Everything You Need To Know About Working With Journalists As An Event Planner

Last Updated on October 7, 2021

As an event management professional, you’re eventually going to have to work with the press. Whether they’re covering your entire conference or simply showing up to report on a particularly poignant keynote, journalists are an important component of every event bar. It’s important that you know precisely how to communicate with them – and how to deal with them.

Journalists play an incredibly important role in event management, like it or not. Depending on your relationship with the press, it can either be one of the most powerful publicity tools in your arsenal, or one of the most damaging threats to your brand’s reputation. Today, we’re going to go over how you can ensure that journalists fulfill the former role, rather than the latter.

In other words, we’re going to discuss exactly how you as an event management professional should relate to the press – and how that relationship plays in to running successful events.

The Difference Between Journalism And Public Relations

Before we go any further, it’s important that we first establish the difference between journalism and PR. Although often viewed as two sides of the same coin, they’re actually two very distinct professions. The primary difference lies in the nature of the information they manage.

Journalists generally report on the news. In the context of event management, this could involve telling the public about an upcoming trade show, discussing insights from a recent keynote presentation, or unveiling a controversy that sprang up around a guest speaker or venue. In most cases, they’re primarily concerned with the facts; with providing to the audience an accurate, reliable, up-to-date source of information.

Any impact their stories have on a brand’s reputation is secondary to the story itself.

Public relations, meanwhile, is all about reputation management. A PR professional is responsible for presenting a positive image of a brand, product, or individual – they foster positive publicity and do what they can to manage negative publicity. Often, this involves working in close proximity with journalists, offering up press releases and media kits on which news reports can be based.

Those involved in public relations also handle interviews, run press conferences, and handle brand catastrophes – crises which could cause damage to a brand’s reputation if left unchecked. They also work to establish a network of contacts in the media; journalists they can turn to if they need a story to receive quick publicity. As you may have already surmised, your role as an event planner is actually pretty closely linked to public relations.

Much as a PR professional might do, you’re going to be reaching out to potential contacts in the media. You’re going to be handling marketing and publicity for your event, and doing what you can to ensure that people are excited about it. Most importantly, you’re going to be providing journalists with stories that they can cover – either through your guest speakers or through your event itself.

Of course, you could also hire a PR manager to deal with all this stuff for you, allowing you to focus exclusively and entirely on your event. It depends a lot on the size of the event and the contacts that you have that can help.

Building A Buzzworthy Event – How Journalists Can Up Event Publicity

In order to maximize the return on your relationship with the media, you’re going to want to get them involved at every stage of the event – the initial planning phases in particular. The more buzz you generate; the more publications your event appears in, the greater your attendance numbers will be. Take, for example, the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo – an annual event hosted in Calgary, Alberta.

Although it hardly requires the publicity at this point (it’s one of the largest conventions in Western Canada), event representatives will frequently approach media contacts with information about a celebrity guest, details on attendance, interviews/keynotes, and pretty much any other newsworthy happenstance related to the con. Not only does this provide reporters with plenty of fresh material for their publications – believe me, they definitely appreciate it – it also spreads the word about the event to people who might otherwise never hear of it.

Learn from that example. Respond in a timely fashion to any journalists that contact you asking for information on your event, and reach out regularly to any contacts you’ve established with updates. Better yet, if you’re running an annual event, consider setting up a blog of your own where you regularly post news, updates, and information.

“The best time to plan for event publicity is during the planning of the event itself,” reads an excerpt from Claudine Wilson’s Introduction to Public Relations.

Wilson, a veteran of the advertising field, advises setting out with a clear, unified theme to tie together all elements of one’s publicity. She further urges planners to be creative in the methods they use to generate buzz, to invite media personalities to take part in an event, and to get creative with their marketing tactics. Even a few inexpensive touches can attract media buzz – Wilson’s example is adding decorative soap, scented candles, and attractive toilet paper to outhouses at a golf tournament.

Most importantly, continues Wilson, it’s important for event planners to select a form of media that’s likely to reach one’s target audience.

Makes sense, right? Of course, all the creative touches and letters to the editor in the world are useless if your firm doesn’t have a positive relationship with the media. That’s what we’re going to discuss next.

Talking To The Media

Before we get into the meat of this piece, let’s go over a few basic guidelines for talking to media representatives and handling interviews:

Be Honest: Journalists aren’t stupid – they’re actually pretty good at working out whether or not you’re messing with them. Be as transparent as possible.

Be Concise: Don’t ramble. Keep your answers to a journalist’s questions as concise as you can without cutting out any important information.

Know Your Context: Don’t be afraid to ask about the context in which the questions are being addressed to you, as well as the angle of the piece a reporter is putting together. This will allow you to better structure your questions.

Keep It Professional: Don’t get too familiar, and don’t get too hostile. Even if you’ve a close friendship with a journalist, treat interviews as business.

Always Consider What You’re Going To Say: Anything you say in an interview can be used in an article or news piece. Remember that. If you say something stupid, it might just get quoted.

Fostering Positive Press Relations

Alright, by now it should be pretty clear that journalists are a pretty important element of an event’s public face. A good news story can inspire a torrent of attendees to participate in an event surely as a negative yarn can drive people away. As such, you want to do whatever you can to stay on the media’s good side.

In other words, you want to build a positive relationship with the press.

Given that, as an event planner, a big part of your job involves people management, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult.  You’re already used to cultivating working relationships with vendors, partners, and volunteers. Journalists aren’t that different, right?

Yes and no.

See, the first thing you need to understand about journalists is that they’re actually quite used to being lied to – either directly or through omission. As such, there often tends to be a fair bit of cynicism where corporate contacts are concerned. If a reporter doesn’t really know you or your representatives, they may not take what you tell them for granted, and they may even spin any information you do give them. 

For that reason, it’s even more important to cultivate friendships among the press than with any other profession.

“The closest relationships I ever built with journalists were at cocktail parties where we didn’t discuss anything about my company,” explains entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Suster. “I became quite good friends with a journalist at the Financial Times and eventually helped her as she wrote a book on the venture capital industry.  It started socially.  The more she got to know more the more she called me for help with stories.  The more you connect with them the more you’ll get over the tendency to want to “spin” and the more they’ll trust you when you give them facts.”

One way Suster advises you do this is by helping them to better do their job. Be willing to provide them with valuable, unique insights that’ll help them write better stories. Do you have a connection to someone they want to talk to for a story, knowledge about a field they know little about, or information about a particular news story?

Offer to help them. You won’t regret it, and they’ll definitely remember what you did. When the time comes for you to promote an upcoming event, they’ll be a whole lot more willing to lend a hand.

Now, with that in mind, it’s important to understand that journalists are fairly busy people, with solid deadlines. For this reason, you need to be as responsive as possible when working with them. Don’t make them wait on a press release or a sound bite – get it out to them as soon as you can.

The Components Of A Proper Press Invitation

Now that you understand what’s involved in getting the media on your side, let’s expand on that idea a bit. You’ve got yourself a decent stable of media contacts and your event is fast approaching. How do you go about letting them know they’re invited?

First things first, you’re going to want to compile a list of publications that might be interested in covering your event. Are you running a huge tech trade show in Silicon Valley? You might consider contacting sites like The Verge, Techcrunch, Silicon Angle, or Wired. A game development conference? Gamesindustry International, Polygon, Kotaku, and Game Informer are just a few suggestions.

Once you know who you want to contact, you’ll next need to put together an official invitation. This can take a number of different forms depending on how familiar you are with the people working at an agency, but it should generally include the following information:

  • The time, date, and location of the event.
  • Information on any relevant keynotes/presentations
  • The number of press passes/badges you’re willing to provide
  • A press kit, where relevant.

Again, simplicity is important here. Keep it short, sweet, and professional, but make sure it’s not too generic, either. If you personally know someone at a particular publication – for example, the editor – then you might consider simply reaching out to them personally. 

Press Etiquette: How To Treat Journalists At Your Event

Before we wrap things up, there’s one final subject we need to cover – the role journalists will play during your event.  Generally journalist at an event is identified by a press badge, which includes information on their publication along with photo ID. These passes confer certain benefits upon the people who bear them, which should include:

  • Special assigned seating at keynotes. Many events I’ve seen devote a portion of the first few rows exclusively to the media.
  • Access to VIP areas/presentations.
  • Access to exclusive interviews/press conferences with presenters or celebrity guests.
  • Access to sections/areas of the event blocked off from regular attendees.
  • As you’ve probably already worked out, you should treat attending journalists with a certain degree of respect – as honored and important guests. Be as accommodating as you can, and do whatever is necessary to ensure they have a positive experience. They’ll repay you in kind, with positive coverage – count on it.

In Closing

So, there you have it; a brief guide on dealing with the media in event management. Talking to the press is something every event planner has to do, after all – journalists are an incredibly important element of publicity, no matter how you look at things. 

Important media contacts aren’t always associated with a publication. Some independent bloggers have as much clout as entire organizations. Know the influencers in your field.

Sometimes you’re going to receive bad press. Deal with it graciously. Reach out to the author and see if you can’t smooth things over with them.

Do your homework. Study up on any journalists you’re working with – who they write/report for, their career history, et-cetera.

It’s perfectly acceptable for you to decline to comment if you’ve nothing positive to say – but keep in mind how that will be perceived.

Don’t be afraid to ask a few questions of your own. Interviews needn’t be one-sided.