Your company's events get the word out to your users, developers, and employees. Are you working the press, too? You may work with a public relations person, or may even be the public relations person. (Isn't "multitasking" a great euphemism?) Either way, yourefforts are not complete until you leverage your meetings to get to the media.
But how? Shelley Miller, public relations manager with Intergraph Corp., a computer hardware and software company in Huntsville, Ala., offers one solution, with a smile: "We find that as long as you feed them well, they walk away happy." But before you break out the shrimp, ask the five Ws of every good reporter--Who, What, Where, When, and Why--to ensure you're getting the most out of your canape budget.
Why . . . Are You Holding This Thing, Anyway? If you're going to hold a press conference, make sure you've got a story to tell. As Paul Lancey, senior vice president of corporate marketing with Computer Associates says, "If it doesn't get your blood pressure up, it won't raise anyone else's." According to an informal survey of the high-tech trade press, here's what gets their attention:
* A rollout of your company's latest product, or an enhanced version of an existing product--something sufficiently nuanced that it must be explained in person
* An announcement of a new strategic alliance with a significant company in the industry
* Entrance into new product lines or big shifts in company positioning
* Introduction of new executives to your leadership team
* Release of financial reports--assuming they're impressive and your company's growth has an impact on the marketplace
Who . . . Really Wants to Know? Pinpoint your media list. Which magazines have pulled the most responses to your ads? Where have your press releases been best received? Whose editorial slant most closely matches your firm's products and philosophy? Often the niche, or "vertical," publications in a particular industry are the best targets for up-and-coming company press conferences because their editors are focusing on a specific market. It can be more difficult to attract the "horizontal," or more general industry magazines, unless your news is truly spectacular.
The type of reporter you want to attract also can depend on where the press conference is being held. For example, when Emeryville, Calif.-based enterprise software company Sybase, Inc. held a press conference in August at the PowerSoft User Conference in Los Angeles, it targeted reporters who cover the application development tools industry. At your user group conference in particular, it can pay to make sure you are comfortable with the press you invite because they'll be out mingling with your customers.
What . . . Draws the Press? "Journalists go to press conferences all the time, so anything you can do to make it interesting will give you a better drawing card," says Lancey. For a small group, hand-write the invitations. For a larger group, at least print the invitations on your company's letterhead. Nancy Boyle Levene, who works in public relations at Sharp Electronics Corp. in Mahwah, N.J., says her company sends out printed invitations and e-mail alerts. "Then we always follow up with a phone call," she says.
A few other keys to attracting the press:
* Food. "You have to feed people," says Stephanie Feree, media relations, Intergraph Corp.'s Utilities and Imaging Services Group. "It makes all the difference."
* Speakers. For a new product introduction, product managers can do the core presentation, followed by an executive or two to give more big-picture corporate information, says Boyle Levene. For corporate news, try to get the president, CEO, CIO, and executive vice presidents involved, says Feree. "Make sure that you mention on the invitations and press advisory that top-level management will be presenting on specific topics and addressing questions," she says.
* One-on-ones. "We want one-on-one time with key people," says Mark Kirstein, director, In-Stat magazine. "If you can arrange personal interview time around the press conference, you'll get more attendance." Mary Shank Rockman, director of public relations and executive communications with Sybase, always makes sure her team is on the phone setting up one-on-one interviews to follow the press conference. "It demonstrates our commitment to the press when we give them our executives for a good period of time," she says.
* Customer interviews. Particularly at a user group meeting, personal interviews with customers are press magnets. "We try to set up times for the press to interview our customers at our annual user group conference," says Intergraph's Miller. "We try to really take advantage of having the press at our meeting by getting them in front of our key managers and customers." She checks the publication's editorial calendar and tries to hook up editors with customers who have interesting stories to tell. "Talking with executives and customers can help editors think about what sorts of technology should be on their radar screens for the coming year," she says.
* Product demos. Just like everyone else, journalists love to play with new toys, and giving demonstrations can be a good way to give them a hands-on understanding of your products. "We usually try to demonstrate the product at the press conference," says Sharp's Boyle Levene. "And, if it warrants it, we'll also try to have on-on-one demonstrations, with demo areas set up throughout the room."
* Tools. Some companies go all out to make their press conference easy to report on. Computer Associates' CA World included a comprehensive press center with 150 workstations, private meeting rooms, and video feeds into the room from other venues so the media could see what was going on elsewhere. How do they do it? "We get high-tech companies as sponsors, and they give us their best technology to use," says Lancey. "And it is their best, because who wouldn't want their best technology being used by the high-tech trade press?" Not everyone goes that far, but access to phones, computers with Internet and e-mail links, and photos of the event should be available.
* Extras. Journalists also love companies that say, "Let me entertain you." After-hours events and parties give them an additional opportunity to mingle with customers and company personnel.
Where . . . Is the Best Venue? Scout the facility to ensure that it has everything you need, including breakout rooms that can accommodate one-on-one meetings. "You need to have those little rooms where the CEO can sit and have coffee with a reporter," says Shank Rockman. The facility should have a room that can accommodate your group in a single setting, and be able to provide that all-important food. Sharp's Boyle Levene looks for good audiovisual support from the facility, as well as connectivity for teleconferencing for those who can't make it to the physical press conference.
You can eliminate the need toseparate space by holding your press conference at a major industry convention, but, according to Shank Rockman, "It seems to be going the way of the past. It's too much to compete with all the noise." She says she prefers to arrange a room at the convention center where Sybase execs can hold one-on-one press briefings with reporters at major shows. Also, comments Feree, if you use the press room set up by the conference organizer, "you usually follow right on the heels of a previous group, so you have to go in on a wing and a prayer that everything is set up right."
Because you're dealing with human nature, ambience counts. To announce CA chairman and CEO Charles B. Wang's first visit to China, the press conference was held on the Great Wall. "We could have done it more comfortably and easily in Beijing," says Lancey, "but this was breathtaking. No one minded having to work around the technological inconveniences."
Shank Rockman, whose company designed the software used for the World Cup soccer matches this year, held several press events on-site in Marseilles, France, as well as press tours in Sao Paolo, Brazil; London; New York City; Tokyo; and Mexico City. "We got tremendous results from these," she says, citing more than 70 press clippings from one day's meeting in Brazil.
When . . . Should You Schedule It? If your press announcement is going to be a short and sweet one held during an industry, Shank Rockman says mid-morning or mid-afternoon are your best bets. "Too early and they may be covering something else," she says. "Be considerate enough to let them learn what they need to know and then let them get on with the other activities they have on their calendar." If the news is so significant that it warrants a full meal and several hours of their time, always check with the show organizers to avoid time conflicts with other companies--especially competitors or much larger companies.
On-line press conferences often are best held during the midday hours, says CA's Lancey. "That way, we can pick up the West Coast, and Europe, the East Coast, and South America are still on-line. 11:30 a.m. seems to work well for us."
But don't sweat the timing too much, says Intergraph's Feree. "The timing isn't as important as the other factors, such as personal invitations, making the calls, and giving them a good teaser. If you can make them curious, they'll come."
That is, if you tell them in time. BRG magazine's director Cheryl Ball says it's vital to give enough advance notice. Unless, again, it's really big--and then give shorter notice to prevent rumors and misinformation.
All this can be a little daunting if you're a neophyte, but fear not. "It's not about throwing dollars and resources at a challenge," says Lancey. "Be creative. Be clever. Be different, and you'll be successful."
They may not be as big as IBM, but the meeting and press relations philosophy of QNX Software Systems, Ltd., based in Kanata, Ontario, is 100 percent Blue Chip. "If you don't have the money to dazzle them, that's okay," says Mal Raddalgoda, QNX's director of communications. "The real opportunities for small companies are not in trying to be a big company, but in working with what you have and using it to build relationships. That's what it's all about."
Unlike the usual press conference, which is a very business-like affair, QNX's recent user conference press dinner in San Francisco was more of a press event, designed specifically to help QNX--a privately held company whose 200 or so employees develop real-time operating systems for imbedded systems--and the press to get to know each other. "The objective was to develop some personal relationships, to create a relaxed atmosphere, to enjoy some time together in a nonpressure environment," says Raddalgoda.
QNX's master relationship-builder is corporate meeting manager Christine Smith, CMP. "She not only organized our user conference but she also handled my press dinner and a party for all the attendees. And pulled all of it off perfectly," says Raddalgoda.
"At first, the goal was basically to schmooze with them," says Smith. "But having a dinner in the usual hospitality suite just doesn't do it anymore; it's been done to death. We were in San Francisco and I thought, we want to do more than just schmooze. About half of the press people there were from other countries, and I really wanted to give them a special memory to walk away with." What she came up with was a sunset boat cruise around San Francisco Bay, with a duet playing classical music in the background, fine food, and relaxing companionship? "It turned out to be the best, and I kid you not, the best, press event I've had at any company I've worked with," says Raddalgoda.
Make it Easy Even for the business-oriented press conferences at the QNX user group meeting, the personal touch was everywhere. "It's all in taking care of the details," says Smith, like having someone right there at the front desk to meet and greet the press, hand out information, point them into specific areas they may want to see, and give them timetables outlining who they're supposed to meet and when. "Make them feel taken care of right from the start," Smith says.
The company's effort to make life easy for journalists was also evident in the press room, where Smith organized press kits so that the media could tell which information belonged to QNX and which to its exhibitors. The information was arranged to accommodate both the needs of the trade press, which is looking for detailed, technical information, and the news media of their home town and of San Francisco, where the meeting was held, which needed more general interest information.
Smith also booked a press room big enough so reporters would feel comfortable holding interviews without someone looking over their shoulders. She kept it well-stocked with biographical information, photographs, and copies of speeches, and made sure everything stayed organized. She set up computer stations where the press could check their e-mail, and phones so they could call in to file stories.
"They remember you as the good guys for making the extra effort to help them keep up with the fast and furious information flow," Smith says.
Some exhibitors also got the benefit of QNX's media savvy. One was BCI, which came all the way from France to show an automotive technology navigation system, called Christine, which helps drivers maneuver cars through traffic.
"Because they spent so much time, effort, and money to come, and because they are a partner that took our technology and did something really innovative, we scheduled a time for every one of the media to actually get in a car and use the technology while driving, as well as time to talk with the developers," says Raddalgoda. "We do different things for our exhibitors, depending on the profile of their technology," he says, adding that having their original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and third-party providers there really enhanced their image with the media. "A lot of the media people there didn't know that we could throw such a professional conference," he says. "It wasn't a third-party conference, but, thanks to Chris, it looked just like one."
There are several different press conference settings to choose from, one of which
will fit your company's budget, style, and circumstances.
* On-line, tele-, and videoconferences
Benefits: Relatively inexpensive; no travel costs.
Limitations: No face-to-face contact means limited rapport between company and press; no photo ops; no product demos; no schmoozing potential.
* User group conferences
Benefits: Concentrated base of customers and trade press; lots of one-on-one potential with company execs and customers; can hold press conference within the facility for easy access.
Limitations: Takes the press off the floor so they spend less time with exhibited products and customers.
* At a trade show
Benefits: Huge concentration of customers and media representatives; convention staff on hand to handle logistical issues; set-up often taken care of for you; no extra travel costs.
Limitations: Lots of competition for journalists' time; limited control over press room's physical and technical capabilities.
* Independently held in a hotel, conference center, restaurant, or other locale
Benefits: No distractions or schedule conflicts because they're there just to hear your news; more opportunities for creativity; easy to set up product demos and one-on-ones.
Limitations: Tough to get attendance unless you're Microsoft. More expense, time, and effort to set up.