Press Conference by Phone
By Alicia C. Shepard
The press conference with Catholics for a Free Choice was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m. But rather than dash out of my office for a taxi at 1:45, I picked up the telephone.
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
I dialed an 800 number, gave the operator my "identification number," told her my name and whom I was writing for, and then sat back and listened to some jazz while on hold. Shortly after 2 p.m. Frances Kissling, president of the Catholic pro-choice group, began the press conference on Pope John Paul II's latest encyclical.
Welcome to the telephonic press conference. It's not brand new but it has become more popular in the last few years, according to Philippa Fernandes, a spokesperson for Connex International, an audio teleconferencing service.
It's easy on everybody. Kissling, based in Washington, D.C., normally would have been bombarded with telephone calls from religion reporters across the country and would have been forced to repeat the same information over and over. Instead, she sat in her office and talked to 21 reporters at the same time.
This is Kissling's third time holding such a press conference. Whenever the Pope makes a pronouncement, the articulate Kissling, whose outspoken pro-choice views on abortion drive the Vatican crazy, inevitably gets deluged with calls from religion writers wanting a counter view. Now, thanks to modern technology, Kissling has total control over just how and when the media will get her side of the story.
But of course there is a price. The cost of setting up a teleconferencing event is determined by the number of reporters participating and the amount of time spent on the phone. Rates can be as high as 33 cents per minute, per line, says Fernandes.
"It is a weird way to communicate," concedes Denise Shannon, executive vice president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
For the participating reporters, it's a bit like eavesdropping on a party line. During the conference, I could hear Kissling's conversation with another reporter who asked a question about the pope, legislators and abortions, but it was impossible to butt in with a quick follow-up question the way I might have at an in-the-flesh press conference.
Instead, I hit a telephone key.
"Press one to register a question during the question period," the call coordinator for Connex International in Lawrence, Kansas, instructed. "If you wish to withdraw your question, hit pound. Press star zero if you have any difficulty hearing."
Kissling made another statement and then the operator popped back in.
"At this time," the operator said, "we will take questions from the interactive sites. Each interactive site will have time for one question and one follow-up. We now have two people registered for questions."
And so it went until 2:39, when my interactive site began to fail me and I could no longer hear the conference. I furiously pressed star zero, but to no avail. Finally, a different operator came on. "Is it over?" I asked.
"Apparently everyone is disconnected," he said. So I hung up, feeling a little disconnected myself.
My first teleconference went well enough, I suppose, but it went especially well for Kissling. Because of the abrupt, unscheduled ending of the conference, she got the $2,000 conference call for free.###