It’s noon on Monday; time for a free lunch.
That’s what weekly football team press conferences felt like when I was working in the University of Oklahoma’s athletics department. Being a championship contender year after year meant nearly three dozen reporters claimed residence inside the stadium lounge for the first four hours of each autumn workweek. Ahead of a big game, when the Sooners might face another top-ranked team, the buzz was palpable. Most of time, though, we all sat back and silently waited for “That Guy” to proudly ask a nonsensical question, then chuckle at the head coach’s retort.
The weekly press conference was not a place to expect good interviews. The beat reporters usually met up with the head coach Sunday in smaller gaggles, and again Monday and Tuesday afternoons following workouts to catch up with players for their upcoming feature stories. The weekly press conference’s benefit seemed only to be feeding a sponsorship opportunity, and a buffet lunch to hungry reporters. Despite me being separated from that appointment for nearly a decade, not much has changed.
Former Oklahoma Sooners head football coach Bob Stoops speaks with reporters at a weekly press conference.
I’m stunned that press conferences are still such a “go-to” for so many organizations. They seem to be a garbage way to make a meaningful connection between the media and the voices that matter to an audience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-press conference. They have their place, albeit infrequent. Changes in technology and culture have severely diminished the need for such an event. The parties involved universally do not like press conferences. The media capture the same quotes everyone else gets, tell the same stories and share the same visuals. Storytelling becomes less of an art and more of a drag race to churn out content first. The talent involved face a disjointed interrogation from atop an uncomfortable perch. The press conference exists mostly to check a box.
Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open in May put a focus not only on those being recorded on the dais, but those asking questions from the gallery. Osaka’s Instagram post detailing her distaste for press conferences was met with a universal “Yes!” shouted from the rooftop of her contemporaries. It forced journalists to debate the merits of the format.
The Guardian sportswriter Jonathan Liew left no doubt about his stance under the headline: "We're not the good guys." Liew's perspective shed light on the juxtaposition of spokespersons who have to remain amicably indebted to the media who amplify their voices, yet have little control within the environment they play this game within a game.
“And so the modern press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but really a lowest‑common‑denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Feuds: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good. Meanwhile the young athlete, often still caught up in the emotions of victory or defeat, is expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting, in front of an array of strangers and backed by a piece of sponsored cardboard.”
Lately, the most interesting things to happen at press conferences are Cristiano Ronaldo effortlessly tanking Coca-Cola’s stock price and New Zealand COVID minister Chris Hipkins’ faux pas for the ages.
So why do we still do them?
Journalists no longer take up the entire day to create only one story for the next newscycle. In the same timeframe that media would need to travel to, participate and publish content from a press conference, they are required to produce considerably more content than their predecessors from when the printed word was king. The diversity of communications tools makes information so accessible to the audience, be it the media or public at large. Communication objectives have diversified, too. More and more organizations and brands are facilitating a controlled message to create a connection with their target audience.
"I repeat: I love the press, but I don't love all the press conferences."
- Naomi Osaka
Press conferences certainly have a useful form and function, such as a government agency responding to a crisis situation, when we need to hear information directly from an expert's voice or to feel trust in our leadership. But, generally what is most important about interviews, to both the organization and the media, is to establish an emotional connection with the intended audience. One-on-one interviews beat press conferences for that; it's no contest.
Stuff senior sports writer Marc Hinton argued just this in a recent article. Hinton opined that the All Blacks recent attendance woes, despite a smashing run of success, were due to a lack of connection with their fans.
They do very few frank, candid, one-on-one chats that produce the compelling human interest type stories that help people identify with these players as something other than remarkable rugby players.
They like to confine their media windows to bland, press conference-style affairs conducted at the podium. They produce little in the way of compelling content and plenty of clichés and made-up words such as “learnings”.
Contrast that with the clear connection New Zealand’s Olympians made with the Kiwi public, even from far away Tokyo, in empty stadiums. Their honesty, their transparency, their emotions and their captivating stories which they were happy to tell all resonated deeply.
Little did I know all those years ago, when I was lamenting another press conference in Oklahoma, halfway around the world Caley Wilson, our co-founder at Blinder, also bemoaned the status quo. As the media manager for New Zealand Rugby League, liaising with journalists and players all around the world, Caley imagined a better way to handle interviews and began work towards making that possible for everyone involved. Today, Blinder works with teams from the AFL to NFL, and with governing bodies like The (English) Football Association and Formula E, to let them easily provide one-on-one opportunities for the media and their athletes. In fact, teams can simultaneously make their entire playing squads available for one-on-one conversations with the media, fans or anyone. It provides countless opportunities for those compelling human interest stories to be told.
New Zealand women's rugby players expanded their audience by getting to know their competitors, while the U.S. women's national soccer team reflected on the power their celebrity brings.
Among the crews to best utilize the capabilities Blinder gives them is the Black Ferns Sevens, the most recent Olympic gold medalists. Netball's world champion Silver Ferns push the boundaries, too. So does the U.S. Women's Soccer team when making Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan accessible. And perhaps it's no surprise that they're all female teams. Women are far less happy with the sporting status quo and less likely to be bound by old-school norms.
And the mission we're on—to make interviews better for everyone involved—hopefully means reporters will more often be buying their own lunches, and they'll be thrilled about it.