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Press conferences in the twenty-first century

29 September 2014

Diplomacy, like any other profession, has had to move with the times. Diplomats ignore the power of social media at their peril. Whether or not they themselves choose to engage with Twitter or Facebook or blogs, there's a good chance that at some stage in the not too distant future, this choice will be taken from them and such engagement will simply become another way of doing things – as if it hasn't already.

But press conferences?

My idea of press conferences is embodied by the series The West Wing  where someone of note (usually the President) is put on the spot in a cleverly choreographed Q&A session (best case scenario) during which just the right message gets across. it's not unthinkable to plant questions with 'friendly' reporters. And, of course, it's not unknown to have some uncooperative rogue sneak in and get air time to put a particularly difficult, if not a downright embarassing, question to the person in focus.

And speaking of embarassment, there's Skarozy's first ever press conference at the 2007 G8 summit when one may have thought he'd had one or two at lunchtime, as he asked the journalists 'Do I answer your questions?' mmmm…. Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa's disoriented appearance at a G7 news conference in 2009, which he blamed on cold medicine, cost him his job. Press conferences can be lethal.

In what could be seen as a new way of working, America's Daniel Fried (the US State Department's Coordinator for Sanctions Policy) held a press conference for a number of Hungarian journalists a couple of weeks ago. The topic on the table was America's position on economic sanctions against Russia. So where's the news, you ask? For me, the salient point here is that the press conference was held by phone.

What was discussed is not what I'm interested in (although living in Hungary, of course I am interested) – what I'm more curious about is how this press conference was facilitated? Was it moderated? Did each journalist get their few minutes to put their questions to Mr Fried? Was it just one-way communication and if so, why not just send a press release? Were the Hungarian journalists in a room together or did they dial in separately? Did it better resemble a web conference than a phone call? And could any awkward questions have been dealt with by claiming technical difficults and severing the connection?

Enquiring minds want to know … Could this be a way forward?

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