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Intersecting With The Press

Dave Power.

((Dave Power did ad chasing and sponsorship liaison for Intersection. A few weeks after the con he sent out this article on the Intersection e-mail bounce (known as Intercom). In it he highlights some of the problems he encountered and the solutions he adopted or would have liked to have adopted. As it was written in response to a number of points raised by other contributors to the bounce about ways to best handle the press, there are certain references than are a bit obscure - but I'm sure you will get the message he's trying to put across.))

>>indicates a paragraph is being quoted from another earlier message from someone else or Dave himself.))


Since I spent most of the con dealing with the press, I think I probably suffered enough to make some comments here. Particularly, since it wasn't originally my job or my intended way of passing time at the con.

1) Total Press Blackout.

This would be impossible to enforce. If reporters were denied entry as press, it would tend to convince them that we were trying to hide something and they would come in pretending to be a member of the paying public. You might be able to keep out TV crews, but I doubt it. Out of the eight plus TV crews wandering around Intersection only the Channel Four and German Crews looked like the part. Most looked like someone wandering around with a video recorder.

On at least five occasions, I received complaints about the behaviour of TV crews, only to find that the culprit was a fan. Several more such complaints were ignored due to a combination of leg failure and the knowledge that there were no TV crews on site at the time of the complaints. I only received one justified and very minor complaint about the professionals which only required a brief word to correct the problem. There may have been other complaints to security/ops which were not passed on to the press office. In general, the TV crews were determined to do their jobs, but were polite and professional about it. The German TV crew even listened to suggestions about what they should film and who they should talk to. I suspect that no one other than myself even has even a vague idea as to how many newspaper reporters and cameramen were wandering around the con. Most of these were less professional, impolite and were basically a pain in the butt. Several of newspaper reporters didn't even bother to stop by the press office at all. It was a newspaper cameraman who tried to bribe me with drink to get him into the backstage at the masquerade.

Secondly, it would be practically impossible to get sponsorship from the smaller companies like Microsoft and the publishers if this policy is followed. I suspect that the same would apply to the tourist boards. After all, they have to claim they spent public money on funding a major event that publicised Glasgow or wherever.

2) Charging the press/restricted access.

The idea of allowing press access on one day (Thursday) and charging them on all other days of Intersection was an unmitigated disaster. Choosing to have the press day on Thursday when we had a fair chunk of the membership arriving was a bad mistake. We had so many labour intensive tasks going on that is was effectively impossible to find senior staff with a good knowledge of the con with time to show the press around and be interviewed by them. This was compounded by the fact that guests which most reporters wanted to talk to were unavailable. I had a number of irate reporters who turned up on for free access on Thursday who were furious when they found that Gerry Anderson wouldn't be arriving until Friday. A fact which our press pack failed to mention. Only one of these returned later. I was being told by Mark Plummer (our Official Press liaison) before the con, that Samuel Delany had a real tight schedule and it would probably only be possible for the press to interview him between 2-4pm on Saturday which was again not detailed in the press pack.

Secondly, this policy ignored the cascade effect. Well over half the press coverage at Intersection was a result of earlier stories. I.e. the Editor of a paper reads a story in another paper and decides he wants to cover it. Most of the local news coverage resulted from this effect and a fair chunk of the national newspaper coverage as well. Fortunately, the deal with Channel Four, which basically said that no documentary or in depth TV coverage could be filmed transmitted before the "Beam me up Scotty" programme on Saturday night, limited this effect to the newspapers. The half dozen TV crews who called, most lost interest when they discovered that they'd need to work at the weekend.

The policy of charging press resulted in at least two stories which were deliberately written to put Intersection in the worse possible light. The story in the Scottish local paper of weirdo's ripping of the public was no accident. Although weirdo's ripping off the press would have been closer to the reporters true feelings on the matter. Most of the reporters who covered the con were free lancers who tend to get paid a flat rate for the story, with no expenses. In other words, the entry fee was coming out of their pocket which didn't put them in a receptive or polite frame of mind. Having various members of the senior committee and board comment publicly on their view of the press didn't help. If news of this policy had reached the sponsors I arranged before the con, I estimate that we would have lost at least half of the sponsorship deals. As it was I had some distinctly unpleasant conversations and one out and out rant as a result of this. Fortunately, I had enough press wandering around so that I was able to direct enough press coverage at all the sponsors to make them happy by the end of the con. If this hadn't been the case, at least one sponsor would have asked for his money back.

Which brings up an very important point: MAKE SURE THE SPONSORS SEE THE PRESS CREWS.

It doesn't matter if the press actually talk about the sponsors. As long as the sponsors see the press and think they have a chance of getting publicity they will be happy. Resorting to subterfuge is a good way of doing this. I.e. having a friendly author give interviews in front of the sponsors stand. Sponsors tend to justify sponsorship as a publicity exercise. Removing or reducing the publicity will LOSE sponsors which are bloody hard to find in the first place.

3) Preparation.

>>From my viewpoint on the day, Intersection was nearly totally unprepared to handle the press.

Both of the people who were supposed to be handling the press, Mark Plummer and Alison Freebairn were already doing jobs in other parts of the convention and were rarely seen in the press office after the con opened. I was supposed to be working as sponsorship and publishers liaison. I was originally only involved with clearing TV crews for filming and making sure that they weren't going to screw up the deal with Channel Four. Fortunately, however my official jobs went smoothly with the exception of relations with one sponsor, so I was able (forced) to pick up the slack in the press office. Even so, I did not enjoy doing three jobs with bloody little or no support and at times, active opposition from operations. As is often the case, the press liaison role was saved by some friendly Americans (Thanks Bill) who walked in and took over handling the general enquiries. Even so, the press office was undermanned. I had to resort to borrowing stewards from John Harold area as press escorts on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I was too damn busy running around dealing with press, to realise until the last day that no one in the press office was getting any volunteer T-shirt or gophers tickets.

The office was totally underequiped. According to Claire Brialey she had requested two phones, one fax, one computer for the press office and two pagers + plus a room for interviews. We actually got one phone and one standard pager (not a message pager which would have saved me major amounts of grief). The Intersection fax was eventually set up in the Moathouse, a good five minutes walk from the press office. I must confess that I eventually discovered a second phone in the otherwise totally unfurnished room which was supposed to be used for interviews. Of course, since I wasn't supposed to be doing the job, no one had bothered to tell me about the interview room which was useless in its bare bones state. We had no hospitality for the press. Even a simple supply of tea and coffee would have helped. Particularly when dealing with TV crews who had to be kept waiting until I could talk to them and clear them to film.

We had no information prepared to give out to the press. We didn't even have a copy of the programme for the first two or three days (i.e. Monday - Wednesday morning). There was no easy way of locating writers/artists for press interviews. In the past, the SFWA suite has been a valuable resource for this purpose. You can usually find a couple of suitable victims lurking therein. However, the SFWA suite at the SECC was effectively non existent. The green room is almost useless for arranging quick interviews. Authors in the green room are there because they are about to start a panel. However, the green room can be used to arrange if the reporter is prepared to wait a couple of hours. Most of the time I was forced to wander out in to the concourse and grab the nearest victim. This resulted in Ian Banks and Terry Pratchett getting an unfair advantage in getting press interviews. At one point, I lined up back to back interviews with Ian with both of the local TV news shows, this resulted in the local news on both BBC and ITV showing interviews filmed with Ian standing in the same place about an hour apart, being aired simultaneously. I'm told this was somewhat confusing.

4) Solutions.

I had an interesting offer from the PR flacks of several of the British publishers towards the end of the con. Basically, they offered to man the press office for us. This would have the advantage of having the press office manned by people who deal with the press on a regular basis and who are not drawn from our normal volunteer base. However, they would need to be monitored by someone with sufficient clout to ensure that the con gets some coverage between the book and author plugs. This person would need to have an excellent knowledge of the workings of the con and a good background knowledge of the SF field.

The press in general are lazy. They want to produce a story with the minimum possible effort. With the correct preparation, this can be used to increase the tendency to produce favourable stories. This means preparing an information rich press handout which can be collected from the press office. This should contain such data as the size of the conference centre, expected attendance, number of authors and editors etc. attending; highlighting best selling authors, the guests and local authors, size of the dealers room with expected turnover, size of the artshow, map of the convention, prepared interview dummy with the chair/co chair, prepared dummy interviews with the guests, explanation of the Hugos, explanation of the site selection, explanation of why Glasgow won the site selection for 95, cost of the event, details of con organisation, highlighting non profit and volunteers running the event, facts about the SF industry, i.e. the fact that 20% of the UK paperback market is SF, background information/story on some fans etc. Most reporters will use such a handout as their primary source for the story they produce. They probably won't even bother to check the facts handed to them. Therefore if the handout is correctly slanted it greatly increases the chances of getting favourable coverage. This doesn't always work, but it's worth the effort in the majority of cases. A short summary of this on two or three pages for faxing out should also be prepared.

It is also worth prioritising the treatment given to press. In general, if a reporter and cameraman show up and want to spend twenty minutes wandering around the con taking pictures, the result will be the usual weirdo crap. The story in these cases has already been written. It's not worth doing anything more than having a steward show them around and get them off the premises as quickly as possible.

However, the reporters like the German TV crew and the Guardian reporter who I spent three hours showing him around the con are worth the extra effort involved. If someone is planning to spend a lot of time on the site they are more likely to write a reasonable story. Note, however, in the case of TV coverage, an hour on site will translate roughly to a minute of air time.

Priority must be given to getting the press office up and running. We were taking large numbers of calls in the Moathouse before lunch on Monday morning. The press office should have been a separate function which would have made our job easier.

Before we attempt to adopt drastic measures like banning press coverage which wouldn't work to our advantage, I would like to see a con where press coverage is planned, prepared for and handled in a effective manner. In the past, press liaison has been regarded as a necessary evil at best. It has been under-resourced both financially and in the quality and number of the people who do the job on the day.

The Press Pack

The on the day press policy for the con was set by the board or maybe the executive about 2-3 months before the con. I was not happy about this at the time, but is was better than the proposed alternative of a total press ban. In other words we got the lesser of two evils. The press information pack was a approximately 32 pages of information culled largely from the PR's by Mark Plummer. It appears that he hadn't even asked some of the authors of the articles used for permission to reuse their pieces. Contents were roughly as follows.

You will notice a complete lack of any explanation of what Intersection was, why it was being held in Glasgow or how big it was going to be. No mention of the sponsors or the charity auction. It's about half way through the pack before there is any mention of what's going to be happening in a vague and half hearted sort of way. No mention of when the guests could be interviewed. It totally failed in the basic function of a press pack of telling the reader about Intersection..

Personally, I wouldn't have bothered to read past page 2 or 3, since by then I would still have no idea what the hell the pack was supposed to be informing me about. This shambles had no index. The tone of the first three or four pages made it clear that the press were not particularly welcome. There was no attempt to sell the con as an interesting event. No day time phone number was given. Only a number with an answerphone. I ended up having a lot of press enquiries heading my way.

>> We had no information prepared to give out to the press. We didn't even have a copy of the programme for the first two or three days (i.e. Monday - Wednesday morning).

Yes, the information was available. But Martin and others point blank and repeatedly refused to let the press office have a copy. The function of press office was obviously regarded as being a low priority, bloody nuisance. It was Wednesday before I managed to get agreement for us to be given a photocopy, shortly before the real readme's arrived.

>>There is never going to be an easy solution to this problem. You can't hope to keep track of every 'celeb' at the con, and it's not clear you ought to be trying to.

One obvious solution is to have a couple of pagers which can be given to willing authors for two or three hours when they are willing to be grabbed for interviews. Peter and Diane did collect pagers at a late stage of the con (Saturday I believe), but this was after the main rush had passed.

>> I had an interesting offer from the PR flacks of several of the British publishers towards the end of the con. Basically, they offered to man the press office for us. This would have the advantage of having the press office manned by people who deal with the press on a regular basis and who are not drawn from our normal volunteer base. However, they would need to be monitored by someone with sufficient clout to ensure that the con gets some coverage between the book and author plugs. This person would need to have an excellent knowledge of the workings of the con and a good background knowledge of the SF field. Publishers may deal with the press regularly, but in very narrow areas usually. Whilst this wouldn't necessarily be a problem, it would put a very different slant on the view the press got. The comments about monitoring are somewhat of an understatement. I'd be very wary of doing this kind of thing. There is an argument for the press office to be under the direct control of an information division [see intercom passim], as for other interfaces with the outside world.

Most PR flacks tend to have been journalists. They have considerably broader experience than you would think. However, you are right, the overseers job would be a difficult. Personally, I would be happy to deal with most of the publishers (the exception being Gollancz). It would take work, but if the time was taken to establish a good working relationship with the PR flacks and the press in the run up to the con, I believe the results would be worthwhile. Both in terms of promoting the con before the event and in the on the day press coverage. The main reason that the channel four deal worked was because we had a reasonable working relationship with the production company before the con

>>Problems with staffing were, of course, endemic throughout the con. The important thing is not merely how many staff you have, but how early they're recruited, and how well they're trained.

Couldn't agree more. I was asking for help to both Martin and Fiona before the con started as I didn't think I would be able to handle the publishers and sponsors liaison stuff without backup. So I could take a little time off and actually see a little of the con. I didn't get the help I asked for. Instead I ended up being lumbered with the press liaison stuff. I really must learn to walk away from problems that aren't officially my concern. As a result, I didn't see a single programme item and it was Monday before I had a chance for a brief look around the dealers room. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed doing the work, but it would have been nice to get a little help and a damn sight less hostility from Ops.

However, since 1979 when I first went to my first con, I have never seen a con spend any significant amount of time and effort preparing to handle the press. The fannish hostility is definitely getting worse and I suspect that next time a major con is run in this country, the attitude towards the press will result an even more shoddy job of press relations.

The story that people will remember will be the Scottish Sunday Mail weirdo piece. The excellent coverage for Intersection in the Guardian, Observer and the Economist etc, will be forgotten. As will the more middle of the road pieces in the Scottish Herald and short harmless filler pieces in other local press. Seacon 79, Seacon 84 and Conspiracy all got a reasonable amount of fair reporting in the press and on TV. But no one remembers the good stories or the polite, professional and co-operative reporters: the only memory that fandom seem to be capable to retaining in respect of the press is the usual collection of horror stories.


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This page updated on 09 July 1999