URI journalism students participate in mock press conference

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 8, 2004 — Mike Logee sounded sincere when he said that he was rounding Point Judith Lighthouse and saw the Block Island Ferry almost totally submerged after crashing into a nearby jetty.

The ferry remains safely afloat and Logee isn’t a captain of a local fishing vessel, but he was one of 30 University of Rhode Island students, either studying media writing or public relations, who recently participated in a mock press conference to learn how to respond to crisis situations without getting a sinking feeling.

The press conference was designed by two URI 1995 journalism alumni: Kristen Cyr, editor of The North East Independent, who teaches courses in media writing, and Jim Beardsworth, state director of communications for the American Cancer Society, who teaches courses in public relations. Cyr and Beardsworth were active with the University’s student newspaper, The Good 5 ¢ Cigar when they attended URI.

The press conference story line was that the Block Island Ferry with 70 people on board had crashed into a jetty and sank. Fifteen were confirmed dead 10 were missing and 35 were taken to area hospitals.

Some of Beardworth’s students represented state and local officials at the press conference, giving Cyr’s budding journalists a chance to ask questions. Cyr’s students then had to write their stories on “deadline” and file them with their editor (Cyr) within five hours.

“It’s not easy,” noted Valerie Fava after the exercise. A junior from Patterson, N.J. who played a chief petty officer from the U.S. Coast Guard for the public relations-side of the exercise. “You have to be prepared to answer any kind of question.”

Liz Stickel, a student from Cranston, who played the chief of emergency services at South County Hospital, agreed. “After I gave out a name I said to myself ‘Oh, I wasn’t supposed to say that!’

Victor Omoayo, a journalism student from Providence, found the press conference to be good practice. “You get to know what kind of questions to ask,” he said.

“We tried to make it as true to life as possible,” says Beardsworth of the exercise. “We didn’t want to create chaos, but wanted to give the students a sense of it.”

“There’s so much to react to at a press conference,” says Cyr. “Reporters have to be able to think on their feet. It’s hard in the beginning. It’s much better to learn the lessons in class than on the job.”