Why The First Press Conference In A Crisis Is Critical

I recently trained a group of 100 senior executives on the best way to deliver an effective crisis press conference.

Jerry Gonzalez, the head of the crew we hired for the training (and a veteran ABC News and CBS cameraman), pulled me aside and offered a view of press conferences I hadn’t heard before. Jerry knows what he’s talking about, since he’s covered hundreds of press conferences through the years.

In his view, the first press conference in a crisis is the most difficult, because the spokesperson often has to face wild speculation from the press corps.

One of the most important jobs you have during the first press conference in a crisis, he argues, is to  “narrow the focus” and “wrangle the information.”

“You’re funneling information early in the story,” he says. Spokespersons who successfully narrow the focus early on help reduce misinformation and inaccurate reporting later in the crisis. But those who fail to successfully narrow the focus by articulating a clear and credible message and dismissing rumors early on will find that their future news coverage (and subsequent press conferences) will suffer.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. For example, companies or agencies that hide information from the press in earlier press conferences will face an antagonistic press corps in later ones. And the press may occasionally give the benefit of the doubt to spokespersons in the early stages of a crisis, but pursue more aggressive lines of questioning once the spokespersons begin to appear incompetent, unforthcoming, or hypocritical.

Last week, Jerry attended a press conference at the San Antonio Airport after the airport was closed down for “credible bomb threats.” Here’s what he observed:

“It was amazing that all agencies were very coordinated in their message – public safety first and diverted away from talking specifics about the “threats” and the three vehicles bomb sniffing dogs hit on. To my surprise, the radio station did not ask any questions or challenge any of the information given, instead the radio host asked that the PIO call back when they had an update. Interesting? Or perhaps the media easily surrenders when the information comes often and repeats the narrative?”


I like Jerry’s idea a lot, and will begin asking a new question when preparing clients for a crisis press conference: “What’s the best way to narrow the focus of the media narrative?”

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