Dealing with the Press: What Lawyers Need to Know
Many legal firms benefit from press coverage, and occasionally offer interviews or quotes to journalists as a means of having their voice be heard. Naturally, however, there are some pitfalls to be avoided.
Press coverage is a hugely beneficial way of raising the profile of your business. But for heavily regulated industries like law, the thought of navigating this process puts many off. Firms rely on reputation, perhaps much more so than other businesses, and reputation can be destroyed in seconds with badly managed PR. So, how can firms harness the value of media coverage without falling into a PR pitfall? Nicola Kenyon, PR Manager at leading medical negligence firm Patient Claim Line, shares her tips below.
1. Control the conversation
From my experience, one of the biggest concerns that lawyers have when it comes to dealing with the media, is that their comments might be misreported or used out of context. This could not only have a damaging impact on the reputation of the firm, but also on their personal profile.
However, there are ways that you can ensure you have some control over the conversation you’re contributing to. I’ve found that written comments can be a good way of ensuring that the lawyer gets across what they want to say. This ensures that the lawyers are not misquoted or put on the spot, which can sometimes happen with telephone or face to face interactions, and it also allows the journalist to get direct answers to their questions.
Written quotes allow you or your legal team to take some time with your answers and control how you come across through the language you use. It also ensures that you have time to include all the information you need to. Sometimes in a quick phone call, it’s easy to forget. We’ve all been in a situation and it’s when you walk away that you think of all the things you should have said. Having time to put something in writing gives you the chance to really consider what you are saying. This way, there should be no surprises when the piece comes out in the media.
Also, don’t think the reporter is the only one who can ask the questions; find out as much as you can about the issue from the reporter so you know exactly what they are looking for.
Importantly though, remember not to panic. You know what you’re talking about – which is why they’ve come to you for comment.
Written quotes allow you or your legal team to take some time with your answers and control how you come across through the language you use.
2. Build relationships you can trust
Lawyers can be wary of dealing with the media for various reasons. The legal industry is heavily regulated and lawyers know too well of the potentially serious implications of their actions. However, journalists are not on a mission to sabotage lawyers who are acting as a source for their story. Journalists need their stories to be accurate, reliable and credible, so it is not in their best interests to fudge facts or damage valuable relationships with legal experts.
Try offering your expert opinion on a trending news story, or approach the journalist with ideas on a story about your case, and they’ll quickly see you as a useful, trustworthy contact.
Journalists are just people doing their job. They are being paid to come up with stories but just as with a lawyer’s reputation being built on the results of the cases they work on, journalists need their reputation to show that they do informative, interesting and, most importantly, accurate stories. They don’t want to publish inaccurate information. Equally, they don’t want to lose you as a contact so they won’t want to risk jeopardising the relationship. Let the trust grow.
3. Be reasonable
Lawyers often want to have the final readback on the journalist’s piece before it goes live – but this is unreasonable. When you work with a journalist, you give them your comments to use in their piece. You cannot expect to have control over or input on the tone of voice, style or format of the rest of the piece. Journalists are often asked what angle they are taking. Sometimes, the angle develops the more they interview people so they may not reveal that for worry of it changing as the article progresses.
Demanding a readback may even damage the relationship with the journalist, as this is just not how things are done. However, as long as you have followed the above steps and carefully considered, proofed and signed off your quotes, then there should be no need for a final readback. The same goes for making changes when the story goes live – it’s a pain for journalists to have to go back into their articles and change details, so make sure that the information you’re providing is accurate and you’re happy for it to go out.
The best thing to do is influence what’s written about you. Communicate well what you want to say and reiterate key points.
Not convinced? Check out this article from tech journalist Craig Guillot about why journalists don’t offer readbacks.
4. Offer value
When journalists ask for legal insight and expertise, they’re asking for something that will add additional weight and credibility to their story. Make sure your comments are offering value, not just putting a spin on information that is already available. It needs to be new news! Consider the exclusive insight you could offer on a story – perhaps the impact of the story from a legal perspective, compensation figures or information that readers need to stop the same thing from happening to them. Be helpful and try to understand the angle of the journalist’s story, so you can provide the right information. Ultimately, ensure you are offering something that will enhance the piece. If you can’t offer additional value to the piece or have nothing new to add to the topic, then don’t comment. Journalists are time-short and the last thing they need is to hold out for a legal comment that is flakey and vague. For more advice on offering value and pitching to journalists, check out this great article published by PR Week.
Make sure your comments are offering value, not just putting a spin on information that is already available.
5. Commit to deadlines
Journalists often have tight turn-around times for pieces, so it’s crucial that you stick to the deadlines that they set. Sometimes pieces may need to be published within 24 hours, sometimes journalists have weeks to work on a story. What’s important is that you’re realistic with your ability to stick to the deadline. It’s much better to turn down an opportunity because you know you can’t get the information in time, rather than to try to get the information and then let the journalist down. Reliability and honesty will allow you to build a relationship with the journalist so that they know they can call on you for legal expertise for pieces in the future.
6. Tailor your expertise to the publication’s audience
When journalists ask for legal advice or comments for a piece, they’re looking for expertise – but that expertise has to be accessible for their audience in order for it to be of value. A great opportunity to get media coverage can be lost due to stuffy legal jargon and complicated descriptions. If the journalist can’t understand your points, then their audience won’t either. So always consider the publication’s audience when writing your comments. Mainstream news outlets and nationals may need more accessible, simple explanations to appeal to a wider audience who want to consume information quickly.
7. Remember the value of raising the profile of your firm and personal career
Whilst it may seem like you’re having to play by the journalist’s rules, working with the media creates mutually beneficial relationships. This partnership enables the journalists to get credible sources for their story, thus increasing their reader engagement, and allows lawyers to promote their skills, expertise or firm in a natural way that doesn’t seem salesy. Raising your profile or that of the firm is incredibly valuable, both in terms of your reputation and the firm’s. (For advice on how to measure and understand the value of PR, check out this useful article from Forbes). Whilst it can sometimes be difficult to justify spending the time on media requests, it’s important to recognise what this value translates into; more casework. A firm that has a strong profile in the media, garnered by employees sharing their expertise, casework and advice, is likely to bring in more casework, skilled lawyers and customers. So, never underestimate the importance of good media relations.