Solo practitioners and attorneys from small law firms often resist public relations. They cite not having enough time, a lack of understanding of its role, and a dearth of resources to make public relations part of their business development plans. Coupled with stereotypes of the press, such as the idea that reporters only go to the big law firms or only want the drama and not the facts, it's no surprise that media relations is relegated to the bottom of business development activities, particularly if firms have already achieved some "visibility" that did not result in new clients.
The reality is that public relations is an indispensable part of business development strategy for every firm, regardless of size. Getting quoted in news stories, both in targeted industry publications and mainstream media, is one of the most cost-effective ways of securing exposure. A good public relations plan serves several purposes: it builds reputation and visibility; allows firms, practice areas, and solo practitioners to become known, liked, and trusted in their target markets; and finally—and most importantly—helps to bring in more business.
Before embarking on a public relations plan, you must ensure that all of the firm's marketing communications materials, such as blogs, websites, newsletters, and e-zines, address the "What's in it for me?" question for prospects and that differentiation is clear. The next step is to target the industry publications and media outlets from which your target market receives information.
Whether you're a firm that is working with public relations consultants or implementing a plan with internal resources or you're a solo practitioner implementing a plan on your own, the following considerations will make your media relations plan a lot more focused and effective.
- Who are my clients? What do they read? Do they read online publications? Knowing the answers to these questions will guide your choices of the publications to target, whether they are local dailies, weeklies, magazines, or trade/professional journals. While being quoted in The New York Times is prestigious, it's meaningless if your target market doesn't read that publication. There are attorneys who want media exposure for personal reasons, but often this is in direct conflict with the targeted media relations campaign.
- Conduct an audit of your expertise. What areas of expertise do you have that are frequently the focus of news stories? This will help you identify reporters who cover your area of expertise and build relationships with them. Reporters are constantly on the lookout for attorneys who can simplify legislation; knowing who covers your area of expertise will help position you as a source. For example, if your area of expertise is workplace discrimination in the financial services industry, getting to know reporters who cover this beat is key.
- Know what reporters have been covering in your areas of expertise. There is nothing worse than pitching a story that has already been covered. Not only is it embarrassing, but it also demonstrates to the reporter that you or your public relations team has not done the homework. It is a sure way of lessening your credibility with that reporter.
- Don't overlook changes or emerging trends in your practice area. These offer golden opportunities to be quoted or to provide commentary. Once you have built those relationships, you can send reporters quick emails or call them, alerting them to possible stories.
- Too often opportunities in the op-ed pages are overlooked. Writing an op-ed piece is a good way of getting to know the editor and bringing to light an issue that is affecting your target market. Letters published in op-ed pages can result in story ideas for reporters.
- Depending on your targeted publication, you can pitch Q&As and stories on pitfalls to avoid, such as the top 10 mistakes to avoid when friends become partners in business ventures or top 10 mistakes to avoid when negotiating a severance package. Even if your story submissions are overlooked, every couple of months, with the permission of the reporter, continue to send him or her story ideas. Reporters/producers/guest bookers all keep background information on topics that they cover.
- Don't overlook the importance of becoming a resource for the reporter; this is where you provide background information. While you may not be quoted immediately, opportunities will continue to come your way. Reporters tend to have long memories; they know who is a valuable and trustworthy source. The busier they are, the greater the premium they place on their sources.
- Becoming a resource goes a long way toward building relationships with reporters. Consider inviting reporters to any continuing legal education training/seminars that the firm may be offering. Before extending the invitation, make certain that the seminar is in an area that the reporter is interested in.
- Monitor editorial calendars regularly. Many publications have their calendars online. An editorial calendar is a valuable tool for gauging what a publication plans to cover throughout the year and helps you avoid missed opportunities. It gives attorneys and law firms plenty of time to remind reporters that they are available to be quoted and provides time to craft and submit story ideas.
- Know when to say "no" to the press. Reporters may be focusing on stories that will be detrimental to your target market. In such circumstances, it is prudent to give reporters a couple of other sources from whom they can obtain a quote. Whether or not an attorney wants to be quoted in such a story, it is still imperative to return the phone call in a timely manner.
- Becoming known as an expert in one or more areas is only part of the equation; the other part is leveraging these opportunities successfully into other marketing activities. Articles, columns, and/or bylines written by attorneys can be sent to prospects, strategic alliances, and clients with the view of providing value, rather than circulating them with the intent of getting the attorney known. All published or sourced works can be included in newsletters and e-zines. They can be used as the bases for speeches or presentations to your target audience. And they should be added to your website.
Finally, it is absolutely imperative to recognize and understand that building credibility and visibility does not happen overnight and rarely reaps immediate results. It may take a nanosecond to destroy a reputation, but building one takes work, effort, and commitment from all of the decision makers in the firm. However, with a sustained campaign working in conjunction with other marketing activities, public relations will reap huge dividends.
About the Author
Paramjit Mahli of Sun Communications Group is a former journalist who has worked with international news organizations, including CNN Business News, and now helps small to mid-sized law firms get in front of their target markets effectively, efficiently, and expeditiously. Her job
is to let lawyers do what they do best-practice law-while she takes care of their communications and marketing programs.
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