In my time as a legal reporter and news editor at The Lawyer I interviewed thousands of lawyers, barristers and legal service suppliers. Of course, we never had the time to speak to everyone who wanted to be quoted. My job was to get the right people on the record as quickly as possible.
As such, here are some of the things I looked for from spokespeople and expert commentators.
There were a few simple rules I had for my sources:
- Be available and willing to comment at speed
- Be confident enough to make a point
- Speak in a language that everyone can understand
If you weren't able to get back quickly, I wouldn't quote
you; if you had something bland to say, it would be cut from the final edit. It was never personal, like every other journalist I was trying to write interesting articles to a tight deadline.
Don't put up with reluctant interviewees
While a handful of lawyers seek out press attention, there are those who are nervous about speaking to the media – even if it is a topic that they are very confident about.
When firms put up lawyers who are nervy about being interviewed it makes them difficult to quote – especially if they want to quote check even the most straightforward sound bite.
From a journalist point of view, this makes things difficult. More often than not, quote checks were requested not through fear of being misquoted, but because the interviewee needed to be sure they sounded okay on paper. Even in the internet age journalists are under time pressure, so having to check quotes just makes the story-writing process more convoluted. Instead, I would look for someone who was comfortable with the topic, could give context and was happy to talk to me.
Spokespeople also need to understand that there is no such thing as “off the record” (meaning a journalist won't print it), but are clear about when they want to be quoted and named and where they do not (for instance, if they are not named in the story, the quote could still be used as coming from a secret source).
Press interviews: fail to prepare, prepare to...
Your spokesperson also needs to be knowledgeable about the topic and be able to explain it in straightforward terms that everyone can understand.
This may sound basic, but it can be irritating to interview a source only to discover you know the topic and can explain it in greater depth than they do. You are just left looking for someone else to quote and the last call was a waste of time. It’s okay if the interviewee needs to check some obscure fact, but if they start bluffing because they have failed to prepare for an interview, there will be some serious issues further down the line.
Every summer, for instance, The Lawyer interviews hundreds of law firms about their annual results for its UK200 publication. Managing partners who are not familiar with their figures will easily be found out during this process and this can point to broader problems within a firm (rightly or wrongly). Whereas those law firm managers who are able to wax lyrical about the past financial year and the prospects for the next begin to build kudos with the publication, which could potentially lead to them being a more regular commentator.
If, rather than talking about the business of law, your spokesperson is commenting on a corporate deal or major litigation, you need to offer up a lawyer who has the credentials which shows their expertise when speaking to the media. They need to be able to speak more widely around the particular matter, even if they do end up with just one quote in the final edit.
When I interviewed people about High Court cases, I needed to know what they were saying was correct so I would ask much wider questions than actually needed answering so I could get the right quote for the story or feature.
The troubles arose when the lawyer got their facts wrong (most often by overstating their role on a dispute) or were unable to explain their point in straightforward terms. When PR's get their facts wrong when dealing with the press, it can be damaging for the firm's entire public relations program.
At its worst, the mistake will end up in print, the reporter will be in trouble with the editor and will be left to deal with some irate firms about why the story was wrong. After all this hassle, why would the reporter bother quoting the same person again? It’s a lesson all reporters quickly learn: your sources need to know their facts.
If you don't know the answers don't do the interview. If you are doing the interview, simply say you need to check that point... these are areas where some proper interview training can help.
Understand the law and give legal context
As well as getting the facts right, the reporter will need some context. It may be that they have arrived at work to find this story has been sent over by an editor to follow up, but they have never come across firm A or B, they don’t know the lawyer, or the subject matter. Being able to give them as much information as possible is important, it also leads to a better story because the journalist will give it a much broader meaning – it could even lead to another story and further quotes.
You may be asked to give some context around a particular law or speak more broadly about developments in the legal profession.
If you have something interesting to say, it will make you much more quotable. Of course, that doesn’t mean veering away from the factually accurate, but you may have a viewpoint that hasn’t yet been considered and so you need to make the case for it.
This is where PR professionals are able will help you prepare. Rehearsing interview scenarios means you are well placed to answer questions.
Get to know your target press and its audience
Language and context underline the need to know your audience – particularly when issuing press releases. Spending months on a release will be a massive waste of time if the news isn’t relevant to the target publication.
Knowing why your press release is relevant to a particular title 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.
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!).
Ensure you are communicating with the right reporter – simply ask the question: “Is this relevant to your beat?”
As litigation reporter there would be times when a high-profile case would be of national interest and I would be flooded with comments from lawyers clamouring to talk about it. When there was time, I would background check the lawyers who wanted to be quoted to make sure that they were the right people to be included in the article.
For instance, when Paul McCartney divorced from Heather Mills (producing one of the best ever High Court judgments), it felt as if every divorce lawyer in the country wanted to have their say. My job was to get the right person, with the right level of expertise and the credentials to support that. So, I would routinely background check all lawyers I quoted.
This is worth thinking about if you want to get into the media. If you have the right expert, do their public credentials show this, whether that is their bio on your firm's site or if their LinkedIn profile is up to date.
It’s also worth remembering that while legal press tend only to quote partners or law firm managers, non-legal press are less bothered by titles – a lawyer is a lawyer. It is your knowledge that they are after.
Why diversity matters to your law firm's PR
The law is dominated by white middle-aged men, but that is starting to change, and the legal press has been at the forefront of pushing for that change.
When I was at The Lawyer we promoted gender equality in all our events and awards. The Lawyer Hot 100, for instance, tended to have a 50:50 male/female ratio, although this was not easy. Other legal publications had similar editorial policies.
So, when a firm only nominates men for awards or only promotes men to the partnership year after year, or only ever offers up the same men time and again as spokespeople, it gets noticed.
Like it or not, diversity matters, and it isn’t just the legal press demanding change. Increasingly, corporate clients want to give their legal work to firms that are seen to be promoting diversity and inclusion values. Barclays Bank and Lloyds Banking Group, for example, have requested all panel firms report gender diversity metrics.
While I had good relationships within the legal industry, from time to time I would encounter someone who simply had no time or enthusiasm for reporters’ questions, or others who were unhappy about a story being published. Fortunately, the majority were happy to convey their concerns in a professional manner, understanding that they were the representative of a professional firm and should behave as such. Yet there were a few who were combative, condescending and, just plain rude.
Even when dealing with the most challenging reporter about a difficult story, it's important to maintain a standard of professionalism. Reporters from different publications attend the same events and have good relationships, if you are known for being rude and abrupt, it won’t take long for the word to be out and soon you could have trouble being quoted anywhere.