Diplomat magazine regular contributor Simon McGee, a former press secretary to two British Foreign Secretaries and now Executive Director at APCO Worldwide, argues that with preparation and know-how press conferences can be a triumph and not the risk they appear
PRESS CONFERENCES ARE like dinner parties: you can get all the ingredients right and plan like mad, but you can never absolutely predict whether stuff gets thrown, egos are bruised and it all ends in tears. During my seven-plus years as a press secretary in the British government I sadly participated in a few more press conferences than dinner parties.
The objective of a press conference is simple: to land your message competently in the minds of your target audience via sceptical journalists and then to get the hell out of there alive and with as many limbs intact as possible. But the planning and execution require a bit more work.
First off, why bother to spend time and capital on the gig? Is it a birthday party? A family celebration? An opportunity to underline the importance of continued E3+3 unity on the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Every event needs a purpose. Just as a dinner party exposes cooking skills, dubious cutlery tastes and the contents of homes to the scrutiny of others, so does a press conference expose the character and capability of an individual and institution to the entire world. Therefore, like Tom Hanks jumping out of a trench in Saving Private Ryan, you should only expose yourself to enemy fire if there’s good reason.
All too often ministers, ambassadors and other leaders believe that journalists will be fascinated in what they think rather than the substance of their pronouncements. These people are, of course, utterly misguided. Unless the hungry hacks are given a real, chunky story they are likely to turn on the person trying to feed them.
So, what does a quality cut of meat for the pack to feed on look like? That depends on whether the story on offer is genuine news or can at least be packaged up to sound like genuine news to the reporter and their editors, how crowded the news cycle is, and the newsworthiness of the person up at the lectern.
And there’s always the certainty that even if a good story is handed over on a silver tray, journalists will simply tuck that away in their top pocket and try to use the event to tease out more stories, which is their right.
Assuming you have established a purpose and a decent story, the next step is to work out the guestlist; not always an easy task. For each person speaking at the lectern, the whole operation is complicated many times over, particularly in an international context. Is there agreement on the substance or policy position that the press conference is about? Agreement on the specific text? What language will everyone speak in? Is there space for translators? And, most importantly in my experience, do invited foreign dignitaries realise what a press conference with British journalists is like? Most do, but it never hurts to remind them.
British hacks are renowned for their doggedness and refusal to show deference to political leaders, and long may that continue. It is always telling that whenever a US president and aUKprime minister walk into a joint press conference, you will see half the room getting on its feet and the other remain seated; the White House press corps stand up out of respect while the reporters of the Westminster lobby stay firmly in their seats because they represent the people whom the politicians serve. I’m not suggesting that US journalists are lackeys – far from it, as much of today’s US political journalism shows – just that there’s a particular stubborn streak in British ones.
Like any diplomatic relationship, press secretaries or press attachés actually knowing and trusting their counterparts makes all the difference. No one wants to be cancelling when cameras and journalists are already in position due to insufficient communication between two countries, like I once had to insist when our foreign hosts ambushed us with a surprise (and very unwanted) press conference.
Practical aspects – like the height of lecterns (shorter ministers tend to like a step), the temperature of the room when it’s filled with 100 journalists and television lights, the position of the glass of water, the amount of wind and direction of the sun at an outside location, and whether there is enough light on the lecterns so that the principal can read his or her large font size remarks – are the ones most overlooked by aides.
Then comes the menu, or format. In my experience, short statements from each speaker followed by a few questions from journalists usually does the trick, although even that simple arrangement can sound challenging to dignitaries coming from regimes where journalists don’t get to ask questions at all, or only on the condition that they submit them in advance. When I accompanied Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his official visit to Moscow last year, he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a joint press conference in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs guest house. While everyone agreed that only a limited number of hacks could ask questions, the British refused to submit their questions in advance to the Russian MFA like their Russian counterparts had done. I must confess that a small part of me rather warmed to the idea of knowing every question that might head towards my boss at all FCO press conferences, but the blank spaces alongside the names of British journalists on the sheet of submitted questions was rather more pleasing.
And finally, before the event itself, the last step necessary: preparation, preparation, preparation. The harder the issue you want to talk about, the greater the number of issues you do not want to talk about, but of course, journalists willask you about. The more challenging the people in the room, the more the principal and their team must prepare. Just as drafting a statement well is important, much more time needs to go into anticipating questions and crafting answers, because journalists will be doing exactly the same thing on the other side to precipitate a story. One of my duties in the FCO was to co-chair a regular media briefing for Foreign Press Association journalists in London, where I could be asked pretty much any question about any major international issue or story anywhere. Preparation – including batting practice with my FCO Media Office team asking me the hardest questions they could think of – was the only way to successfully get through the hour.
When the show begins there is very little that a press secretary, or anyone else, can do other than to try to keep order when the questions from the media start. Each question is a roll of the dice, with some staying roughly on topic, others going spectacularly off-topic, especially if another story breaks on the same day and all the questions end up being about something else. At that point, zen-like, you carry on.
Some journalists can be cheeky and hold on to the microphone; I remember one BBC journalist not unknown to Diplomatmagazine who asked Boris Johnson and former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson no fewer than five questions instead of their allocated one. But were I in his shoes I probably would have done the same. Other hacks have been known to ignore process, break ranks and shout questions regardless; when this happened at the FCO during a press conference I had arranged with a Middle Eastern foreign minister I had to shout the reporter down to try and keep some semblance of order. Messy but necessary.
At some point, ideally the planned one, the questions end and the bosses leave, relieved. It’s best practice at this stage for press secretaries to stay behind and talk to the journalists to find out what they thought of the principal’s performance, what story they intend to report and whether they need anything else. Then you keep your fingers crossed that the reporting looks good, check that your boss has not been too bruised by the whole experience and start planning the next dinner party.