What to do when you misjudge press attendance

Developing news can bring a bevy of hungry journalists to your media event—or send them off chasing another news story. Here’s how to prepare for the unexpected.

Despite this being an increasingly online world, there is still a role for the traditional news conference.

Journalists, and by extension, the public, still want to hear directly from the source on important topics, decisions, and actions which impact their lives.

Until you’ve lived through situations where everyone (including cable news on live remote) and no one (also a nightmare) attends, it’s hard to anticipate what to do in these extremes, especially if your planned event is a local, community-based announcement.

Here’s how to respond to the unpredictability of media relations:

Scenario 1: You plan for a few reporters, when dozens show up.

Several years ago, our client wanted to announce a new community-based initiative to help encourage diversity and inclusion. We developed a program based on nurturing mutual respect for people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions.

To roll this program out, the client agreed to a media launch, and we invited a few politicians who also supported these ideals to lend their voice to the announcement. In our city, there are 15 main media outlets, and on any ordinary day, around 10 reporters will attend.

This time, however, dozens of reporters started rolling in 20 minutes beforehand.

We patted ourselves on the back, thinking we exceeded our target for attendance.

But when more reporters arrived, including a cable news network with a live remote, we started to realize that maybe they weren’t just here for our story.

The coterie of journalists waited patiently through our announcement, and then cornered one of the politicians who we had invited to join our event on a separate emerging government issue.

Then, adding insult to injury, most of the invading reporters didn’t even bother to file a story on our initiative.

Here is what to do if this happens to you.

Before the event begins:

· Ask around to learn what all the reporters are asking for—chances are the person the media is descending on has a good idea what the fuss is all about.

· Find out who on your guest’s team will deal with the reporters—and whether he or she plans to make a statement.

· Jointly announce to reporters what is going to happen: the planned event first, and then your guest’s staff will allow a scrum or take questions.

After the event:

· Connect with those reporters you believe are interested in your story. Spend time facilitating one-on-one interviews with the speakers and follow up with any additional resources or information.

You can’t stop the media from pursuing other stories when they’re at your event, but you can control how and when they take attention away from your announcement.

Focus on the reporters who are genuinely interested in your story, and ask the party-crashers to wait.

Scenario 2: No one shows up.

Is there anything more awkward than having no one show up?

It’s your worst nightmare.

You and your client are planning a major announcement.

You sent media invitations.

News releases, backgrounders and digital assets are ready and assembled; coffee and donuts anxiously await the first guest.

The clock inches closer and closer to the posted start time.

Nothing.

Not one person shows up.

Here’s what to do when your event goes sideways:

· First, remind your client that media coverage is never a guarantee. They may be hollow words in the moment, but it’s a fact. Your event will always play second fiddle to a major news event.

· Send your materials via courier to each media outlet, along with a note saying you’re sorry they missed the announcement. Enclose two or three different storylines they might want to consider and a list of speakers/experts they may want to interview by phone.

· Be as helpful and friendly as possible; let the media outlets know you understand how the industry works.

· If the announcement isn’t time-sensitive, see if you can book the client on a morning TV or radio show, or arrange a one-on-one interview at an interesting location (your plant, a retailer carrying your product, a park where you can demonstrate your product, etc.).

You’ll have to work extra hard to get a story released, but the coverage will be of a higher quality than what is garnered from a news conference because you’ll have taken extra time and individual attention to facilitate the reporting.

What are your press event disaster stories? Share your favorites in the comments.

Sue Heuman is an accredited authority on organizational communications and is the co-founder of Focus Communications .

A version of this article originally ran on Spin Sucks blog.

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