Aug 24, 2012

Dear Gracie: Getting the Press to Cover Your Conference

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Dear Gracie,

I’ve been tasked with wrangling up press to cover and attend an upcoming conference. Although the organizers have some great content, the conference is a newbie on the circuit and it’s been difficult to get this on press radars. I’m looking for a Conference Confucius to offer up some advice.

Conference Conundrum

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Dear Conference Conundrum,

Five ProfNet experts offer some advice on how to get the press to cover your conference:

Newsworthiness

If you’re trying to get reporters to cover your event, the first step is to try and get them to come, says Vince McMorrow, associate vice president of Fahlgren Mortine. Many reporters nowadays have gotten the green light from bosses to travel to events. “What gets them there is good content,” he says.

“News is news — you can’t make it up,” says Lisa Layne, principal of Lettuce PR. News outlets will never come to your conferences again if you say there is news to announce, but then just treat it as a messaging outlet. If you spin a conference that isn’t newsworthy, you can damage your PR career.

How do you know if your conference is newsworthy? McMorrow suggests asking these questions:

  • Do you have speakers that are well-known in the industry?
  • Will there be sessions/tutorials on topics/trends critical to the industry?
  • Can you leak some of the information to the media before the conference to entice them to attend or cover?

“Big subjects sell themselves,” explains John Brooks, director of media relations and news at North Park University in Chicago. For example, when Brooks was director of news for a mainline church denomination, they’d get coverage for anything controversial happening at the national assembly. Matters relating to sexuality and the church, as well as a church-to-church agreement that some members of both churches opposed, drew the press in particular.

“Unfortunately, controversy seems to work, but it can open the door for coverage of other conference happenings too,” says Brooks.

Furthermore, in these days of tighter budgets, a reporter might not be able to travel to your event, so in that case, provide them with a phone number they can call to talk to someone, or provide them with the necessary info to watch it live (like if there’s a webcast of the conference), says Brooks.

And if there is a webcast, tell the reporters when to watch for key subjects, Brooks continues.

If online attendance is an option for a national conference, then make a concerted effort to get press from all over the country to attend from their desks, suggests Elizabeth Arritt, director of marketing at Omega Performance Corporation. Send out personal messages to different reporters in different cities, and highlight speakers from their area. This generates local coverage all over the country, she says. (She used MEDIAtlas to find these reporters.)

“Survey attendees and then offer the results to the media,” suggests McMorrow. “Ask for media input in the initial stages of creating the survey, so that you can get their buy-in. Provide it to them after the event to continue getting coverage.”

Work the Reporters

“Get to the right reporter,” says Brooks. The reporters who cover your beat will be the most interested in your conferences.

If reporters do decide to attend your event, make sure they have press passes that will give them access to all areas, says McMorrow.

Before a conference, Brooks travels to the city where the conference is being held and visits with industry reporters and assignment editors to tell them about the event.

When Brooks worked for an agricultural organization, the reporters most interested in their events were farm reporters and broadcasters. “They’d come and talk to several agricultural experts, and use those comments for several days. What worked there was providing solid content to beat reporters interested in the subjects we were communicating,” he says.

Being transparent and inviting reporters ahead of time helps secure coverage later when the conference is being held, explains Brooks.

Also, make your CEO visible, Brooks continues. When the presiding bishop of the church Brooks represents travels to another city for a speaking engagement, Brooks contacts local religion writers and tells them about where the bishop is going, so that the reporters can schedule a meeting and interview with the bishop.

It’s even better if the local host of the speaking engagement contacts local media directly, adds Brooks. But either way, find a reporter who covers your beat, and tell them about your CEO too.

Kill two birds with one stone by hosting a news conference or conference call to kick off your event, Brooks continues. Have your CEO speak to the media about key issues to be discussed at the conference.

“Invite reporters to participate in your conference,” says Brooks. “If you’ve got a communication theme, invite reporters as event speakers, or invite a well-known reporter in the conference city to speak as a keynoter,” he suggests. “Audiences like reporters because they can tell stories relevant to everyone — and reporters sometimes cover reporters.”

High-Profile Names

“The key to press conferences is understanding what type of high-profile names you get there,” says Layne. Try to get industry officials, celebrities, authors, etc.

“Encourage planners to get recognizable names,” agrees Brooks. “The toughest thing to do is get coverage for a great speaker that few have heard of.”

Celebrity endorsements are a highly important factor for conference campaigning, continues Layne. Even if the brand is a yoga mat, a tourism bureau, a new tech gadget — backing your event with a name is crucial.

“Consumers and media want to care about your conference for a reason,” says Layne. If they can associate a household name that they trust, then they trust the brand too.

But she notes that it can be difficult to get celebrities to your conference unless they are already a spokesperson for the event.

To get high-profile names to attend your conference, look for relevant charities, Layne suggests. Do some research. For example, Jennie McCarthy has an autistic child, so if your event revolves around that, pitch her publicist.

If the celebrity bites, send a town car to pick them up, says Layne. “Make it easy for them, and hand hold. It’s like babysitting — but researching the kid’s hobbies first.”

Local Community

“Don’t overlook the little things your organization might be doing for the conference’s host city, particularly if there’s a societal benefit or if it has a positive impact on those who are less fortunate,” suggests George Deutsch, senior media relations coordinator at the International Facility Management Association.

For example, at an expo show in Orlando, Fla., a few years ago, Deutsh was trying to promote the conference and its educational sessions, new products and services, and its sustainability. While he was talking to one of the reporters in attendance, he mentioned as an aside that the company would be donating the excess food and beverages from the show to the needy in the local community.

That brief remark is what the reporter picked up on. “The story ended up being the best coverage we got from the show,” says Deutsch. “It taught me to remember to promote the little things.”

Any information you can provide about how people from the community in which the conference is being held will interest reporters, says Brooks. “They want local people in their stories who are relevant to their readers.”

So for national events, Brooks always tries to include a local-story angle if possible, because that’s the kind of information that gets covered.

Local news organizations are also typically interested in the financial effects of a conference to be held in their town, says Brooks. “It invites coverage of the conference in a different way, which can lead to coverage of the conference itself.” The Convention and Visitors Bureaus could be helpful with this, he adds.

Arritt got great coverage from a local news station where she was holding a conference once with a money-grab exhibit booth. The idea was that a participant would climb inside the booth, and then get 30 seconds to grab as much flying money as they could.

She contacted the local news director and invited their weatherman to do the noon weather report from the booth. As a bonus, they agreed to match whatever the weatherman grabbed and donate it all to Habitat for Humanity (with a guarantee for a minimum donation if he grabbed less than expected).

“It was a great spot,” says Arritt. “They re-ran it for the evening news, and we had copies to use for ourselves as well. It provided us, the station and Habitat with some good PR.”

Gracie

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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