Donald Trump storms out of a press conference. How should you hold one – if at all? Advice from our experts.
May 13, 2020

Donald Trump’s press conferences are always entertaining and newsworthy if not necessarily enlightening.

Not only is Mr Trump one of the most powerful people in the world but he doesn’t appear to care what he says. What more could the media ask for? There is, however, another, less obvious reason why journalists enjoy these events. The President is notoriously thin skinned and pushing the main spokesperson in a press conference into losing their rag is great journalistic sport.

Monday was a very good example of this. Following combative exchanges with Weijia Jiang of CBS and CNN’s Kaitlin Collins, the President stormed off, accusing the former of asking a “nasty question”. Perhaps he meant a “good” question.

White House press conferences in the press briefing room or the Rose Garden are key moments in the life of political journalists within the beltway, as they say. But should other organisations hold them? And, if so, how? It’s something that we frequently discuss when working with Comms teams and PR consultancies during our media training courses.

Although they are a means of getting out information and they offer transparency in many situations, our advice is not to hold a press conference if possible. The risk is that you lose control – as Donald Trump did here. All of our trainers are working journalists and we’ve all sat in press conferences in which the assembled hacks have smelt blood and following their pack instinct have gone for the jugular. Perhaps an answer doesn’t sound plausible or perhaps a spokesperson has given something away that they shouldn’t have. They might also have been led down a path that ends in quicksand.

Certainly, during crisis situations although the emergency services and perhaps the HSE or other authorities might arrange a presser after the event, companies should not do so, given the risk of losing control.

Instead, you can appear open and transparent by doing one to one interviews. We’d also recommend “an arranged doorstep”. Here your spokesperson reads a brief statement, perhaps outside the main entrance to your office, and takes two or three questions before politely but confidently withdrawing. This is a much safer way of releasing your statement and appearing cooperative and helpful.

If you really want to do a press conference, perhaps to make a positive announcement, here are 10 points to remember.

1. Be clear on your message.

This goes for any kind of communication, of course. What’s the headline, the one takeaway that you want to give the media? Focus on this – and don’t get distracted.

2. Rehearse questions and answers beforehand.

This will allow your spokespeople to get familiar with their lines to take – as well as the language and phraseology that works for them and therefore sounds natural and convincing.

3. Decide who among the people on your top table is going to answer what

And avoid the temptation just to add or supplement what a fellow spokesperson says.

4. Limit Access to the building

If you’re holding the presser at your office, make sure that journalists can’t get into other parts of your building.

5. Hand out a statement beforehand so that the media have the basic facts without having to ask for them.

This will also serve to focus the message of your press conference.In addition to your spokespeople, have a chairperson or MC to do introductions, take questions and, very importantly, to end the press conference.It often works well if they stand in front of the spokespeople, moving out of the way, of course, when those spokespeople are answering a question. Creating a barrier where necessary between speakers and audience gives them more control, especially when handling pushy journalists or at the point when it’s right to close the event.

7. Be careful about arranging one-to-one interviews or informal conversations between spokespeople and the media after the formal press conference has ended.

Very often journalists, looking for an exclusive will hold back their best questions for these interactions rather than sharing them with their rivals during the main event. If you must do interviews afterwards, have a press officer or other colleague on hand to manage them and make sure that the spokespeople don’t say anything more than they did to the room as a whole.

8. Ensure that your spokespeople arrive and then leave through a separate door to the one used by the media.

If not, you might find them swamped by hacks as they try to make their escape.

9. Keep it to about 30 to 45 minutes and no longer.

Go beyond this time and you’re just giving the media more time to look for trouble.

10. Thank the media

Finally, thank the media for coming and tell them when there will be an update or where they can obtain further information.

Donald Trump’s press conferences are entertaining, and they make for great television. They’re also a great example of how spokespeople and organisations that don’t happen to be 45th President of the United States should NOT do a press conference.

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If you or your company require professional advice or media training, get in touch by giving us a call on 0800 1777080 or emailing us or to find out more about our media training, crisis communications and presentation courses.

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