by Lori Prosio

News conferences can be great tools for helping clients share a message or announcement. But I’ve also seen them be counterproductive. As a small business, you may be concerned that a news conference would be too time consuming, costly, or worse, that no one will attend. The following guidelines will help you identify your media goals and evaluate how newsworthy your story is and whether a press conference is the right way to go.

When to hold a news conference

Carefully consider the pros and cons of holding a news conference. There are several instances when it is helpful and productive to hold one.

It’s newsworthy. Only host a news conference when the announcement or topic you’ll be covering is pertinent to the general public, and the media have a real reason to cover it. Your story must be major, interesting and relevant.

It’s timely. When something big is happening with your business, it’s important to announce it right away. Who wants to read that your tech company invented an innovative new technology… last year? Most news conferences are held specifically tied to an event or situation that’s new or limited in availability.

To combat rumors or control a crisis. Another likely time to consider hosting a news conference is when you’re dealing with a negative public relations situation or some sort of crisis that requires an immediate response. You’ll be able to have the attention of many reporters at once and will be afforded the chance to speak about your side of the story and answer questions.

When not to hold a news conference

There are plenty of times when companies want to hold a news conference but it’s just not a good idea and ends up doing more harm than good. If any of these scenarios apply to your situation, think twice before wasting your time and money.

Your story is not interesting. It’s easy to think that the topic you spend 40 or more hours a week working on is fascinating, but is it really to the rest of the world? Do some soul searching and really ask yourself if this is something that will catch peoples’ attention. Because if it’s not, journalists will not want to cover it — and worse, you’re burning opportunities to offer solid news to reporters later.

There’s another major news story out. We know that many news events cannot be predicted because they happen without warning; however, we know many news stories can monopolize the news for at least a week (elections and the royal wedding come to mind). If you can avoid it, and it’s not a crisis situation, don’t plan a news conference on a day that a major public event is scheduled — you’ll be setting yourself up for poor attendance and coverage.

You can accomplish the same result with a simple news release. Are you under new ownership? That’s great! But before you waste time and resources planning a news conference that may not be covered, think about whether that approach is necessary. Will distributing a news release achieve the same outcome? You might want to do that instead to minimize expenditures and maximize credibility. No PR person wants to be considered the one who cried wolf and can’t generate interest when an exciting news conference opportunity really does arise.

How to hold a news conference

So you’ve reviewed the above advice and decided that it’s in your organization’s best interest to hold a news conference. How exactly do you go about doing so?

Location, location, location. One of your first steps should be selecting an event site. It should be relevant, make sense with regards to your story and be as convenient to get to as possible.

Invite special guests and the media. Inviting attendees is a very important step — make sure you give plenty of notice, especially for high-profile speakers. These guests should be invited well in advance, and their confirmed presence should be featured in the news release you will use to invite the media.

Timing is everything. Most news conferences take place mid-morning around 9 or 10 a.m. This isn’t too early for attendees to prepare adequately, but it’s early enough that news stations will have time to air it on their midday news as well as the nightly broadcast, and that other news groups can air it throughout the day on their web sites.

Draft speaking points. The organizer of the news conference (often a PR professional or team) is responsible for creating speaking points for the emcee and all speakers. This entails writing a detailed outline of what they will be discussing – from the emcee’s introductions to the featured guest’s actual speech. Having this prepared well in advance will help the event flow smoothly on the day of the conference.

Prepare your speakers with a sample question and answer document. Spend some time, or have your PR consultant do so, thinking about questions that journalists likely will ask the speakers at your news conference. Draft this information in an easy-to-read document, along with appropriate answers. Being able to study this Q&A prior to the day of the event is helpful to ensure that all speakers feel comfortable and have accurate information. This is especially important if you’re hosting a conference to combat a negative news story or crisis situation. Be prepared.

Create visual interest. Often a podium is used at a news conference. Make sure that your logo is displayed on it and/or elsewhere within camera view, and consider signs or other relevant photos or displays behind speakers to make for a more attractive photo opportunity.

Make it easy on the media. You want news coverage, so facilitate that as much as possible! Have media kits available with information that will aid in writing their story. Make sure there is adequate parking. You don’t want to end up with a news outlet that leaves a news conference before it even happens because they can’t find a place to park the news truck. Finally, thank them for covering your story to facilitate ongoing relationships.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2011 edition of the Sacramento Business Journal.