Freelancing,  Science journalism

How to cover a conference as a journalist

Conference Room
Conference Room by PW Haiti Intern via Flickr

Since I am both organising a conference and attending a few for work purposes, I thought I’d write something to help journalists on how to cover a conference. This is the latest one I got invited to recently.

The invite and the pitch

Two days ago, I got an email in my inbox from a PR/conference organising company I had never heard of before, inviting me to the National Carbon Capture and Storage Conference that will be held on the coming Monday and Tuesday.

The first thing to do with such invites if they are potentially interesting is to handball them to your editor. In this case, this meant contacting my boss at Science Network WA to make sure no one else was already going to cover it and to be sure that my guess that it would be worthwhile covering for the publication.

Conferences are a huge opportunity cost. You have to make sure that you are going to get a few stories out of it or else there is no point attending. In this case, I could get stories but they had to be the ones that SNWA would be interested in publishing.

With the green light from my boss, I then looked through the program again and identified the key topics and made lists of the possible stories, the sessions that would give me information that I could use but probably not story worthy in themselves and the sessions that were interesting but at first glance not a good fit for the publication.

For SNWA, this meant possible stories were ones where there was something new about the science behind everything and it was to do with Perth and/or WA. In the not so good fit story section,  we had the ones where they may make great stories but were not at first glance about Perth/WA.

I also made a list of people I would like to talk to that would be attending or presenting.

I then sent both these lists off to my editor and to the PR/media person who had first contacted me. I had already called her to tell her I would attend and to ask if I could contact people directly or if I needed to go through her to set up interviews. She indicated the latter so dutifully I sent off my wishlist to her.

Being honest with the media contact about what you are specifically looking for helps by: a) dispelling any odd notions of what journalists do; b) engendering trust which makes them more inclined to help and c) enables them to actually help you because you have indicated what you need and they may have an idea out of left field that is totally awesome.

Prior research

Now, the next step is to do some research. I don’t have a set niche within science journalism so while I know some of the people likely to be involved in certain fields, I don’t know everything about a field or everything about the people in it. So I have to do the research on the people I want to speak to and the science, history and societal context behind carbon capture and storage. I have three or four possible stories to start with at this point – each with a limit of 400 words.

Once I start doing the research, I can start writing out possible questions to ask the presenters/speakers. At a conference, most of them won’t mind speaking to a journalist but will also want to talk shop with others in their field.  This means two things: a) I need to know the media rep very well and b) I need to know what the speakers all look like so I can nab them straight away, interview them for five minutes in a corner and then let them go off again. I also need to make a list of all the facts about the conference that I do know such as the fact that it occurred on a set day. If I can write some of each story out beforehand because it is to do with facts I do already know, then I do that so that my work is made easier on the day when I just need to edit and add new information before sending it off to the editor.

Getting ready

The next step is getting everything ready for the conference. I need to wear business attire though I sometimes help my cause a bit by wearing striking colours which can helpfully induce people to come talk to you instead of you chasing them.  I also need to take my laptop and camera along so I have to make sure both have fully charged batteries and that some means of wifi is organised.

I also need to take business cards along and hand them out liberally. I bought a thin silver elegant business card case and it does make people sit up and consider me twice when I flick this out while they rummage in their wallets for theirs. I need to decide if I am recording interviews and how and to remember to take my SNWA notebook along (always have a separate notebook for each publication you write for).

With a laptop, a camera, notebook and chargers, at this point I am taking the ever expanding miracle handbag of mine that can take the laptop as well and the camera case. I don’t want to be visibly tired because I have an aching shoulder. And you will be visibly tired. I will be sitting a lot so I could technically wear heels but these would have to be swapped with flats for the commute to the venue and back, which means another bag. Wearing flats the entire time probably will be the way to go because I may not have a place to leave everything I am carrying momentarily while I interview people.

My next big question is whether my media pass includes access to the dinner as well. If so, then I need to make sure I am dressed appropriately for that. I also need to make sure I have the contact details for several important people such as the media contact or anyone else I know who may be attending on my phone.

Live blogging/ live tweeting 

I need to decide beforehand if I will be doing this and if so how (phone or laptop) and if there will be a wifi connection at the venue so I can do this and if they have set up a hashtag for tweeting purposes. If I propose to live blog (perhaps not for this conference but maybe for others) then I need to set up templates for the sessions I am interested in blogging about with links in ahead of time so I can write the posts faster.

At the conference

First things first, is to get there early enough to meet the media contact, who though guaranteed to be flustered, will no doubt be thrilled at your punctuality and thereby introduce you to more important people, specifically speakers that may be hanging around and/or other journalists covering the event. They can then get you down first to interview people and you can also nick the first cup of any refreshment on offer.

It also gives you time to test your camera settings, find a good spot to claim as your own in each room and find out if there is a relatively safe space to leave some of your paraphernalia in if you need to. Most of the attendees and speakers are going to arrive and have to figure out the layout of the venue and other such things and it puts you in a good position to start conversations by letting them know where to go because you have arrived early enough to scope the place out. It also endears you to the media contact who guaranteed by the end of day one will be tired of answering the same questions over and over again.

Across a Crowded Room
Across a Crowded Room by Phil Roeder via Flickr

Though your first priority is to interview speakers and get the stories out, you should also talk to the attendees. Most of them will be researchers and scientists on whose research you can write more stories later. They may also be able to provide you with some contextual information that you can use as well as a few quotes on the field.

It’s a good rule to not be intimidated, to be professional but friendly and to have a sense of humour and to be genuinely interested in the person you are talking to. If you’re not interested in their work, find something about them personally to be interested in.

Go to all the events that you can. Formal though they can be, they are far less formal than an interview set up in a spare few minutes on the side during the day. You usually will be seated at a table for events such as lunches and dinners whereas some lunches, morning and afternoon teas and cocktail events are the “grab a drink and mingle” variety. In the latter case, I recommend, grabbing a cocktail and talking to all the wallflowers of which there will be plenty. First off, they are immensely glad you spoke to them first and second of all, you have shown a lot of confidence to not immediately gravitate to the most important or lively person in the room. Chances are that if they are lively, they will end up talking to you at some point and if they are well known and on your list, and you have followed the steps so far, the media contact would have scheduled an interview with them for you so you have no need to bother them.

IF you do go to the additional events, and in fact, throughout the conference, DO NOT GET DRUNK OR TIPSY even if the alcohol is flowing freely.  This is work and you have a reputation of your own and that of the publication you represent to maintain.

When you leave, take a picture of the organisers and offer to send it to them and thank them.

After the conference

1) Email all the people you talked to (speakers and attendees) and thank them for agreeing to be interviewed and being so nice. Offer to interview them in the future if anything else worth covering comes up. If you did agree to meet up and talk to anyone about leads/ideas, ask them when they are free to meet.

2) Email any pictures you took to everyone in them. Offer the organisers some of the best ones but put your watermark on them.

3) If the story has been published online or you have written blogs, then send the links to the people quoted in them and the organisers.

4) If you planned to meet people, then put dates in your diary/calendar to follow up on a regular basis and to keep in touch.

5) Email the organisers and thank them.

6) File everything away and go try to fill your brain with something completely different for a few days to have a mental detox from your overdose on everything scientific about the field.

Other resources to help you

EByline Blog: 5 Tips for Covering Conferences

Kevin McDonagh: How to attend a conference

SWombat: A system for following up after a conference

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.


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