—from Peter Weiss, AGU Public Information Manager

Thank you for agreeing to participate in an AGU Fall Meeting press conference! Press conferences are an important way for AGU to fulfill its commitment to disseminate the results of scientific research beyond the community that attends our meetings and reads our journals. Based on past experience, we anticipate that dozens of print, broadcast, and electronic media outlets will carry stories based on Fall Meeting press conferences. You can help make those stories informative and accurate.

Before your Fall Meeting press conference, please read the following information and suggestions to help ensure a successful press conference:

Please wait to speak to reporters (Don’t leak the story)

The most successful press conferences yield widespread coverage of new scientific findings only if the speakers do not share their key results in advance with the press. If the findings are reported on by even one reporter before the meeting, the news will be considered old by other reporters and they won’t attend the press conference or cover the new findings. But, if no reporter is given the story in advance, all the reporters will consider the news to be fresh and more of them will cover it. The result is wider press coverage overall.

Press Conference Room

All press conferences will take place in the Press Conference Room, Moscone West, Room 3000, Level 3.

Press Room

If you have questions during Fall Meeting, one of AGU’s press officers (Mary Catherine Adams, Kate Ramsayer, and I) can typically be reached in the Press Room (Room 3001A), which is an office and gathering place for journalists covering Fall Meeting. The Press Room is adjacent to the Level 3 lobby and diagonally across the hall from the Press Conference Room (3000). The Press Room (3001A) phone number is +1-415-348-4404.

Time

Please arrive in the Press Conference Room (Room 3000) 15 minutes before the start of your press conference.

Also, please keep in mind that journalists interested in doing a story based on your presentation might ask to interview you after the press conference; if possible, please plan to be available for at least 5–10 minutes after the press conference to answer journalists’ requests.

Format

Each of the three or four panelists will make an opening statement of around five to seven minutes (max!). (If there are fewer panelists, each will speak longer.) Following those opening presentations, the floor is open to questions from the press. During Q&A, an AGU press officer will call on reporters, who will identify themselves by name and media outlet. When the questions stop or 45 minutes have passed, whichever comes first, the press officer will end the press conference. Only reporters may ask questions.

Opening presentations

Start with what is newsworthy about your work. State clearly at the outset what we know now that we did not know before, and why it is significant. Don’t leave the reporters wondering when you will get to the main point, and resist the temptation to begin with a review of the literature or a description of your methodology. If your presentation is in the nature of a review, you should still begin with your main points and new findings, not the background.

Language

The goal of a press conference is to convey information to reporters in plain English, so please use words that everyone can understand. If you must employ a technical term, define it. Try to avoid acronyms, or at the very least, spell them out the first time. (You may have to look them up. At some past press conferences, researchers had forgotten the actual words that form the acronyms for their satellites, instruments, etc.) Similarly, don’t use scientific shorthand for elements, compounds, etc., even common ones. Say “water,” not “H2O,” “carbon dioxide,” not “CO2,” and so forth.

Visuals

You are encouraged to use visual aids to help make your presentation meaningful. The ones you have prepared for your session may not be suitable for the press conference. It is worth the effort to make a separate set of visuals, emphasizing the specific points of your press conference presentation, and in language that is friendly to a lay audience. A few slides that you explain well are better than a series that flashes by too fast for reporters to absorb, much less copy, the key information. If you read aloud the full text of your slides, reporters are likely to stop listening, so please avoid doing so.

The Press Conference Room is equipped to show PowerPoint and other laptop-based programs. Please let me know well in advance if you need any equipment not listed here. It may not be possible to obtain it at the last minute.

Important note: The Press Conference Room does not participate in the centralized system for digital presentations used in the meeting’s scientific sessions. It is equipped with a laptop with USB ports to accept plug-in memory devices (i.e. flash-drives or ‘thumb’ drives) containing PowerPoint slides or other computer-based images to be shown in the press conference.

Handouts

You are strongly urged to bring handouts. The most useful one by far is a copy of your slide presentation, allowing reporters to listen to what you say, rather than furiously copying the text of every slide. Other good handouts are the text of your oral presentation at the meeting, a reduced size copy of your poster, a relevant journal paper, or a press release describing your research. All handouts should include your contact information, especially phone and email address for follow up questions during and after the meeting.

If you are not experienced in preparing materials for the press, ask the public information office of your home institution for assistance (but don’t wait for the last minute to do so). Some public information officers (PIOs) attend meetings for the specific purpose of assisting scientists from their institutions in working with reporters.

I suggest that you make up to 50 copies of your handouts. Please do this in advance of the meeting, and bring them with you. You may leave your handouts on tables in the Press Room, starting the first day of the meeting, or take them to your press conference. (Note: The Press Room staff does not prepare or make copies of press releases or other handouts; this is the responsibility of press conference participants.)

If you have visuals, I encourage you to include them in any materials you provide to the news media. However, you are responsible for having authorization to distribute any copyrighted material to the press. If you wish to provide copies of video material for TV networks or stations to broadcast, I suggest you bring up to three copies. Please consult with the public information office of your home institution to determine which video format to use.

You may collect leftover copies of your handouts at the Press Room on Friday morning, 7 December. After 1230h, any remaining materials will be scrapped.

Electronic versions of handouts: AGU’s Virtual Press Room (http://fallmeeting.agu.org/2012/media-center/virtual-press-room/) is an AGU website where reporters can go to find press releases, PowerPoint presentations, and other electronic materials related to news coming out of the AGU Fall Meeting. Please bring electronic versions of your press conference handouts, so that they can be uploaded to AGU’s Virtual Press Room, where members of the press will be able to access them electronically, even if they cannot attend the meeting. Starting this year, PIOs from your institution can themselves upload press releases and handouts to the AGU Virtual Pressroom. PIOs who wish to do so, should go to the following link to register to use the uploader: http://fallmeeting.agu.org/2012/media-center/for-pios/

Question period

After hearing the panel’s opening statements, reporters will ask questions to clarify points you have made or to elicit further information. Reporters at Fall Meeting will come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some may have Ph.D.’s in science; others may have simply covered science for many years. Some reporters may not be science writers at all, but have been assigned to cover your press conference as part of their general assignment duties. Those in the first group might ask a highly technical question, but your answer should be intelligible to all. Take a moment to clarify questions asked, when needed.

Questions are rarely hostile, but reporters will unerringly spot a waffling answer and doggedly seek further details. It is perfectly acceptable to decline to answer a question, but you will arouse interest if you don’t say why: e.g., “This is out of my area of expertise”; “We are still awaiting those results, and I don’t want to speculate” (rather than, “No comment!”).

As noted, only members of the working press may ask questions. However, if one of your colleagues is in the room, and you feel that person is better suited to answer a specific question, you may ask him or her to assist. Identify the colleague by name and institution. (E.g., “Liz Ellicott of WHOI actually discovered the talking squid, and she can probably answer that better than I.”)

On the record!

The entire press conference is “on the record.” This simply means that anything said may be quoted and attributed to the speaker. Therefore, think carefully about what you want to say and what you may not want to say. Never venture, for example, that “Harper’s research is somewhat half baked,” adding, “but don’t print that,” and expect that your retroactive wish will be honored. Some reporters might consider it to be the most interesting comment of the whole hour and ignore your main points completely.

After the questions stop

When the press conference moderator thanks the participants and the press for coming, not all reporters leave immediately. Some inevitably come forward and engage the panelists in further discussion. They are seeking a good quote, a clarification of some point, or additional information. This is perfectly legitimate. Just remember that all the rules of the previous paragraphs still apply, including that this “rump session” is on the record. Don’t let your hair down simply because the atmosphere has become more informal.

How many reporters will attend my press conference?

Answer: We won’t know until it happens. In the past, attendance by reporters at Fall Meeting press conferences has ranged from a few to dozens. Each reporter makes an individual decision as to whether to attend a particular press conference or do something else at that hour, e.g., attend an oral or poster session, visit the exhibits, write up a previous press conference.

Don’t play the numbers game! We hold the same full-scale press conference even if only one reporter is present. Aside from the courtesy of keeping our commitment, that one reporter may represent a major media outlet. Or he or she may represent a local newspaper, but one that syndicates its content, and the resulting story may appear in dozens of media venues nationwide. At the other extreme, a roomful of reporters could result in no coverage at all, because other news that day has crowded it out. Predicting how many stories will result from a press conference is as reliable as predicting tomorrow’s stock market closing.

Also, please keep in mind that we will be webstreaming the press conference and accepting questions online so that reporters who haven’t been able to attend the Fall Meeting in person can still follow press briefings from afar.

It’s fun!

Most participants at previous Fall Meetings have enjoyed the experience, and I hope you will, too. Please contact me if you have any questions. My email address is pweiss@agu.org (valid also during the meeting), and my phone up to 29 November is +1-202-777-7507. At Fall Meeting, I am most often in the Press Room (Room 3001A), where the phone numbers is 1-415-348-4404.

Again, thanks for participating in a Fall Meeting press conference.

Regards,
Peter

P.S. — “You and the Media”

I urge participants to look at the online publication, You and the Media and print a copy of this document, or just the section on press conferences. Although “You and the Media” is due for an update, the document provides helpful advice for dealing with the media, even beyond this meeting.