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Tech events: The journalist survival guide

By Christine Horton, freelancer writer and editor

As with any sector, conferences are a staple of the tech industry. Whether an IT vendor’s own customer event, or an annual exhibition of goods and services such as IP Expo or InfoSec, they provide a meeting place for companies, partners and end users to connect, do business and share industry gossip over a post-event beer or three.

Press are invariably invited by the show’s organisers to try to lock-in coverage of the event, with the same organisers often leveraging media attendance to help persuade exhibitors to sign-up and potentially grab some headlines themselves.

But what is it like for press attending these events? Is it all canapes and sparkling conversation or cold coffee and blisters? For me, it’s probably something in-between.

There is still a perception that industry events are nothing more than jollies for the press – particularly if you are invited to attend a show in some glamorous location like Las Vegas, now home to many of the big tech vendor events.

This may have been true fifteen or twenty years ago, when marketing budgets were healthy and there was no pressure to upload a news story as early as humanly possible to beat your competition to the scoop. Now, however, things are very different.

Yes, there are still some obvious non-work upsides to attending events as a member of the press, in that you occasionally get to travel to some fabulous locations, eat in some lovely restaurants and drink free beer. (If you have the time – more on that later.)

Every PR wants to court you in the hope you will write something nice about their clients. This is both a positive and negative thing, as I’m sure any long-suffering PR that has had to put in the pre-show ‘attendance check’ calls to journalists can testify.

But what of the events themselves? We all know journalists can be a cantankerous lot sometimes – naming no names – but many times it’s borne out of frustration at the way they’re treated by event organisers.

I have attended events where the press have been paraded out in front of sponsors as if we were there only to serve them. I have been bombarded with text messages reminding me to be at a certain roundtable or keynote, and stalked me to ensure I’m “where I’m meant to be”. Almost like I’m not a grown-up who’s been doing this for almost twenty years.

Yes, they invite us to their events, and as such pay for our flights and accommodation, but they haven’t quite got the message that we don’t work for them, and it is down to us to find interesting, relevant news that will appeal to our readers.

So for this blog I asked a handful of my tech journo friends what their thoughts and experiences have been attending conferences and vendor events.

The number one bugbear seems to be not allowing the journalist enough time to write anything. Yes, it’s great if you have time to have multiple briefings with execs, attend roundtables and different sessions, but often we don’t have time to fit all that in, write copy and try to juggle our other responsibilities away from the office.

One senior editor told me: “Trying to ram a journalist’s diary with keynotes, one-to-ones. etc. without giving us any time to write stuff up is frustrating – particularly when press releases are going out to all the other media, and they are beating people who are actually at the event to the story! What’s the point in being there?”

“Giving us time is the most important thing it’s great having an agenda with loads of keynotes and meetings but we all need time to write it up,” added another.

This also applies to the glamorous destinations I mentioned earlier. Sometimes we just see the airport, a hotel room and a conference centre. It would make sense if part of the reason a location is chosen is its allure that everyone – not just press – is afforded the time to explore it a little. (Or in the case of Vegas, leave the hotel for some actual fresh air to combat the chapped lips and dry skin. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to moan.)

Meanwhile, it sounds obvious, matching the journalist with the right exec is also important. “Fobbing me off with marketing people rather than channel execs or directors is another absolute bugbear. If I go somewhere, I need to speak to the most senior person possible,” said one editor.

Also, not allowing access to certain sessions during partner conferences is frustrating. “Why invite the press to a partner conference if you are going to close off certain sections of it?” demanded one editor. This happens quite often at channel events, where the vendor likes to keep the press away from customer and partners – a channel journalist friend and I were denied entry to a post-conference party on those grounds. I suppose they were right to be cautious considering the perfect storm of partners, a free bar and journalist in attendance, but still…

Elsewhere, press rooms: it’s so simple. If you’re not hosting press in the same hotel as the event, please provide one. With enough plug sockets. And Wi-Fi. Also, if possible use a separate room for exec briefings, otherwise it can get incredibly noisy thus making it difficult to hear the interviewee (and get a decent recording) and it’s very distracting for other journalists trying to write.

Ultimately, attending events is a lot more hectic for the press than people think. You have your day-to-day work to still do on top of covering the event, networking and then potentially using any spare moment you have left to catch up with colleagues you only ever see at industry events.

Says one journalist friend: “I always work more hours than usual, stay up late because of evening events, burning the candle at both ends, and am left feeling like I need a holiday afterwards. I think the perception is that press trips are very glamorous, and they're just not – they’re exhausting.”

I have only related my own experiences – and those of some of my peers – here, and a few suggestions as to how some small changes can improve the overall experience for everyone, not just over-tired, over-caffeinated, somewhat snarky members of the IT press.

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