seminar each year in Las Vegas for Fire-PIOs. He is also a Fire-Photojournalist, much of his work has been seen on various TV programs and in trade magazines. Please visit Tim's website at www.Fire-Pio.Com. Or contact Tim at info@fire-pio.com.

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