Press Conference Tips
The following are some general considerations that pertain to procedures you can use during a press conference.
In a perfect world, the principal’s public information specialist will personally invite members of the press and will be able to provide you with a list of those invited and are planning to attend. The information specialist is also usually the one who arranges for the room to be used for the conference. The advance agent should survey the room to determine if there are any peculiar requirements and communicate with the information specialists about preferences for setting up the room and to resolve any potential problems.
For example, it will be helpful if the room can be set up well in advance of the press’s arrival. This will give you time to make a final security sweep of the room. Suggest that the podium the principal will use be positioned near an exit door other than the one to be used by the press. You want to be able to freely escort the principal in and out of the room away from the press, while providing an evacuation route that will not be clogged with other people. Then place some type of physical barrier between this private exit and the general seating area. Rope and stanchions used in movie theaters work well as a barrier. This type of barrier relays a non-verbal message to other people in the room: stay behind this line. The farther you place this barrier from the podium the better, not less than three to five feet from the podium area. Rope and stanchion will not stop a determined attacker, but remember: this is normally a group of people that has been invited and the protection team will have, at least visually, screened them at the entrance to the conference room.
The podium barrier serves two purposes. First, it keeps people out of the area; it’s as simple as that. Most people get the idea when they see a barrier and will comply with the message you’re sending by placing them there. Second, a rope barrier in a press conference serves the same purpose as a fence-line formation: it provides a better observation position for the protection team and allows for a quick response to an attack. By establishing a stand-off distance with a barrier, your attention will immediately be drawn to someone who attempts to enter the area or extend a weapon at the principal. Barriers can also provide you with space in which to place agents in static security posts between the crowd and the principal. You should place the agents close enough to the principal to allow for an effective response to an intruder or attacker, but not so close that they would appear on camera. There are very few times when protective service team members should be seen on camera. This is another instance in which the principal’s image is protected by using cordons of security and screening procedures.
If you think the threat level warrants it, set up a screening checkpoint at the press entrance. Use the invitation list the information specialist provided to verify each person has been granted access. You may also use explosive detection dogs to screen equipment prior to bringing it into the room. Once you have screened people and equipment you can direct them to where they can set up equipment such as microphones and tape recorders. Inform them that no one will be allowed access to the podium or table where this equipment is set up during the conference.
If you can, provide a raised platform at the rear of the room to set up cameras and lights so cameras will be able to shoot over the audience’s heads. You use these camera “risers” in order to confine these people to a single area that you can control, and make it easy for them to set up and tear down quickly. Make sure there are plenty of electrical outlets in the camera area and get extension cords and power strip outlets if you need them. Most hotels have plenty of risers for just this purpose, so use them. If you don’t have access to risers, you should still concentrate the cameras in this area. If you don’t or can’t provide these amenities and fail to control the area, you are inviting delay and confusion as camera crews climb all over each other to set up and jockey for position.
Ask the information specialist to print name labels that can be placed on the back of chairs so invitees will know where to sit. Invited journalists should sit up front since you know who they are. Other attendees should be seated toward the rear of the room at extended range.
It has been my experience that these procedures will be easily understood and readily accepted by a professional press corps. In some cases you may need to explain to them that the security measures you have employed are to ensure the safety of everyone in the room. You can’t just assume that everyone there is a professional journalist and means no harm – remember John Hinckley was in the press pen area when he shot President Reagan.
If a prepared statement is part of the press conference, ask the public information specialist if it can be disseminated prior to the appearance of the principal. Having a prepared statement in advance will help reporters. They will appreciate the consideration because they will be able to read it in advance, make notes, and formulate questions if there will be a question and answer (Q&A) session. Using a prepared statement also helps the protection team do its job. If reporters have work to do before the conference begins, they are more likely to find their assigned seat and sit down. There are two more things you will want to tell the press corps before the conference begins: whether or not there will be a Q & A session and to please remain seated until the principal has exited the room.
These tactics will facilitate your requirements for a controlled environment and make it easy for journalists to do their job. If it sounds like I am going out of my way to help journalists, you’re right, I am. If I help them, they are more likely to help me control the environment. This will give me the maximum opportunity to recognize an attack before or while it is developing, not after. If I don’t, then I get to deal with problems as they try to do their jobs. They will leave the press pen I’ve set up or try to get their microphones or cassette recorders on the podium during the event while the principal is there. Setting it up right from the advance perspective makes my life a whole lot easier and the principal safer.
David L. Johnson is President of ITG Consultants and author of ADVANCE: The Guide For Conducting A Protective Security Advance (Varro Press) from which this article was developed.