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Courting attention: Why successfully engaging the media is critical for law firms

Courting attention: Why successfully engaging the media is critical for law firms

Building and protecting a firm's brand and reputation is a critical aspect of business development -- and effectively engaging with the media is pivotal in a firm's success, writes Briana…

Building and protecting a firm's brand and reputation is a critical aspect of business development -- and effectively engaging with the media is pivotal in a firm's success, writes Briana Everett.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Many firms are hesitant to interact with the media, and may be missing out on valuable opportunities to market their firm, say experts
With the aid of large budgets and vast resources, top-tier and global law firms in Australia are quite savvy when it comes to handling the media. But for a number of smaller firms and sole practitioners across the country, successfully engaging with the media remains a challenge - and for some, a complete mystery.

Despite increased competition due to the recent arrival of several global firms, many within the legal profession are still reticent when it comes to learning how to handle the media and enhance their profile within the industry.

"The majority [of firms] we come across are incredibly frightened of the media and very unaware about how to positively engage," says the managing partner of Julian Midwinter & Associates, Linda Julian.

"A few seem to do it very well and the best of them have improved hugely, but there's a whole group who perhaps never had a clue and still haven't a clue."

According to Julian, who offers strategic practice development advice to lawyers, very few firms regard their profile in the media as important enough to warrant putting in any time or effort to improve the way they handle media attention.

For Adelaide firm Kelly & Co, although it doesn't have the same budget as the larger national firms, it has recognised the significant value of effectively engaging with the media, particularly after the global financial crisis.

"It is the natural state to develop opinions when the macro or micro landscape is changing. During the GFC there were few major changes occurring, aside from the obvious economic pressures," says Kelly & Co chief executive officer Stuart Price.

"Things have changed more recently with the increase in mergers and acquisitions of Australian firms ... This type of energy and success feeds into a greater willingness by firms to actively engage with the media."

Price suggests giving the firm's practitioners the opportunity to discuss their specific areas of expertise and topical issues with the media not only demonstrates their capability but also increases both the practitioner's and the firm's credibility and reputation.

"[A media presence can] feed into and improve brand value, visibility and presence, and ultimately awareness and recognition"

Stuart Price, chief executive officer, Kelly & Co

"That is ultimately achieved by a presence within the media," says Price, whose firm employs an external public relations firm and recently boosted its internal marketing and business development team in line with its media strategy.

"[A media presence] also feeds into the other part - the brand. It will feed into and improve brand value, visibility and presence, and ultimately awareness and recognition," he adds.

While emphasising the value of building a strong profile in the media, Price notes the importance of not saturating the market and only providing comment where relevant - a challenge the firm is facing more and more as it receives increased media attention.

"[The media attention] is feeding off the volume of content that's being sought from us. I think that's a really good thing, as long as we can maintain the quality and the value to the media. We don't want to saturate the market and the saturation will only happen if we take up opportunities that are perhaps not relevant," he says.

While media strategies do not tend to differ drastically from firm to firm, the extent to which a firm engages with the media often depends on its size, budget and the size of the market it covers. Additionally, media strategies of commercial firms like Kelly & Co will differ to that of a plaintiff firm like Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.

"Maurice Blackburn is a plaintiff firm so we have very different issues to a commercial firm," says Maurice Blackburn's national media manager, Amanda Tattam.

"Many of our clients have suffered personal injury and loss, including financial loss ... and there is a public interest dimension to the cases we take on. Our clients are ordinary people who have experienced extraordinary events so there is often intense media interest in the cases ... It's our job to manage media in the best interests of our clients."

Positively engaging

Successfully handling the media is all about positive engagement, according to Julian.

While it is important to understand how to respond appropriately to a journalist's phone call, handling the media is not all about damage control and avoiding bad coverage.

"The majority [of firms] we come across are incredibly frightened of the media and very unaware about how to positively engage"

Linda Julian, managing partner, Julian Midwinter & Associates

As such, more lawyers need to reach out to the media and get their opinion out there, she says.

"We spend our lives helping our clients to engage positively. Our position is that an informed reporter is a much less dangerous thing than an ill-informed, half-informed, kept-in-the-dark reporter," says Julian.

"A mistake lawyers make is that there are many occasions when they could very responsibly use media contacts to help get issues of importance out there and get attention to them, but very few put the effort into it. Instead, they run scared and don't get issues in the interests of their clients and the public out there and on the agenda."

Aside from engaging positively with the media, Julian says lawyers also need to appreciate that their "news" is not necessarily newsworthy and exciting to others outside the firm or the industry.

"Another big mistake is they completely misunderstand the news value or public interest value in the story they want to tell. They misjudge that," she says.

"We spend a lot of time helping our clients understand that what they think is interesting and what they think is newsworthy is very unlikely to capture the attention of a critical and genuinely independent press."

Another issue is the unrealistic expectations of some lawyers when it comes to how a story is told.

"A lot have very unreasonable expectations about the extent to which they can control the media or take control. Lawyers love having control," Julian says.

"They cannot expect to control the press ... If they really want to get the story told exactly their way, they [should] buy the space in the publications - that's called advertising. You cannot control journalists."

Related article:

>> Courting Attention: Top tips for dealing with the media

Far from an avuncular reminder to return the calls of our roving reporters, we asked Linda Julian, managing partner of Julian Midwinter & Associates, for some useful tips for law firms wanting to establish a media presence.

Like this story? Read more:

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Courting attention: Why successfully engaging the media is critical for law firms
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