Press conferences should be avoided whenever possible, I’ve believed during my two careers in the news business – first as an editor and journalist at New York City dailies and wire services, and for most of my career in the PR business.
As a journalist, I witnessed how easy it is for a client to lose control of the situation, when unwanted questions were asked. (A prime example was during President Trump’s April 5 presser, when he refused to allow Dr. Fauci to answer a reporter’s question about using an anti malaria drug, as the president had suggested numerous times. The president’s refusing to let a medical doctor answer a medical question resulted in major negative publicity for Trump.)
As a PR practitioner, I witnessed how often clients were disappointed, when after spending tons of money on a press conference the media results were not what was expected.
Watching the coronavirus pressers were similar to attending a Masters Class, free of charge, with daily TV lessons since the outbreak of the coronavirus provided by President Trump and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
They should be closely studied by people in our business and used as teaching tools on how speakers at press conferences should conduct themselves — the president’s on how not to act, the governor’s on how to.
President Trump cancelled his daily coronavirus pressers some time ago, after receiving failing grades for his performances. On June 17, Gov. Cuomo said that he will end his daily conferences on June 19, saying he would hold additional ones on an as-needed basis.
The president’s daily pressers were a PR disaster, jam-packed with contradictory statements. The usual script was for the president to make statements regarding the coronavirus situation according to his gut-feeling or hunches. Those remarks were not based on facts and many were corrected immediately by Drs. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Also, occasionally after the pressers were concluded, the White House had to disseminate clarifications of what the president meant. During the pressers, the president also said he had talked to governors about situations that the governors deny. The results of the president’s pressers were that his daily misinformation and lies resulted in negative media coverage.
Conversely, the way the Cuomo press briefings were conducted should be used as a prototype for people in our business. The governor delivered factual information, in addition to what he expected to happen in the future. Both were clearly defined. On some questions, the governor deferred to his health expert, Dr. Zucker, the Commissioner of Health for New York State, without fear of being corrected because there were no gut-feeling, hunch statements or fabrications. The result of the governor’s press conferences was that he has now become a respected national figure and that his pressers were carried nationally.
Some examples: In order to deflect criticism of his handling of the coronavirus situation, Trump tried to change the subject of his pressers on March 30, April 1 and April 5, on the 30th by talking about how well he handled his impeachment, it was an A plus performance he said; and on April Fools Day talking about his fight against drug cartels. It didn’t work and he fooled no one. (John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent, said the president was trying to change the subject.) On April 5 Trump refused to let Dr. Fauci answer a reporter’s question about medical advice given by the president. All of these examples resulted in major negative media criticism for the president. There are too many other situations of these types to detail. (In his April 6 New York Times media column, Ben Smith described the daily Trump pressers as often feeling like “…clumsily produced episodes of reality television, a kind of parody of old-fashioned TV seriousness.”
But, perhaps, the major difference between Trumps’s attacking his critic’s press conferences, and the tone of Cuomo’s educational ones occurred on May 17, when the governor submitted to testing on national television. He did so to demonstrate how simple and fast the testing procedure is as he urged people to not be afraid to be tested. And unlike Trump, who has rejected comments from medical experts, Cuomo kept highlighting the opinions of medical experts during his pressers.
In what was an obvious attempt to drown out the praise for Gov. Cuomo, the president, on May 19, moved his daily pressers to the time that Cuomo has held his since the beginning of the daily dueling press conferences. It didn’t work. TV stations cut away from the president to broadcast Cuomo’s more factual conferences.
Just as Trump sticks to the disproved PR tenet that announcing bad news late Friday or on weekends will deter it from being covered, neither did his new tactic of attempting to upstage Cuomo.
There are many important take-a-ways from the daily conoravirus pressers that PR practitioner should remember:
- Today’s media is more aggressive than ever, and everything said, during crises and none crises situations, will be fact checked for accuracy.
- Shooting from the hips remarks and answers to questions invariably leads to negative press coverage.
- During a PR crisis, what an expert in the situation says will have more believability by the media than what a corporate executive says, or in the coronavirus situation the president.
- Attempting to change the media from covering a situation, as President Trump has done, doesn’t work.
- Just because media attends a press conference doesn’t meant that it will result in the coverage you want.
- And that important media lessons that are not in your communication’s schools texts can be learned from paying attention to the daily give and take between politicians and reporters.
The Trump pressers and Gov. Cuomo’s were assured of major media coverage because, unlike your client, Trump is president of the United States and Cuomo is governor of New York State. And the coronavirus epidemic is a legitimate “hard news” story that affects everyone. (Not fluff, like so many “new and improved” product pressers.)
Press conferences are a tool that should be used only when there is “hard news” to announce. And even then, the results can be disappointing.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.