Press Conference Speakers
A message to participants in 2009 Joint Assembly press conferences
—from Peter Weiss, AGU Public Information Manager
First, thank you for agreeing to participate. Press conferences are an important means by which societies fulfill their commitment to disseminate the results of scientific research beyond the community that attends our meetings and reads our journals. Based on past experience, we anticipate many print, broadcast, and electronic publications will carry stories based on Joint Assembly press conferences. You can help make those stories informative and accurate.
“You and the Media”
I urge participants to look at the online publication, You and the Media and print a copy of this document, or just the section on press conferences, if you prefer. It provides advice that will be helpful in dealing with the media, even beyond this meeting.
Your Press Conference
The following information and suggestions, specific to 2009 Joint Assembly, should help assure a successful press conference.
All press conferences will take place in the Press Conference Room, which is Room 712, Level 700, Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The Press Room is Room 709.
Please arrive in the Press Conference Room (712) about 15 minutes in advance of your starting time. Please leave enough time to get there from other parts of the convention center.
As previously arranged, one of two formats will be used. The session chairs have determined which format will be used for press conferences they have organized.
In most cases (Format A), each panelist will make an opening statement of around five to seven minutes.
In the other format (Format B), one person to makes a 15–20 minute statement, summarizing the main points of each panelist's work and identifying who is expert in what. The other panelists make no opening remarks.
Following the opening presentation(s), the floor is open to questions from the press. The AGU press officer (I or Maria-José Viñas) will call on reporters, who will identify themselves by name and publication. When the questions stop or 45 minutes have passed, whichever comes first, the press officer will end the press conference. Only reporters may ask questions.
Very important: Please state your main points up front. State clearly at the outset what we know now that we did not know before and why it is significant. Don't leave the reporters wondering when you will get to the main point, and resist the temptation to begin with a review of the literature or a description of your methodology, gradually leading up to your current contribution. If your presentation is in the nature of a review, you should still begin with your main points, not the background.
In Format B press conferences, the one presenter should be careful to introduce all of the panel members and describe their individual areas of expertise. When describing research, the presenter should also refer to the panelist who conducted it, e.g., “the benthic bubble experiment, which Denise [gesturing toward her] supervised, shows that....” Otherwise, reporters will not know why those other people are sitting in front.
The language of the press conference is English, not Sciencese. Please use words that everyone can understand. If you must employ a technical term, define it. Avoid acronyms, or at the very least, spell them out the first time. (You may have to look them up. At some past press conferences, researchers had forgotten the actual words that form the acronyms for their satellites, instruments, etc.)
Similarly, don't use scientific shorthand for elements, compounds, etc., even common ones. Say “water,” not “H2O,” “carbon dioxide,” not “CO2,” and so forth.
You are encouraged to use visual aids to help make your presentation meaningful. The ones you have prepared for your session may not be suitable for the press conference. It would be worth the effort to make a separate set of visuals, emphasizing the specific points of your press conference presentation. A few slides that you explain well are better than a series that flashes by too fast for reporters to absorb, much less copy, the key information. The reporters are all literate, so don't read aloud the full text of each slide!
The Press Conference Room is equipped to show PowerPoint and other laptop based programs. Please let me know well in advance if you need any equipment not listed here. It may not be possible to obtain it at the last minute.
Important note: the Press Conference Room does not participate in the centralized system for digital presentations used in the meeting's scientific sessions. It is equipped with a laptop with USB ports to accept plug-in memory devices (i.e. flash-drives or ‘thumb’ drives) containing PowerPoint slides or other computer-based images to be shown in the press conference. If you are working with colleagues whom you see in advance, you may put all related presentations onto one flash drive.
You are strongly urged to bring handouts. The most useful one by far is a copy of your slide presentation, allowing reporters to listen to what you say, rather than furiously copying the text of every slide. Other good handouts are the text of your oral presentation at the meeting, a reduced size copy of your poster, a relevant journal paper, or a press release describing your research. All handouts should include your contact information, especially phone and email address for follow-up questions during and after the meeting. (You may wish to also provide electronic files of your handouts. We can upload those to the Web so that reporters accessing the press conference remotely can download copies of the materials. Please include those electronic handouts on the same plug-in memory device that contains the slides for your press conference presentation.)
If you are not experienced in preparing materials for the press, ask the public information office of your home institution for assistance (but don't wait for the last minute to do so). Some public information officers (PIOs) attend meetings for the specific purpose of assisting scientists from their institutions in working with reporters.
I suggest that you make up to 20 copies of your handouts. Please do this in advance of the meeting, and take them with you. You may leave your handouts in the Press Room (Room 709, Level 700, MTCC), starting the first day of the meeting, or take them to your press conference. (Note: The Press Room staff does not prepare or make copies of press releases or other handouts; this is the responsibility of press conference participants.)
If you have visuals, you should bring good quality still images or a handout showing them accompanied by a URL where news media may access them for publication. You are responsible for having authorization to distribute any copyrighted material to the press. If you wish to provide copies of video material for TV networks or stations to broadcast, I suggest you bring up to three copies. Please consult with the public information office of your home institution to determine which video format to use.
You may collect leftover copies of your handouts at the Press Room (Room 709) on Wednesday morning, 27 May. After 1300h, any remaining materials will be scrapped.
After hearing the panel's opening statement(s), reporters will ask questions to clarify points you have made or to elicit further information. Reporters at Joint Assembly will come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some may have Ph.D.'s in science; others may have simply covered science for many years. Some reporters may not be science writers at all, but have been assigned to cover your press conference as part of their general assignment duties. Those in the first group might ask a highly technical question, but your answer should be intelligible to all. Take a moment to clarify the question, if it is really obscure.
Questions are rarely hostile, but reporters will unerringly spot a waffling answer and doggedly seek further details. It is perfectly acceptable to decline to answer a question, but you will arouse interest if you don't say why: e.g., “This is out of my area of expertise”; “We are still awaiting those results, and I don't want to speculate” (rather than, “No comment!”).
As noted, only members of the working press may ask questions. However, if one of your colleagues is in the room, and you feel that person is better suited to answer a specific question, you may ask him or her to assist. Identify the colleague by name and institution. (E.g., “Liz Ellicott of WHOI actually discovered the talking squid, and she can probably answer that better than I.”)
On the record!
The entire press conference is “on the record.” This simply means that anything said may be quoted and attributed to the speaker. Therefore, think carefully about what you want to say and what you may not want to say. Never venture, e.g., that “Harper's research is somewhat half baked,” adding, “but don't print that,” and expect that your retroactive wish will be honored. Some reporters might consider it to be the most interesting comment of the whole hour and ignore your main points completely.
After the questions stop
When I thank the participants and the press for coming, not all reporters leave immediately. Some inevitably come forward and engage the panelists in further discussion. They are seeking a good quote, a clarification of some point, or additional information. This is perfectly legitimate. Just remember that all the rules of the previous paragraphs still apply, including that this “rump session” is on the record. Don't let your hair down simply because the atmosphere has become more informal.
How many reporters will attend my press conference?
Answer: We won't know until it happens. In the past, attendance by reporters at Joint Assembly press conferences has ranged from one to a dozen. Each reporter makes an individual decision as to whether to attend a particular press conference or do something else at that hour, e.g., attend an oral or poster session, visit the exhibits, write up a previous press conference.
Don't play the numbers game! We hold the same full scale press conference even if only one reporter is present. Aside from the courtesy of keeping our commitment, that one reporter may represent a major publication. Or he or she may represent a local newspaper, but one that syndicates its content, and the resulting story may appear in dozens of major newspapers nationwide. At the other extreme, a roomful of reporters could result in no published stories at all, because other news that day has crowded it out. Predicting how many stories will result from a press conference is as reliable as predicting tomorrow's stock market closing.
Most participants at previous Joint Assemblies have enjoyed the experience, and I hope you will, too. Please contact me if you have any questions. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org (valid also during the meeting), and my phone, up to 21 May, is
At Joint Assembly, I am most often in the Press Room (Room 709), an office and gathering place for journalists, where the phone number is +1 416-585-3700. The Press Room is located on Level 700. I may also be reached by cell phone at +1 202-378-3053.
Again, thanks for participating in a Joint Assembly press conference.