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.

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