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Maintaining a media strategy for law firms

Maintaining a media strategy for law firms

A lawyer can not ignore the call from a journalist if they want to stay relevant in the marketplace, writes Beverl

A lawyer can not ignore the call from a journalist if they want to stay relevant in the marketplace, writes Beverley Head, but they can ensure they get the most out of the conversation.

Every baby kissed, every cane toad fondled during Election 2010 reinforced the value of engaging with the media. A soundbite here, a handshake there, a carefully planned interview in a local paper, and an outing on the ABC was as much a part of the campaign planning as party policy.

Politicians learned how to engage with "rogue" media - be it Mark Latham or those naughty Chaser boys. And while not all the media outings were successful, they did establish politicians' and party brands.

What politicians and the media have long understood is the symbiotic relationship which exists between the two groups. Politicians need to get their message out, the media needs something to fill its pages, screens, airwaves or web sites.

The media is also increasingly being recognised as an important ally for business development both for individual lawyers and law firms. The invisible lawyer, the silent law firm will face mounting hurdles in this fiercely competed market sector.

It's the same in other competitive areas. Imagine an IPO without the media, a merger without the media, a film premiere without the media, a car launch without the media.

Those companies and individuals which handle the media well, understand how it operates, and what their contribution can deliver to the debate often outperform less nimble rivals. Think Apple product launches compared to those of other phone or computer makers.

Those organisations and individuals which handle the media poorly come unstuck. BP's former managing director, Tony Hayward for example evidently understood the power of the media in terms of its ability to convey to a wide audience his message about the gulf oil spill - but failed in his execution. To tell the media that "he would like his life back" when questioned about the scale of the environmental disaster which has left thousands of people's livelihoods at risk was a poorly advised strategy and ultimately contributed to his downfall.

The arrival in Australia of Magic Circle law firms, and a rising tide of international players means that it's critical for large local firms to continue to reinforce their brand and telegraph their expertise through the media. Second tier or boutique firms meanwhile engage with the media to demonstrate their capability and value proposition to prospects and also to attract important laterals.

Getting started

The first step in any successful engagement with the media is to understand how it and journalists operate.

According to Napoleon Bonaparte; "A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets." Meanwhile Edward Egglestone dismissed journalism as "organised gossip". Somewhere between these two poles lies the truth.

The trick for lawyers and law firms is to identify the journalists and media outlets which could be useful in terms of conveying a message, and then develop engaging ideas that will interest the journalists and kick off a longer term relationship. It's worth remembering also that a front page splash in Pigeon Fanciers Monthly is of little value if all your clients and prospects read Computerworld.

"The arrival in Australia of Magic Circle law firms, and a rising tide of international players means that it's critical for large local firms to continue to reinforce their brand and telegraph their expertise through the media."

Effective media relations allow your lawyers and your firm to speak to current and prospective clients via a journalist. It allows you to portray your firm as an agenda setter, a thought leader, as proactive, an innovator, as an effective business partner.

It reinforces the brand of the firm and the lawyer, and demonstrates the firm's capability and value proposition.

To be effective in the media organisations also need to identify who in the firm can speak about what. No one wants the young graduate lawyer quoted in the AFR on billable hours.

Savvy law firms have media relations policies which indicate who can speak to the media on which topics. This is often a cascade with the managing partner able to speak on firm or strategic issues, partners who have been media trained engaging with media in their practice area, and other employees speak to the media only with the express permission of their supervising partner or communications director.

Firms without a formal set of guidelines must assume that anyone will feel free to speak to the media about anything which is clearly far from ideal.

This policy should also make clear that unguarded comments made in public places, loud telephone conversations on the bus to Wynyard, or loose commentary on Twitter or Facebook might also wend its way into the media. With an increasingly 24x7 news cycle changing the way print, broadcast and online media operate - there is always a journalist on the lookout for a good story however it is delivered.

Backing up the media policy with effective media training will help ensure not only the right people, but the right message gets across.

Lawyers and firm representatives need to understand how to deal with on the record, off the record or non attributable interviews. They need to understand the nexus that exists for journalists between getting the story first and getting the story right - and make sure they use that to buy themselves time to plan their responses before diving in to an ill planned interview.

Training and rehearsal interviews can also provide some clues about how lawyers can handle doorstop interviews when emerging from Court. They also allow firms to properly identify who their core spokespeople should be on key topics, and occasionally identify the loose cannons who should have any interaction with the media carefully managed.

Beverley Head is an independent journalist and communications consultant based in Sydney. She will be presenting at the conference of the Australian Legal Practice Management Association in October

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