Concatenation Science Fiction Press & Media Liaison
As with Concatenation the semi-prozine turned website, SF conventions are run by volunteers (even though SF and other professionals are attracted to them and even donate their services). Yet few volunteers within the SF community have experience of press liaison let alone press liaison specifically for SF conventions. However members of the Concatenation team (and it takes a minimum of two) have engaged in a number of press liaison operations for major UK SF conventions including:
- Seacon -- the 1984 European SF convention (Brighton)
- BECCON 87 -- the 1987 50th anniversary UK national SF convention (Birmingham)
- Eastcon -- the 1990 UK national SF convention (Liverpool)
- Helion -- the 1993 European SF convention (Jersey)
- Intersection -- the 1995 World and European SF convention (preliminary feasibility report only) (Glasgow)
- The 1st International Week of SF -- 1999 (Timisoara)
- The 2nd International Week of SF -- 2003 (Timisoara)
Though it should be noted that the above list is not complete and excludes those conventions for which some press coverage was provided by the team but for which the team did not take a lead managing the convention's entire coverage.
The Concatenation team have also engaged in numerous smaller press operations and consultancies.
Results from the above have included substantial coverage in the quality UK press inlcuding the Guardian and Independent, as well as coverage in local, national and even BBC World Service radio including a full half hour episode of Kaleidoscope for BBC Radio 4 (a UK-national station). Meanwhile coverage in the local (to the convention venue) newspapers has always been achieved. However it is not always possible to get local reporters to cover a convention the way one might like. (One local newspaper reporter phoned up to ask why the 1984 Eurocon press release mentioned 'Orwell's year'!) Local radio has also always covered conventions at which the SF2 Concation team have provided a press service. Such local radio coverage has been much better than that in the local print media.
Because we (many of the Concat team) wish to spread enthusiasm for SF as a genre, we have jotted down some notes on this webpage that may perhaps assist those thinking of having a press dimension to their committee.
This question is occasionally (and surprisingly) asked by a number of convention organisers and it was formally discussed at the 1997 UK national Easter SF convention.
There are many answers. Here are a few:
- To attract new blood to conventions.
- To enhance the profile of conventions so attract more professionals, editors and scriptwriters, as well as added potential for sponsorship.
- Because SF is inherently an outward going, and a frontier-crossing genre.
- Because UK national and international conventions are premiere SF events and provide a showcase for SF buffs (who may be attracted to the event through coverage) and non-SF buffs who may be more tolerent of a genre (frequently presented as eccentric) if presented properly.
- (Further to the above) To ensure that the foundations for the press liaison is provided by those within the SF community and not the press themselves. (Leaving matters to the press themselves begs the press to make up their own spin/stories and this is more than likely to be less than satisfactory.)
The Concatenation's team philosophy is that major conventions should run press liaison operations. Nonetheless some convention organisers disagree (which is probably perfectly healthy in a democracy). As noted at the 1987 UK Eastercon discussion and also less formally in the run-up to the 1995 UK Worldcon, the most frequently quoted reasons not to run press liaison operations at major conventions include:
- the press (unless actively managed) always give bad coverage
Some press do give unfair and poor coverage of SF functions with a 'look at the looneys' approach, but it is wrong to say that the press always give poor coverage. It is possible to engender positive attention and publicity (this is not a claim, this is something we have demonstrated... repeatedly).
- attracting large numbers brings in strangers and errodes informality
SF is a community and there is a fear that this might get swamped with an influx of 'strangers' resulting from attracting the public. This is a perfectly reasonable point. If the national and international convention organisers do not wish to attract large numbers and use their venue to the full, then do not organise major conventions so negating the need for press liaison. If organisers want small informal events then organise a regional or local one (having said this a number of local groups have had new life injected into them through organising a local event and getting good coverage).
Nobody can guarantee good coverage. General elections, from the world of politics, show that despite having top press liaison teams and professional spin doctors, one party (or all parties) experience at least some negative coverage. However it is possible to reduce poor coverage as well as positively encourage good coverage through sound press liaison.
In order to do this one has to recognise why poor coverage arises in the first place.
The principal reasons are:
- It is far easier for reporters to make up a story than to investigate in any depth.
- Some SF conventions have little of merit to report and are poorly organised.
Exploring each of these reasons in turn we can see it as least possible to counter reporters' temptation to take the easy route.
Reporters are human. They are not deliberately being vindictive when (to take an extreme instance) their coverage is in the 'look at the loonies' vein, they are merely trying to cover the story and get their copy quickly. If they are not presented with angles that they can readily use then they will make up the obvious ones that they can see (as an outsider). Let's take an example. Though at the national UK SF convention, whose attendance throughout nearly all of the 1980s exceeded 1,000, there are 50 or so who participate in the fancy dress parade (which itself only lasts a few hours of a four or five day event), there are some 900 who do not dress up. Nonetheless the fancy dress parade offers a spectacular photo opportunity for reporters who can easily run off a couple of hundred words concentrating on that aspect so giving the impression that outlandish fancy dress is all that conventions are about. Similarly if a group of young fans role-play in costume about the convention, then a passing reporter will pick up on this rather than a less visual potential news item be it an author is just teaming up with another in a corner to decide to write some blockbuster, or that a workshop is taking place, or that so and so is giving a talk about do-it-your self garden radio astronomy, or whatever. So not surprisingly the story that gets printed is about people running about with ray guns and not the genesis from established writers of a future best seller, or back-garden astronomy...
As we alluded to above, this is not because reporters have some sort of evil feeling towards the SF community, rather they simply want to cover their story easily and meet a deadline and get on to the next story. Equally, remember that reporters more often than not will have mainstream interests and will not easily comprehend such a thing as 'a sense of wonder' let alone the major landmarks in the SF landscape. One of us -- as previously mentioned -- had an illuminating experience of just this. Having been woken at 9.00am on a Sunday morning (after a particularly lengthy evening) by the press a week before the 1984 Eurocon, the reporter queried a press release as to why the convention organisers were specially pleased to be hosting the first UK Eurocon in George Orwell's year. That it was 1984 made little impression. Shortly it emerged that the reporter in question did not immedialtely grasp the connection between Orwell's book 1984 and SF. When it was pointed out that it was an alternate future (or alternate world) novel only then did the penny drop. The press liaison message is that you have to spell absolutely everything out but also do it concisely.
Of course one has to get the reporter's attention before they will listen and the best way to do that is to relate SF to the journalist's readership. Pointing out sales figures, TV viewing statistics and such, greatly helps. If one can then suggest that x% of the paper's readers also enjoy SF then the reporter will quickly realise the folly of going for the easy cheap-jibe option lest they offend a small but appreciable part of their sales market.
One tip, for any convention planning to run a press liaison operation, is for the committee to give a clear (minuted) steer as to exactly what goals they expect the press liaison operation to achieve. These might include:-
o To increase the number of walk-in registrations
o To promote in a general sense a particular 'series' or 'run' of conventions
o To promote interest in the genre amongst the general population
o To provide support to (potential) sponsors (who appreciate promotion beyond the event they are promoting)
Committees also need to remember that press liaison goes hand-in-hand with marketing and promotion and who ever has overall responsibility for both these areas needs to be actively involved in how both aspects of this propmtional work is conducted.
Finally, if you are not aware of press and media basics (which is no great failing as few have active broad-based knowledge of the media), then you are likely to end up doing more harm than good. If your proposed press officer thinks that one press release announcing the final preparations (say loosely timed with the convention's final progress report) is sufficient, then they are wrong and the organisers should try to get someone with far more experience on board. (The reason for the above, which is but just one example of press/media basics for illustrative purposes only, is that the needs of a local newspaper are completely different to that of a national newspaper, which in turn are different to that of specialist SF press, let alone magazines or TV. For instance, aside from different target audiences, each have different lead times.)
The above is just illustrative of just some of the basics of obtaining coverage. If you are contemplating running an SF event then you could do worse than pick up two booklets on how the 1984 Eurocon and 1987 Eastercon were run. They are rather dated now but at only£1(UK) each ($3 (US)) a reasonable investment.
Send your cheques payable to 'BECCON Publications', 75 Rosslyn Avenue, Harold Wood, Essex, RM3 0RG, United Kingdom. Note: There are only a few copies left as of 1992 and if you are viewing this in subsequent years then it is likely to be out of print. (1999 update: Both booklets are now out of print.)
Members of the Concatenation team have also conducted press liaison services for scientific symposia, heritage projects and local community events. However, in case any conrunners are tempted to approach us to run a press liaison operation, because running a good press liaison operation is extremely time consuming necessitating much work over 6 months in advance of a convention, we are less likely to undertake such projects these days. Nonetheless if there is a UK convention proposed with a European and/or a strong science dimension then there is a possibility that we may well consider it.
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