Dealing with the legal press needn’t be difficult: just have something interesting to say
It is no exaggeration to say that in my time on The Lawyer news desk I dealt with hundreds of PRs and many thousands of press releases. Filtering the good, the bad and the ugly was a daily chore. Only the chosen few would succeed in grabbing my attention and, just perhaps, end up being published as a story on TheLawyer.com.
Over the years I developed strong relations with PRs and the firms they represented. Yet there were times that dealing with a press team could be frustrating.
Answering 15 calls on the same irrelevant subject in the space of two hours was tedious, my ears would become deaf to it.
Working with journalists does not have to be difficult. Developing and maintaining healthy professional relationships benefits both parties and ensures you get stories that you can be proud of. If you are interested in developing relationships with the legal press, here are my top tips on how to get ahead.
PR success requires knowing your audience
Too often we would receive banal press releases or article proposals that simply did not connect with our audience. Knowing the readers of your chosen publication and why your article is relevant to them is essential. If you are unable to persuade the reporter of its relevance in the first few lines of your pitch, you need a new angle.
The Lawyer, like Legal Business and Legal Week, is interested in the business of law. It rarely, if ever, runs articles on developments in the law. Calling in to complain that your article has not been published when it was deemed irrelevant will not help your relationships develop.
It is equally important to know your journalist – if you are sending an email make sure you spell their name correctly (I cannot count how many times I deleted emails because my name was spelt incorrectly – it’s Katy not Katie!).
Be professional. This is a no-brainer. You are representing a professional firm and you should act courteously. Being rude and abrupt could earn you a negative reputation across the legal press. Even when dealing with the most challenging reporter about a difficult story it is important to maintain a standard of professionalism.
Ensure you are communicating with the right reporter – simply ask the question: “Is this relevant to your beat?”
Calling a journalist? Know your subject
While all legal reporters will be under pressure from editors to speak to partners or legal managers about relevant news stories, there are occasions when there just isn’t time. This underlines why it is important for legal PRs to know their subject, understand the relevance of the story, and clearly answer any questions. Get it wrong and the consequences could be disastrous.
Being interested in the story is a bonus. If you are bored by your news, how can a reporter be interested in it? If you call in and begin reciting a proposal from a script, your reporter will instantly assume that the pitch is a no-go. Simply reading from a script is dull, uninteresting and shows that you do not know your subject. Every story has an interesting angle – your job is to be interested in it and persuade the reporter of its significance.
It is important that you facilitate and respond to any calls for comments quickly – most likely by a phone interview. Blocking pathways to interviewees is a sure way to make enemies in the legal press. Interviewees need to be properly prepared and able to speak with clarity. Furthermore, they should be able to add to the story: simply reiterating the press release is frustrating for a reporter who wants to add depth to a story.
Checking quotes ahead of publication is generally frowned upon, particularly with the senior legal reporters who pride themselves on accuracy. Be prepared.
Liars get caught, it’s as simple as that.
Law firm financials are a particular bone of contention. Working on The Lawyer UK200 requires journalists to speak to scores of firms about their latest financial year. Reporters receive specialist training and features are edited by editors who have more than 30 years’ of experience. As far as possible limited liability partnership (LLP) year-end accounts are calculated in a uniform manner.
Trying to bury bad financial use or inflate figures to attract potential buyers will earn you a reputation for being untrustworthy. It may even tempt reporters to dig a little further to find the truth. If you are working on a five-year plan discuss it with the reporter. Providing a broader picture of your firm’s developments will ensure a more balanced story and may even generate new content further down the line.
Complaints about legal press articles
There will be instances when you are dissatisfied with a published story. Save your complaints for when it is necessary. At first instance speak with the reporter and explain why you are disappointed. If there are factual inaccuracies you must be able to provide evidence of that. Remember most reporters will be required to speak to an editor should a change be made online. You should be prepared to back up your complaint with substance.
Simply moaning about a headline because you disagree with the phrasing will not enhance your relationship – most likely it will mean future proposals are rejected.
A negative story is NOT the end of the relationship
I have never worked with a legal journalist who took a story personally, but I have come across many many lawyers who felt the press took personal swipes at them. Turning this around is difficult but it can be achieved if done respectfully. A negative story does not need to be the end of a relationship, in fact it can lead to better stories in the future.
Over the years I’ve spoken to thousands of PRs and been on the receiving end of thousands of pitches. I have developed long standing relationships with the leading law firms and chambers and understand what it takes to stand out from crowd, and it needn’t be difficult if you have something interesting to say.
Understanding your audience and knowing your subject well enough to be quizzed on it will help you get noticed. Developing and maintaining a strong and trustworthy relations with the press will only enhance the profile of your firm in the media.
The business of law is constantly evolving as firms strive to survive in an increasingly competitive world. There are a wealth of stories just waiting to be told, it is finding the right message and knowing how best to deliver that message that is the challenge.