We consider the value of a media strategy and hiring public relations expertise.

In an increasingly competitive market, lawyers need to stand out from the crowd. One way to do this is to have a strong media profile. ‘Like it or not, we live in a media age, and not having a media strategy leaves a gaping hole in your business plan,’ says Melissa Davis, managing director of legal PR and marketing agency MD Communications. ‘Gone are the days of only big firms rolling out a media campaign.’

As well as dealing with the competition, which intensified with the introduction of alternative business structures, lawyers are fighting to protect their reputation. ‘Lawyers fall into the camp of bankers, journalists and estate agents, who score low on positive perception among consumers,’ says Gus Sellitto, managing director of Byfield Consultancy. ‘Lawyers in large City practices earn good money. It’s very easy for the national media to jump in and stir up public sentiment. It’s an easy stereotype to attach to.’ But, he adds, lawyers are starting to understand the importance of connecting to the public and working to change that perception.

The legal profession has traditionally been ill at ease with self-promotion; the Law Society did not permit lawyers even to advertise until 1986. A fear factor remains due to concerns such as client confidentiality. But, says Davis, ‘lawyers have something important to say on matters that affect everyone’s lives. They are the only ones able to articulate the importance of justice in our society through the media. Who else is going to do that?’

Recruitment is another factor that may drive a firm’s PR. ‘There’s always competition for the best talent,’ says Daniela Conte, senior communications and PR manager at international firm Simmons & Simmons. ‘When you’re not targeting clients, you also need to be thinking about what other lawyers are reading, what they are reading about our firm, and how that coverage will shape their views of our firm.’

Top tips for dealing with local media

‘Law firms don’t necessarily need to instruct an external PR agency to start building and protecting their reputation,’ says Graham Capper, head of corporate communications at the Law Society. ‘There are simple steps that firms can take to boost their media profile even if they don’t have a PR or marketing team.’ Visibility in the community is vital, he adds. ‘For many firms, that engagement with local media will be an important component of that visibility.’ Capper recommends:

  • Invest your time in PR. Advertising requires money and skill to be effective. PR only costs your time and a few simple techniques.
  • Build relationships. A reporter who has met you face-to-face or who speaks to you frequently is more likely to approach you for a quote or run your story.
  • Plan ahead. News is what happens today and tomorrow. What happened yesterday is history. A local reporter will usually be glad to be forewarned about a potential story.
  • If you write a press release assume it will be edited from the bottom. The first sentence should summarise the entire story. Don’t save the most interesting aspect for the fourth or fifth paragraph. Does your first sentence include the words ‘new’ or ‘today’ or (for a weekly publication) ‘this week’?
  • Think radio. If you send a story to a radio station, decide beforehand who will be interviewed. Rehearse a 20-40 second soundbite.  
  • Localise the story. There is plenty of appetite for local angles on national stories. Include local data or local examples to make it salient to readers/listeners.
  • Write journalese. Mainstream journalists are not lawyers and nor are their readers. Imitate the style of a typical story in their paper or on their radio news bulletin. Sentences need to be short and clear, using everyday English.
  • Empathise with the reader and with the journalist. What aspect of your story will make the reader interested? Local reporters are overworked and poorly paid. Make their lives easier by doing the grunt work for them.
  • Picture. What kind of picture gets used in your local paper? Probably not postcard views, probably with people. Better to avoid giant cheque handovers or ‘two men in suits’ cliches. Why not invite a newspaper’s photographer to your newsworthy event?
  • Remember that nothing you say to a journalist is ‘off the record’. If you say it in their earshot, it is likely to be used. You can make things ‘unattributable’, in which case most reporters will not put what you have said in quotes.
  • Underpromise and overdeliver. Journalists are often working to non-negotiable deadlines. Either get back to them in time or warn them that you may not be able to do so.

Where to begin

In order to draw up a PR action plan, solicitors first need to ask themselves what they want to say, to whom they want to say it, and why, says Sellitto.

‘Good PR isn’t about jumping on the latest craze,’ Conte cautions. ‘It’s about understanding who your clients are, what’s important to them, what you need to communicate to them, and the best way to do that.’

She adds: ‘We are a five-sector business and 80% of our revenues comes through [those] sectors. My strategy is geared towards getting the message out to the market about our sector expertise.’

One of those sectors is financial institutions. ‘Is Twitter the best way for us to raise our profile with those clients? I would say no,’ says Conte. ‘A lot of financial institutions have blocks on their systems because of financial reporting restrictions – they can’t even access a lot of these sites. So do financial institutions expect to be receiving serious news from their legal adviser via Twitter? I would argue not. But on the other hand, TMT [technology, media, telecommunications] is one of our sectors and technology clients are comfortable receiving information in that way.’

Building relationships with journalists is also important. ‘Some people think if you have strong relationships with your key press then journalists will repay that by writing positive stories,’ Conte says. ‘Having a good relationship with journalists is about [them having] you at the forefront of their mind when they’re writing a piece and they need a spokesperson.’

And who should be the firm’s spokesperson? ‘It’s not necessarily the people you’d expect who are the best people in that media role,’ says Conte. ‘It’s a learned skill. If people think just because they’re outgoing and articulate they’re going to make great spokespeople; it doesn’t always work like that. They key thing about dealing with the press is preparation.’

Helen Loney, PR manager at south-west firm Foot Anstey, is careful not to bombard the media with too many press releases about the firm’s work. ‘We also work in partnership with others,’ she says, citing efforts to raise the profile of its Islamic finance team, a practice unique to the south-west. The firm worked with UK Trade & Investment to issue a case study about the team’s expertise which, says Loney, resulted in good regional newspaper coverage.

One element of trying to boost your media profile on which PR agencies and in-house marketing teams are unanimous is not to underestimate the power of the local media (see top tips, above).

‘The success of the Law Society’s Conveyancing Quality Scheme campaign was largely built on coverage in the local press,’ notes Davis, previously the Society’s head of media and PR. ‘I also know that the Society used the local press very effectively in forcing HSBC into a U-turn over its conveyancing panels. It got the public on its side and escalated from there.’

Small high street firms and sole practitioners should start local, says Sellitto. ‘It’s going to be tougher to try and get into the FT and The Times every day, but it does come back to the question of who are you trying to attract and why,’ he adds. ‘If none of your clients come from the local community, there’s no point in being in the local media. But if you’re trying to get to local consumers, then local media is very good.’

The letters pages of a local paper are a good place to have a voice, says Davis, because they are often the most read part of a local newspaper.

‘I see law firms who go out and get media coverage, and it’s either not sustained or there seems to be a scattergun approach,’ says Sellitto.

Davis says it is important to ‘keep the conversation going’. She adds: ‘Don’t go overboard and expect coverage daily, but generate news, ideas and continue to engage with the media. Don’t assume they will remember you in three months’ time or hang on every word you say. It takes effort.’

In the spotlight

HowardKennedyFsi partner Dan Hyde has appeared on ITV, BBC News 24 and Sky News. He is also a regular guest commentator for Radio 5 Live on financial crime. His comments and articles on law and legal developments regularly appear in the press and legal publications

‘In order to be given any sort of media opportunities you first have to be on the radar. This can happen through being instructed in high-profile cases but, ironically, one’s very involvement effectively prohibits any objective comment. I realised that to properly express an opinion or argue a cause I would have to do so outside of any retainer. I began penning articles or a precis of the proposed piece and submitted them to suitable newspapers and legal publications. This can be hit and miss, and unless you can afford an agent to filter your work and liaise with potential publishers, there may be a significant number of rejections.

‘I found, however, that once a newspaper or legal journal published my work, further commissions followed and it was possible to build relationships with journalists who would call me for a steer or a quote on an article. My golden rule is never step outside your comfort zone or sphere of expertise: being honest about a lack of knowledge is infinitely better than being wrong and seeing your ignorance in the next day’s paper.

‘I had written for numerous publications when television and radio researchers began approaching me. The usual form is a seemingly casual chat followed, if they are still interested, by a longer telephone discussion of the subject. These should be treated as job interviews – unless the editor is confident in you, the broadcast will go to someone else. I managed, with time, to refine (I use the term loosely) my media appearances and am now fortunate that media outlets often approach me (or the firm’s PR and communications manager) direct with appearance offers or commissions.

‘This didn’t happen overnight; it took hours of writing, advising and broadcasting. I am also blessed to be at a firm that has an in-house PR manager, and very experienced media commentators such as Mark Stephens – they provide invaluable guidance and support.

‘A raised media profile doesn’t necessarily bring instant results in terms of instructions. I do think it can give one a slight edge; it provides reassurance to clients and potential clients who can access your published and broadcast work. I also believe it has given me a better insight into how the media operate.’

Hyde summarises the main lessons as:

  • Never leave your comfort zone/sphere of expertise. It is better to refuse an offer than struggle to honour a commitment.
  • Never start an interview without asking the interviewer or (if this is not possible) their assistant what you are going to be asked. Don’t rely on what you thought it was about or were told it was about in an earlier discussion. Last-minute changes can happen and the interviewer may not intend to stick to the brief you were initially given.
  • Never assume an arranged interview or commissioned article is guaranteed to go ahead. A breaking news story or editorial decision can cancel what you thought was a solid arrangement.
  • Always prepare thoroughly to include considering any peripheral/left-field issues. Better to be well-read than red-faced.

Hyde concludes: ‘My advice to solicitors would be to persevere and concentrate on your perceived strengths. Look to contribute in areas in which you have specialist knowledge. Consider if you might be better pitching through a PR agency if you can’t stimulate or maintain media interest, and whether the cost is justified by the value an agent might bring. Building or maintaining a media profile is rather like building or maintaining a client following and all the hard work that goes with it. It won’t be for everybody, but some will enjoy the challenge.’

Dan Hyde is a partner in business crime and civil fraud at HowardKennedyFsi, London

How much?

Indeed. And that effort can cost.

PR agencies often work for a ‘composite day rate’ of £750-£1,100. This may include the services of more than one team member, or the account manager only. Individual PR professionals may be cheaper, though they will come without the infrastructure and service that a fully staffed office should provide – though anyone who has had a bad experience of inappropriate delegation of tasks may prefer this. The cost of employing an in-house PR professional will vary enormously, not least because in a small or medium-sized firm, some will combine PR and marketing with other duties. A junior PR adviser may earn up to £25,000 in a smaller firm, £45,000 in the City. For senior appointments in all but the largest law firms the salary range is £45,000-£70,000.

Compared with the regional press, that’s good money indeed – and helps explain why many a former scribe now plies their trade in the PR business.

Monidipa Fouzder is a Gazette sub-editor