Some law firms are great, others hire PR pros

By Jaci Burns|28 July 2020
Jaci Burns

If your law firm wants to build its brand and manage its reputation, having public relations expertise on retainer should be high on its list of priorities, writes Jaci Burns.

Public relations – the practice of managing the release and spread of information between an organisation and the public – is an essential component of a law firm’s marketing efforts.

Traditionally, and still most commonly, a PR agency or operator will create and seize opportunities to build your firm’s brand and manage its reputation through earned and paid communications editorial and advertorial including by: 

  • Having your firm’s leaders quoted in articles about the legal industry, new or changing laws or regulations, and current affairs;
  • Ensuring your firm participates in ad hoc and scheduled legal reports, such as those produced by News Corp and Nine; and
  • Getting your firm’s newsworthy updates published as opinion pieces and by-line articles in magazines such as Lawyers Weekly.

Media relations, speech writing and ghostwriting are all examples of the services provided by PR practitioners.

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The global and large national law firms employ experienced PR pros and even former journalists.

Mid-tier and boutique law firms, on the other hand, often cannot justify having public relations expertise on the payroll. But that does not mean those firms should be without PR expertise.

Public relations is highly suited to being outsourced, allowing mid-tier and boutique firms to level the profiling and positioning playing field.

On retainer versus on demand

While pay-as-you-go and a-la-carte pricing are options, PR practitioners are mostly engaged on a project basis or on retainer.

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Project engagements are price-driven, tactical, prescriptive, and short-term. For example, a law firm might contract PR support to manage the publicity aspects of a merger.

Retainer relationships are value-driven, strategic, broader in scope, and long-term. For example, a law firm might retain a PR agency for 12 months to build its profile as experts in cyberlaw.

Both approaches have their merits though for a law firm, a retainer is likely to be the smart choice as it will deliver superior outcomes and better value for money. 

To illustrate why and how, here are four scenarios when it makes sense to have PR expertise on retainer.

1. Your subject matter experts are media-ready, or media-worthy

There is almost certainly media talent within your law firm – genuine subject matter experts who are articulate, up to date, personable and media-trained (or willing to be media-trained).

Public relations practitioners will use a combination of push and pull strategies to promote the expertise of your subject matter experts and corporate spokespeople.

Push strategies include sending out press releases and media pitches when your firm has an announcement to make or one of your spokespeople has something to say.

Pull strategies involve forging relationships with the media so that your firm is top of mind when a time-poor, deadline-driven journo needs help with a story. 

When on retainer, a PR practitioner will identify your high priority media targets (sources and reporters) and then introduce, and continue to promote, your “talent” as experts who are available for interviews, to comment, or simply to provide contextual background information.

2. Your environment is dynamic, disrupted, or uncertain

The legal sector continues to experience an unprecedented level of disruption: global alliances, new market entrants, alternative business models, artificial intelligence, automation, mergers, partner mobility… All these factors are transforming the way legal services are accessed, how lawyers operate, and how law firms compete.

In such a fast-moving environment, having a PR agency or practitioner on retainer means when something happens – whether you need to react or wish to capitalise on an opportunity – you have expertise available at short (or no) notice.

You will not be delayed by the need to negotiate fees or have a non-disclosure agreement executed. Plus, your PR team will be highly effective as they will already understand your business and industry and will have cultivated relationships with influential analysts, reporters, writers, producers, and editors.

3. You have a steady flow of newsworthy content

All law firms produce branded content. Much of this material will be purely promotional but some will have PR potential. 

Add to that the steady flow of corporate communications – for example, appointment notices, award wins and transaction announcements – and you will easily be able to justify having PR expertise on retainer.

Your PR practitioner will routinely assess your branded content for its newsworthiness while also ensuring your corporate communications reach your target audiences.

4. Your marketing team produces high-quality thought leadership

High-quality thought leadership allows you to demonstrate your firm’s intellectual rigour – the depth and calibre of its thinking. This builds brand awareness, generates interest (leads), and assists in converting prospects into clients (and clients into loyal advocates).

The media has a strong appetite for genuine thought leadership: content which is original, provocative, forward-looking, relevant.

Therefore, if your marketing team produces high-quality thought leadership, or you work with genuine thought leaders (not just run-of-the-mill subject matter experts), ongoing access to PR support is a no-brainer. When on retainer, a PR agency will, among other things:

  • Develop and execute a communications plan that is actionable, measurable, and aligns with your business goals
  • Manage the logistics when the media or other analysts seek out your thought leaders
  • Prepare and coach your “talent” ahead of interviews, and debrief with them afterwards
  • Ensure internal approval processes are understood and respected so they do not obstruct or inhibit your ability to be opportunistic, reactive, and nimble. 

Bill Gates said it best, “If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations.”

Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns is head of B2B marketing and communications agency, Market Expertise.

Some law firms are great, others hire PR pros
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