Why do they call it a press conference when they mean a press release?

Part of the crisis caused by COVID-19 is affecting the relationship between the government and the media. Last week, around half a thousand journalists, as well as the main associations that represent them, supported a manifesto entitled ‘The freedom to ask’ to protest against the system implemented by the Executive to face the press conferences in the Moncloa Palace, in which the questions were raised through a chat and were selected and formulated to the audience by the Secretary of State for Communication. Some media even announced that they would no longer participate in the conferences, considering the method of choosing the questions to be censorship.

In view of the increasing expansion of the protest, the Executive decided during the weekend to change the formula of the appearances and to combine the chat and the videoconference, which technically allows the journalists who usually cover the information of the Government something as basic as the cross-examinations, unthinkable in the procedure against which the protest is made.

Although all of this may seem a simple question of form, its importance is much more profound, because at a time of crisis such as the one we are experiencing, the political power not only has an obligation to be extremely transparent in the content of its communications, but also in the form they take. In short, the old saying ‘Caesar’s wife must not only be honoured, but must appear so’.

Moreover, in a situation where a state of alarm has been introduced, which gives the government exceptional powers, including the power to confine people to their homes in the interests of public health, the fundamental role of the media in any democratic process is intensified. In fact, it is one of the few sectors in which activity is maintained, without belonging to the health or food sectors or their complementary sectors.

It must be said, moreover, that press conferences without questions are a temptation to which more and more governments, but also other parties of all political colours, and even sports or business organisations, are falling for examples outside politics. This is a total and absolute incongruence. It is not possible to call a press conference to an event to which journalists are summoned to read them a press release, since it goes against the very essence of the function of the latter, which is to ask questions in order to inform their readers/listeners/viewers. Apart from the fact that, if the aim is simply to read a text into a microphone in order to obtain a photo, there are much faster means, such as e-mail, which do not waste anyone’s time. Informers will appreciate this, as they do not usually spend a lot of time.

The problem is that most of the time what hides behind these appearances is the fear of making mistakes, of talking too much, of things that should not be told, or simply knowing that you do not really have interesting content to transmit. From the point of view of communication, it is absurd and counterproductive to abuse this tool just ‘to be in the picture’, because it will end up frustrating those who have to write about our organization and will end up ignoring us even when we really have news to tell. When any spokesperson for a party or other organization goes before the media, he or she must be very clear not only about what he or she wants to say, but also about what is current in his or her sector and what is of interest to society, which is, after all, what the reporters are going to ask him or her. If you are not sure that you can deal with these questions, then getting advice from a good communications expert is the best decision.

Cristina García Alonso

Senior consultant of Proa Comunicación