Media roundtables do exactly what they say on the tin. They’re organised conversations, usually between subject matter experts and journalists, around a table. A representative from a company typically hosts them, and it allows them to meet with important people, position themselves at the forefront of their industry and, most importantly, have interesting discussions.
Media roundtables are an essential part of a PR strategy to build relations with press, stakeholders and influencers, and they’re particularly useful for companies that deal with complex or technical issues. At TopLine Comms, as a Science PR and Engineering PR agency, a lot of our clients deal in such matters, which is why we still like to host them as often as possible. But we know that they’re overlooked in favour of PR campaigns that produce quick wins. This article will explain how to prepare and run a successful STEM media roundtable, using feedback from journalists in top STEM publications and our expertise here at TopLine.
Between them, these journalists have attended countless STEM media roundtables (including some we have arranged) and were more than happy to provide us with feedback on their experiences. This includes what they like, dislike or expect, and whether they feel that they are useful (spoiler: they all agreed that they’re useful).
Decide the theme
The first step when organising a roundtable is to select a theme for the event. Roundtables provide an opportunity to focus on one specific area of your client’s expertise and arrange an engaged conversation and discussion between your experts and journalists on the topic. Remember, roundtables shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to discuss product and service features. Instead, think about what problem you (or your client’s) product is trying to solve, and create a discussion around it. Then, you can showcase thought-leadership in the area and mention the soon-to-be-launched product.
When asked whether he found roundtables a useful format for press events, Nigel Blackaby from Power Engineering International emphasised that it “depends on the subject matter but on balance they do often allow greater insights”. Therefore, selecting a theme and a journalist who is interested in that subject is essential for gaining interests (and RSVPs!).
Who to invite
Once you’ve decided your theme, you’ll need to decide on who to invite. You’ll want to keep the conversation flowing, so you don’t want too many people around the table. Equally, you’ll want people to feel free to discuss sensitive topics, so will need to pick your journalists wisely. In terms of the number of people to invite to the roundtable, the consensus across the journalists we spoke to was “no more than 10”.
Thought leaders and influencers who attend roundtables tend to be potential clients, regular public speakers and academics. If you’re organising the roundtable on behalf of a client, you might need to rely on them to give you a ‘wish list’ as well as doing your own research.
In terms of company spokespeople to invite, Henry Edwardes-Evans from SP Global thinks “a good mix of technical, commercial, regulatory, management leaders” should attend. But as Junior Isle from The Energy Industry Times mentions, this can always “depend on the topic”. Nigel felt that “some senior management, along with technical experts, without too many corporate communications handlers” makes a good mix. Just always make sure that the person is fully briefed: give them potential moderator questions, show them articles that the journalists attending have written recently and make sure they know how a roundtable works (i.e. don’t just assume that they’ve done it before).
It’s worth noting that traditional roundtables often operate under Chatham House Rules (whereby what’s spoken about can be published but not attributed to any one person in particular). Make sure that everyone involved in the roundtable is aware beforehand that whatever they say is going to be on the record. Or, if you do operate under Chatham House Rules, make sure the press is well aware of the fact (and expect fewer to attend as a result).
Choosing the right date, time and location for your roundtable can be complicated. As a general rule, it’s best to stick to somewhere convenient, interesting and at a time that allows everyone to still get on with their typical working day. When we asked our journalists about the formality of the location, we had a very mixed response. Junior Isles felt that the venue should be set in a formal environment, whereas Henry felt that casual was more appropriate. Nick Smith from Engineering & Technology didn’t mind on the formality, so long as the venue was “a quiet one as it makes audio recording better”. And Nigel made a good point that “Sometimes a tie-in with a site visit offers a fuller picture and more value to a roundtable.” Ultimately, they all agreed that convenience trumps formality.
The ideal length of a roundtable can also vary between journalists. Across our four STEM journalists, the range was between one to two hours (so, 90 minutes). You’ll need someone to keep a close eye on the agenda – you’ll be shocked at how quickly the time flies by, especially if you get stuck on a particular topic.
While small roundtables don’t need the same level of admin as a large-scale event does, you’ll still want the basics including:
- Name tags (to make networking a little easier)
- A register so that you have a record of who attended
- Name places
- Ensure that the venue has a coat hanger or area to store bags
- Ensure all technology is charged and ready to use
- Make sure there are clear signs for the bathrooms
- If you’re recording the event, have a sign and make a statement to ensure that everyone knows that is the case.
With regards to food, always make sure you’ve asked for everyone’s dietary requirements before the event. You should have drinks, including tea and coffee, waiting on arrival. As for food, all the journalists we spoke to felt that a buffet or finger food was the best form of lunch for these events. It promotes a relaxed environment and easy conversation.
Finally, you’ll need to decide who will chair the event, as the success of the roundtable relies heavily on them. They’ll need to explain how the day is going to unfold; drive the discussion; keep an eye on the time and interject with interesting questions.
Structure of the event
A good place to start is by introducing the chair (this can be the PR team). The chair will then introduce the clients and experts. Then ask the journalists to introduce themselves. Then, the chair can start working through the agenda for the day.
At the end of the event, thank everyone for their time, hand out any additional material and promise that you will be in touch. When asked what additional content he preferred to receive at a roundtable, Henry felt that “some printed material and ideally some news and data for charts, tables, graphics” were useful. Junior and Nick added that “presentations from the day on USBs are very helpful.”
After the event, you’ll want to follow up with those who attended, and those who maybe couldn’t make it. This is where your notes will come in particularly handy. The sooner you write them up, the sooner you can share them with attendees and company stakeholders.
With regards to press coverage, you shouldn’t expect a frontpage splash – instead, the aim is to build long term relationships and longer-term story ideas. It’s worth thanking those who came and asking them if they’d like any follow-up conversations, but otherwise, you should just make sure they got everything they needed from the event.
And there you have it – the recipe for a successful STEM media roundtable. It might not be the right format for every story, but it’s nearly always a worthwhile endeavour to improve media and stakeholder relations. Just make sure you’ve got something interesting to talk about, the right people at the table and a hospitable environment, and you’ll be on to a winner.
To get a better insight in planning your STEM media roundtable, get in touch with our specialist STEM team today.
Written by: Fleur Stamford, Comms Assistant