On lessons learned

Lessons learned from dealing with the media

Having hosted the first New Zealand Fat Studies conference recently in Wellington, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a variety of print, radio, and TV media. I’ve worked with the media before – doing spots on ‘Close Up’ to discuss issues of discrimination against fat people, chatting with Jim Mora on Radio NZ about the emerging discipline of Fat Studies, and speaking on TVNZ’s ‘Breakfast’ about whether size should be a protected class in NZ. I also spent almost a year working with an amazing team from TVNZ’s ‘20/20’ to produce a piece about my work as a fat activist.

It is safe to say that I felt relatively comfortable engaging with various forms of media, and I was excited that our conference might attract some attention.

(I pause as I consider that sentence. *Some* attention).

What resulted from the Massey University press release, and subsequent Dominion Post cover story, was a deluge of media requests from print, radio, and TV; from New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and France. The AFP piece was published around the world. It was overwhelming – and I was not prepared to handle so many demands.

Here’s what I learned:

1)      Do an exclusive for the on-site media. Allow only one print, one radio, and one TV media to attend the actual conference on-site. Be very clear as to when they are allowed to attend, and pre-arrange this with your speakers before you even set the programme schedule.  (May I recommend Neil Sands, Correspondent for AFP neil.sands@afp.com ? Of all the coverage we received, his piece was my favourite – even with a sceptic, the piece kept the focus on the conference. Plus, being an AP reporter, his was the piece that was most often picked up by news agencies around the world. AND – no headless fatties in his story!)

2)      Challenge their insistence on having a sceptic in the piece. Remind them that in the 99.99% of news coverage on obesity and the obesity epidemic they never have a sceptic in any of those pieces.

3)      Have multiple people available for media requests – and a single person (not the oragniser) in charge of fielding media requests.

4)      Make a condition of all access – no headless fatties in their representation. Refer them to the Stocky Bodies image library.

5)      Ensure that those engaging with the media are able to bring questions back around to the conference. Otherwise the story shifts from being, ‘Fat Studies Conference’, to ‘Fat Pride’, and ‘Crazy Fat Women Claims Fat is Not the Worst Thing Ever’.

6)      Appreciate that they are going to get stuff wrong. Many of the pieces incorrectly identified New Zealand as the third fattest country in the world. My weight of 135 kilos was miscalculated into 237lbs by many outlets (including Continental pieces that only reported the number in pounds). I was also aged 6yrs by many sources – I look pretty good for 39, eh?

7)      Try to remember that getting people talking is one of the roles of an academic and/or activist – even if most of the talk is hateful and bigoted – at least a different kind of story is being told for once.

In many ways, I am happy with the ways I dealt with the media.

In some ways, I know I failed.

In all ways, I’ve learned a lot and will do better next time.

Lessons learned from running a conference

Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections 2012 was an amazing two days of scholarship. Academics, practitioners, and activists from three continents convened on the Massey University campus in Wellington to share research, discuss ideas, and consider future collaborations.

I was honoured to serve as Chair of the organising committee for the conference; it was my first time organising a conference – really, any event of this magnitude. Now that it’s over, and I have had some time to debrief (and recover), I thought I would share what I’ve learned through the process.

1)      Have a great conference committee – without a committee, you are dead in the water. Delegate tasks to individuals and trust them to do their best.

2)      If you run the conference on a University campus, get the support of the Events team. FS: RI would not have happened without the explicit and enthusiastic support of the campus registrar and her larger events team. They were amazing!

3)      Know what is important to you (like having an accessible location) and stick with it.

4)      Remember that keeping registration affordable is an important part in encouraging a range of people to attend – and you want a range! We ensured that individuals without University support would be able to afford to attend the conference. We also endeavoured to have an online delegate option for those who could attend in person but would be interested in accessing materials online.

5)      Work out the tech for the online option before the conference – we are a month out from FS: RI and on the fifth version of the online access. I am hoping that the fifth time’s the charm – and that the online delegates remain patient.

6)      Get sponsors! Having sponsors place ads in the conference programme is a great way to offset the costs of the conference when the registration is super cheap.

7)      Have a team prepared to do media, with one person (who is not the organiser) responsible for fielding all requests. Prepare talking points for the questions you expect to receive and distribute them to the media team, and the larger conference team.

Those are the lessons learned that come immediately to mind – I am happy to chat with anyone who is hosting a conference and share more of my experiences, thoughts, and tips.