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Spend more than five minutes in the news business and you'll be asked to cover a press conference. They're a regular occurrence in the life of any reporter, so you need to be able to cover them - and cover them well.
But for the beginner, a press conference can be tough to cover. Press conferences tend to move quickly and often don't last very long, so you may have very little time to get the information you need. Another challenge for the beginning reporter is figuring out the lede of a press conference story. So here are six tips for covering press conferences.
1. Come Armed with Questions
As we said, press conferences move quickly, so you'll need to have your questions ready ahead of time. Arrive with some questions already prepared. And really listen to the answers.
2. Ask Your Best Questions
Once the speaker starts taking questions, it's often a free-for-all, with multiple reporters shouting out their queries. You may only get one or two of your questions into the mix, so pick your best ones and ask those. And be ready to ask tough follow-up questions.
3. Be Aggressive If Necessary
Any time you get a bunch of reporters in one room, all asking questions at the same time, it's bound to be a crazy scene. And reporters are by their nature competitive people.
So when you go to a press conference, be prepared to be a bit pushy in order to get your questions answered. Shout if you need to. Push your way to the front of the room if you must. Above all, remember - only the strong survive at a press conference.
4. Forget the PR Speak - Focus On the News
Corporations, politicians, sports teams and celebrities often try to use press conferences as public relations tools. In other words, they want reporters to put the most positive spin possible on what's being said at the press conference.
But it's the reporter's job to ignore the PR talk and get to the truth of the matter. So if the CEO announces that his company has just suffered its worst losses ever, but in the next breath says he thinks the future is bright, forget about the bright future - the real news is the huge losses, not the PR sugarcoating.
5. Press the Speaker
Don't let the speaker at a press conference get away with making broad generalizations that aren't supported by facts. Question the basis for the statements they make, and get specifics.
For instance, if the mayor of your town announces he plans to cut taxes while at the same time increasing municipal services, your first question should be: how can the town provide more services with less revenue?
Likewise, if that CEO whose company has just lost billions says he's upbeat about the future, ask him why - how can he expect that things will get better when the company is clearly in trouble? Again, get him to be specific.
6. Don't Be Intimidated
Whether you're covering a press conference with the mayor, the governor or the president, don't let yourself be intimidated by their power or stature. That's what they want. Once you're intimidated, you'll stop asking tough questions, and remember, it's your job to ask tough questions of the most powerful people in our society.