Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Press conference preparation

01 Nov 2019
A room full of media waiting to hear your news may seem intimidating, but a press conference is an efficient and effective way to communicate your research and an excellent opportunity to look behind the scenes at how news works.

By Ruth Francis

Press releases, interviews and informal meetings with journalists can help get your message across and result in media coverage, but there are times when research can benefit from a bigger push. A press conference organised to inform reporters and generate timely news can save time and energy, provided you prepare properly.

When to do a press conference? A press conference or briefing allows you to give more information than in a press release and provides more interaction between the journalists and research team. I’ve always found it effective if there are multiple angles, complexity or physical objects that relate to the research that can add to the story – something the media can gain by being in the room, rather than simply over email. Make sure to highlight these benefits and who the media will have a chance to interact with in your press conference announcement.

Why do a press conference? You save time in dealing with lots of reporters in one go rather than individual phone calls and emails. Similarly, journalists benefit from hearing from more than one member of the research team discussing multiple angles of the story.

Preparation is critical. Make sure to define the top three messages beforehand, in non-technical language. Prepare for difficult questions and practice your answers out loud. (See more on preparing for interviews here.) Not doing so can leave you exposed and risks the news angle being something you had not foreseen.

When setting up an in-person briefing, book a venue that the target media can get to. If it’s a dial in or online event, book the service provider and have a practice run so technical hiccups are less likely on the day.

Virtual briefs or conference calls mean you can involve media over a greater geographical area, but consider the time zone. Are you trying to raise awareness of an issue in a certain region or looking for funding or collaboration somewhere? If so, make sure the timing suits journalists in that part of the world, even if it means you’re up late or early to present. We tend to run briefings in the morning because reporters often have afternoon deadlines, but a virtual option can still work later in the day.

A virtual briefing can also be arranged in haste in response to breaking news. Even in those cases, still take time to go over your main message and prepare for difficult questions. (More on crisis communications here.)

Whether in person or virtual, still expect calls and requests from journalists after a briefing. If an in-person event, be sure to allow time afterwards to handle individual enquiries and questions, provide interviews and to get to know the reporters who attended.

You can hold your press conference under embargo and ask media to hold their stories for later in the day or the next day. Going too early risks an embargo break, which we’ve talked about before, so be careful with timing.

I’ve found that researchers are sometimes surprised at the speed with which news turns the story around. As scientists, your work will have taken months if not years to see the light, so it can be a shock to speak to a room and in a matter of hours to see resulting headlines. Enjoy the buzz, it won’t be long before you’re back in the lab and everything has returned to normal.


Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.