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PRESS, DEPRESS

Claire Brialey

((Claire Brialey took on the job of promotions supremo for Intersection despite me telling her of my experiences doing the same thing for Conspiracy. Here is her report of how it went from her standpoint.))

This may be an odd way to begin an article, but I'm going to tell you now how to react to it. Obviously I should be able to write it well enough to provoke the reaction I want without being quite this unsubtle, but this is a subject on which everyone seems to have a strong opinion, and I'd like to keep all this in perspective.

This is an article about press liaison at Intersection. See what I mean?

Whatever your opinions about how press liaison should be handled at conventions in general, and how it should have been handled at Intersection in particular, I believe that the only useful and productive reaction to analysing what happened at Intersection is to consider how to do it well at the "next bloody British bloody Worldcon" (NBBBW), as I understand it should be known, or other large conventions. Laboriously allotting blame doesn't do any good at all. I was head of the division which included press liaison, so of course I take responsibility for it. But I'm afraid that I'm not prepared to throw myself ceremonially onto a wallyphone and gafiate; I was a volunteer like everyone else, and not all the retrospective sages in the world can change anything now. They might have been able to change something if they'd opined or, far better, offered to help in advance, of course.

But it is easy to be wise in retrospect. In retrospect, even I can tell you what went wrong.

The main problem, and the one which recurs throughout the various threads of this brief history, is that we didn't have enough staff. We needed people to handle press liaison who would be able to deal with the press effectively - meaning, to my mind, politely, confidently, quickly and with maximum benefit to Intersection. Few people seemed to volunteer to do press liaison, which I didn't find particularly surprising even then. In fact, I was informed halfway through the convention, ie when it was far too late, that a number of American fans with considerable relevant experience had previously volunteered to help. This was the first I'd ever heard of it. An even longer article could be written on Intersection's communications, but I'm sure some of the problems there are obvious too.

To start with, we didn't have enough people to help out in advance. This was partly a simple question of scale, because I underestimated the interest we would have from the press; partly because press liaison was, for a long time, not the most immediate problem (and in the situation we were in, if it wasn't immediate, it didn't get done yet); and partly because I had poached my press liaison area head, Alison Freebairn, from programming, because she had been highly recommended by a number of fans. Since I felt guilty about giving her a double workload, I promised that we would try to handle as much of the preparatory work, which seemed to us then to be quite straightforward, within the rest of Promotions.

In practice, I only did a bit of the preparatory work. The real burden fell on two other area heads: Mark Plummer, because he was picking up everything I wasn't managing to deal with, thereby keeping Promotions as a whole running and generally preventing me from having a very real nervous breakdown; and David Power, who had been handling sponsorship and consequently was already receiving a number of press and media-related enquiries, and who clearly felt that if no one else was dealing with them, he would have to.

We also didn't have enough people to help out at the con. I was going to be running the sales-to-members booth since I didn't have a merchandising area head and, with thousands of pounds passing over the counter every day and my mortgage in the balance, it wasn't something I was going toleave to a couple of gophers. Mark Plummer was one of the dealers' room team (whence I had shamelessly poached him, as well) and I had promised to let that have first call on him at-con; Alison Freebairn was running the morning fan programme; Dave Power was going to be dealing with the sponsors, including Channel 4. So, with no alternative that I could see, we had to let press liaison be handled by volunteers. And there weren't many; some of the local fans who Alison had lined up to take on a lot of the work turned out to have other priorities.

As I said, I had underestimated the press interest we'd managed to drum up thus far. One of the (minor) consequences of this was that we ran out of press packs by about Friday. One of the other, less minor, consequences, was that when we discovered that the level of interest was such that we would definitely need a press room manned during office hours (9am to 6pm, roughly) from the Monday before the convention until at least the Saturday, this tied up at least one of the few volunteers we had, all day. I also underestimated the amount of work the press expected us to do for them, and the amount of time people were therefore going to have to spend on the press room phone line or searching for information tailored to specific enquiries. We didn't have the staff to man two phone lines, even if I could have got another one put in, so the calls stacked back on the at-con office phone and annoyed them as well. The fact that there apparently wasn't a working fax machine in the at-con office for much of the crucial period for press liaison also wasn't ideal, but that's only a minor gripe in the great cosmic scheme of things.

The major consequence of our knowing in advance that we had a pretty sketchy press liaison team available at the convention was our press policy. Ideally, we wanted a system whereby a member of the press turned up at registration, whether unannounced or (preferably) having phoned in advance, to be met as quickly as possible by a member of the press liaison staff who would then escort them around the convention, give them lots of relevant information, try to demonstrate how intelligent and attractive all SF fans are (whilst not physically preventing them from taking photos of people in pointy ears if that was what they really wanted to do), and see them off the premises laughing and happy. Call me a cynic, but I can't see it working quite like that even in the ideal world of the sci-fi future.

You may already have spotted the key problem in this scenario, however: the almost limitless supply of helpful, eager, competent press liaison staff needed to pull it off. And guess what we didn't have? Consequently, and having had to accept that the press would want some sort of access to the convention, we had to devise some sort of policy which would minimise the direct problems. We therefore decided to designate one day for free access to all press and media people, during which they would have full access to all public areas of the convention, and after which they would have to pay to get in like anyone else. We would also arrange interviews or photo opportunities with specific groups or types of fans as requested, although of course we couldn't guarantee the appearance of any particular celeb (Samuel Delany, in particular, had asked to be worked hard as a guest and really only had three hours free on Friday during which he could have given any interviews; we were finally told about this several weeks after we'd started to send out press packs).

We chose Thursday as the free day, partly because we thought we'd get it over with quickly, but mostly because the only possible advantage to Intersection that we could see in having the press around at all was that we might get coverage which would attract more members; so anything appearing after Saturday morning was precious little use to us. Alison warned me that the press would not take kindly to having to pay; we decided that local press and media should be treated with discretion, and generally allowed in free, by prior arrangement, at other times provided that they didn't infringe Channel 4's broadcasting rights. Wherever possible, someone would escort them. In this way, we hoped to avoid buggering up long term press relations for Glasgow fandom, and also to get some local publicity early enough to bring in the day attendees.

By the time it was established that there were a few more willing and able volunteers at the con, we had a press policy which they disagreed with and found hard to apply. We also had no basis for changing tack without annoying all the press and media who had already complied with that policy, and without any guarantee that we actually did have enough staff to make the original plan work. We were getting dangerously close to our Saturday morning cut-off (and John Brunner had just died).

So it really is quite simple: press liaison went wrong, and it was my responsibility, partly just because it was my division and partly because I took some of the decisions that didn't work out. Looking back, however, I don't see any way in the same circumstances in which I could have done anything which would have worked better - without actually giving up my career, doing a quick public relations course, or paying a consultancy about three times my total divisional budget to do it for me.

It went wrong. In theory, I feel I needn't have said anything more than that here, because I don't think that crawling over our mistakes is particularly useful. Knowing what went wrong may well help to avoid the same sort of errors and problems next time anyone does something like this - but it is pretty straightforward and our mistakes appear to be so obvious to lots of people that I'm sure they wouldn't make any of them anyway... It must be said that none of the other Intersection people with whom I discussed the potential press policy said (to my face, at least) that they thought it would be unworkable, and I was singularly struck by the lack of volunteers or constructive criticism which I received when it would have been useful, ie before the convention.

But, as I said, this does have to be looked at in perspective. Firstly, we had one negative Sunday tabloid story, a few relatively indifferent and neutral fillers and quite a lot of TV, radio and newspaper interviews and articles which were non-sensationalist, quite sensible, mature and generally positive. It's been suggested that people will only remember the tabloid one. I think that's rather inflating our importance: I don't think anyone (apart from fans, at least until they have something else to criticise one another for) will remember any of them at all in a few months' time.

Secondly, we were probably quite lucky only to have the one disastrous piece, but that's by the by. Most conventions have a lot of luck, and I see no reason to sniff at it. I now know personally what I'd want (in that ideal world) in press liaison terms in the future, and I hope it will be that obvious to whichever poor sod has to devise a press policy for the NBBBW. I also hope they have to contend with none of the other problems I had; I'm sure they'll have enough of their own.

I would like to thank everyone who worked on press liaison for their hard work and their noble efforts in the face of adversity. I'm sorry if I dropped you in it; I don't think there's anything more to say on the subject - but I have no doubt that people will. Let the furore continue.

 


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This page updated on 09 July 1999