It’s easy to find an example of a spokesperson getting a press conference all wrong. It’s less common—and worth noting—when someone gets it exactly right. One such example occurred after Saturday’s plane crash in San Francisco.
Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), faced cameras shortly after the accident to discuss how her agency would handle its investigation. During the first half of her short briefing, Ms. Hersman delivered the information reporters needed to file their stories; during the second half, she took three questions.
Watch this video. It offers spokespersons everywhere a wonderful example of the right way to run a press conference during a crisis.
I was struck by how slowly and deliberately Ms. Hersman spoke. Her controlled pace not only gave reporters sufficient time to jot down notes, but conveyed a strong impression of a person who possessed the confidence and competence to manage the situation.
Ms. Hersman packed a lot of critical information into just two minutes. Her efficiency as a spokesperson leads me to believe that she’d be equally as efficient when leading an investigation.
One small detail: She should tie her hair back better before future outdoor press conferences. I know that’s superficial, but it was impossible not to notice her wrestling with her hair on the windy day. Many commenters in YouTube’s comments section—rarely a beacon of civil conversation—also noted the distraction.
Ms. Hersman took three questions. For each, she repeated the question back, which ensured that every microphone picked it up. She kept her answers short, which limited the number of quotes reporters could run.
Typically, I recommend that spokespersons announce in advance the number of questions they plan to take or the number of minutes available for the question period. Doing so prevents spokespersons from looking like they’re running away when the questions get tough (since they’ve announced their intention to take a specific number of questions in advance, they’re just following through on what they said they’d do).
Ms. Hersman didn’t do that. But it didn’t matter. After taking two questions, she confidently said, “One more question.” How did she make it work when so many others don’t? Because her tone was one of utter confidence throughout the entire briefing, and no one watching the video could reasonably conclude that she was running away from tough questioning. Even the manner in which she walked away showed a woman in complete control.
That’s really the key word with this entire press conference: control. She controlled her own tone, controlled her message, and yes, even controlled the assembled press corps.
A grateful tip o’ the hat to Dave Statter of the fabulous Statter911 blog.
You’ll find more tips about the best way to manage a press conference in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.