Tuesday, April 17, 2007

8 Rules for a Happy Press Room at a Medical Conference

Today I'm one of the dozens of journalists covering the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Los Angeles. This is a terrific meeting, with lots of interesting news. One of the things that makes this meeting great—at least from a reporter's point of view—is that it has an exceptionally well-run press room. Here are 8 factors, some critical, some trivial, and some frivolous, that make for a happy press room at a medical meeting.

1. The number one rule is to put a highly competent PR people in charge. Staci Vernick Goldberg, Greg Lester, Angela DeCicco, and their AACR colleagues exemplify this sort of competence. They're knowledgeable, they're friendly, they're helpful, and they're solicitous without being smarmy.

2. Help reporters out by identifying the most important and newsworthy stories in advance of the meeting. Prepare embargoed news releases about these stories that include all the important details such as the investigators' affiliation, their titles, and their sources of funding. The most important aspect of the story should be in the lede, the way reporters write, and not at the end, the way scientists do.

3. Arrange news briefings with the investigators associated with these top stories. These news briefings need to be close to the time of the actual presentations, and not a day or two later.

4. Contact researchers' institutions well in advance of the meeting and encourage their PR departments to issue their own news releases. This is, perhaps, the only area in which the AACR folks fell short. For such a large meeting, there were relatively few external news releases. I've written about this issue before.

5. Prepare a press kit containing basic information about the association sponsoring the meeting, the news releases mentioned above, and the actual abstracts of the scientific presentations. For bonus points, make sure reporters preregistered for the meeting received this press kit at least a week in advance. For double bonus points make sure the press kit is available in both printed and electronic forms. For triple bonus points see item 8 below.

6. Pay attention to the physical layout of the press room. It should be big enough and have enough table space to accommodate the expected number of reporters. It should be carpeted to dampen the sound of folks chatting so others can work. It should have an adequate electrical supply, lots of phones, a good number of computers for reporters who don't lug their laptops, printers, and lots of ethernet connections or WiFi capacity to satisfy those who do lug their laptops. The AACR press room has computer terminals, printers, and ethernet cables all around the room as well as a high capacity WiFi system.

7. At a minimum a press room should never run out of coffee. To reporters covering a medical meeting caffeine is more important than oxygen. For bonus points have bottled water and soft drinks. For double bonus points provide snacks such as cookies or fruit. For triple bonus points provide some sandwiches at lunchtime, because reporters on deadline often find it difficult finding time to take bathroom breaks, not to mention finding time to hunt down a decent restaurant. For quadruple bonus points and the grand prize, do what the AACR folks did: provide a hot breakfast and a hot lunch every single day, and make sure the food is excellent. The food at this press room exemplified the critical difference between oncologists and cardiologists that I described previously.

8. Provide useful swag. Every AACR attendee, not just reporters, received a high-quality tote bag. Reporters additionally received a swanky metallic pen in a velveteen envelope and a 512 MB flash drive containing a preloaded electronic version of the 99-page press kit.


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