President Dwight D. Eisenhower regularly used television as a means
to address the American electorate, John F. Kennedy was the first
to utilize television as a direct means of communication with voters
via the live press conference. As Davis explains, "John Kennedy
enjoyed press conferences because of his skill in bantering with
reporters; his press conferences reinforced the image of a president
in command of the issues." His successors have been measured against
his performance and have scheduled press conferences less frequently.
They also have employed variations to the live-press conference
format. The Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations held mini-press
conferences. President Bush also relied on impromptu, daytime televised
press conferences rather than the formal, prime-time gatherings.
President Clinton has used a variation of the press conference with
his televised "town meetings." With these conferences Clinton has
managed to sidestep the White House press corps and address questions
asked by average citizens. One such mini-conference featured children
and was moderated by PBS's Mister Rogers.
As a general category of media strategy, focused for the last fifty
years in the orchestrated use of television, press conferences involve
the communication of news about an individual or organization to
the mass media and specialized media outlets. The objective, obviously,
is favorable news coverage of the sponsor's actions and events.
According to Hendrix, press conferences are classified as uncontrolled
media. Thus, with press conferences, media decision makers become
the target audience members. These decision makers then determine
what information to communicate with the public.
generally agree that, as a public relations tool, press conferences
should be used sparingly, reserved for circumstances that truly
are newsworthy. Such occasions often call for a personal presentation
by the organization's chief executive officer, a celebrity, a dignitary,
etc. In the general realm of business affairs some organizations
have used press conferences to announce the introduction of major
corporate changes such as new product lines, takeovers, or mergers.
But press conferences also have been utilized to organize and manage
information in crisis situations or to respond to accusations of
in the business sector press conferences are not viewed as a routine
means of public relations, major government agencies employ them
on a more regular basis. Indeed, press conferences are a principle
component of political communications. They are relied upon by politicians
as a way of providing important information to the public and shaping
public opinion and by correspondents as a means of obtaining such
information and examining the opinion shaping process.
In the United States the press and politicians have traditionally
enjoyed an adversarial relationship. While political press conferences
are utilized to provide information to the public, the goal for
the politician is persuasion or news management. Thus, the political
figure wants to control the release of information. Conversely,
the press rely on such conferences as a means for assuring that
the politician is held accountable for his or her policies and actions.
Media outlets also rely on press conferences as a way of obtaining
new information so it can be released as quickly as possible.
the United States press conferences also are essential to communications
between the executive branch of government amd the public even prior
to television. According to Smith, Theodore Roosevelt was one of
the first U.S. presidents to use the press as a frequent means of
communicating with the public. Although he did not hold formal press
conferences in their contemporary sense, he realized that the media
could be used to shape public opinion and established close relationships
with journalists. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to hold
regular and formal press conferences. Not only did he view the press
as a means of influencing public opinion, but he also believed that
communication via the press was a chief duty of democratic leaders.
Although not bound by law, presidential press conferences have become
somewhat institutionalized. According to Smith, a sense of " ...
public contract has evolved to such a degree that the general occasion
of the press conference cannot be avoided with political impunity."
Since the Wilson administration, all presidents have held formal
press conferences. However, the decision to grant a press conference
is always made by the White House, and press conferences have varied
in frequency and format with each administration.
surprisingly, presidents are most likely to employ press conferences
when the conferences serve their best advantage. Ultimately, the
president can control the time, place, and setting for a press conference.
To some extent, they also control the participants. In the contemporary
era press conference journalists have traditionally included: ABC,
CBS, and NBC; wire services; national news magazines; and national
newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. They
also usually include a selection of reporters from other news organizations,
such as regional newspapers or news syndicates, who may be more
likely to pose favorable questions.
In general, press conferences often are criticized for their theatrical
nature. However, for individuals, organizations, and government
branches, press conferences serve an important public relations
function. They are an effective means of organizing and disseminating
newsworthy information to the public.
Davis, R. The Press and American Politics: The New Mediator.
White Plains, New York: Longman, 1992.
C. "Mr. Clinton's Neighborhood." Columbia Journalism Review (New
J. A. Public Relations Cases. Belmont, California: Wadsworth,
1988; third edition, 1995.
S. Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership.
Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1986.
C. Presidential Press Conferences: A Critical Approach. New
York: Praeger, 1990.
also Political Processes
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Presidency and Television