The press conference may have lost some popularity in the past few years, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, daily press briefings become a regular routine. Anxiously waiting for politicians or subject matter experts to provide daily COVID-19 case counts and updated regional safety protocols became the norm. The pandemic also led to an evolution of the press conference, to a new remote format in some cases.
Ashley Villarroel, Senior Consultant and Cole Douglas, Account Manager at APEX Public Relations, recently executed a digital conference on behalf of a client in the health care sector. Read our Q&A with Ashley and Cole below, where they share their experience managing a virtual conference in such turbulent times.
What were some challenges in executing a virtual press conference?
Ashley: Securing media to attend was a challenge since many journalists we targeted were covering COVID-19, and new news was coming in frantically every single hour, from every province. We were also working against a sense of fatigue around the volume of press conferences. We overcame this hurdle by ensuring the press conference was under thirty minutes. Press conferences are also about being able to be forward-thinking and executing them in a timely manner, while keeping on top of all the moving parts.
What were some of the technical aspects of planning and executing a virtual press conference?
Ashley: I would say having a plan B or contingency plan was integral to our process. We planned out a lot of “what ifs” leading up to the conference, which was important in case something went wrong – for instance, Zoom crashers. We conducted multiple tech rehearsals so that we were prepared for any scenario.
Cole: It was critical – for successful execution – to have quick and effective internal communication channels. For example, when Ashley was moderating the press conference, I was able to text her any questions journalists were asking in the Zoom chat. This allowed her to introduce the reporter’s name and outlet, ensuring a seamless flow to the agenda.
Ashley: Having a premium Zoom account in place helps as well. Ahead of the conference, we made sure our Zoom account had the capacity to support our client’s needs.
How did you encourage media engagement in a virtual press conference?
Ashley: When we were inviting media, we had a key target media that we wanted to attend, and we also leveraged existing media relationships. The fact that our press conference topic was extremely timely and relevant to the pandemic helped us build new media relationships with media being added to the COVID-19 beat.
Cole: Reaching out to the correct media contacts – thinking beyond the specific news beat – and connecting them with sources who are well-informed on hot topics in the news cycle helps with engagement. For example, if it is a timely public health awareness push, breaking morning and evening news correspondents should be a top priority to have attend to share any findings from conference on their upcoming live spots.
What were your main takeaways that you think are key for someone planning a virtual press conference to know?
Ashley: I’ve learned that content has to be compelling, timely and relevant to who you are inviting. There’s so much value in having that 30 minutes with a subject matter expert. Don’t do a press conference just for the sake of it unless you have a compelling story or “breaking news” that requires media to be available during that timeframe with your spokesperson.
Cole: Keep a calm demeanour. Always have a couple of back up plans of action prepared prior to execution. In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to think on the spot and pivot effectively. Like any good communications practitioner – you want to have numerous scenarios and action plans for anything that has the potential to occur.
What are some misconceptions about virtual press conferences?
Cole: A major misconception is that in today’s digital age, press conferences are not as relevant. What we have seen during the pandemic is how the press conference has evolved. The press conference – in many households – has become a daily routine and a main source of our country’s information about fighting the spread of COVID-19. Elements such as lockdown restrictions and working remotely has evolved how press conferences will be organized and executed. It will be interesting to see which new elements will be implemented post-pandemic.
Do you have any advice for companies that are looking to host virtual conferences?
Cole: Make sure leveraging a press conference is the best way to get your message to your key stakeholders. Reporters are stretched thin in today’s media landscape, so be respectful of the time of all those involved.
Ashley: One major thing to remember is the fact the virtual press conferences need to be flexible. It’s no different than an industry panel but in a different speed. What your true message is and how you deliver it is important. Thinking about the virtual press conference on the back end is equally important too. Having a series of test and trials before the actual event is critical.
Cole: If you don’t have time or availability, look for partners like us to help! Making conferences work in terms of format and flow is something we as communications professionals know inside and out.
For more information on planning a virtual press conference or event, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashley Villarroel is a Senior Consultant and Cole Douglas an Account Manager at APEX Public Relations. Check out more of work here.