Traditional media continue to evolve and constrict in a marketplace consumed by non-traditional influencers, including bloggers, social media stars, bots and even your Uncle Joe. (Anyone with a device connected to the Internet can potentially gin up convincingly real “news” with the right window dressing and keen targeting of messages online.) Accordingly, the art of media relations is more important than ever to make sure PR professionals are doing all we can to influence the dwindling number of legitimate journalists while managing and enhancing the public reputations of our law firm clients.
As with any profession, there are clearly understood best practices and established rules for working with media professionals to secure positive media coverage — or sometimes temper reporting on negative news. Both of these can enhance a law firm or its attorneys’ visibility, credibility and business-development efforts. Misinformation, a lack of understanding and common misconceptions about working with the media, however, are often at the root of missed opportunities and blunders. Those misconceptions can also dilute the perceived value of media relations in the eyes of our clients.
Law firms and lawyers have to be aware of what is realistic and what is not, and what media relations can and cannot do to influence media coverage. Understanding and accepting these misconceptions also can help inform how PR practitioners approach and engage with reporters and editors for that next law firm news alert, feature story or media pitch.
To help you navigate the media landscape and temper expectations, here are 10 of the most-common misconceptions about law firm media relations.
1. Your Favorite Trade Magazine Cannot Wait to Publish the Article You’ve Written
Slow down! You may have penned what you think is a masterpiece, and others may legitimately think of you as a thought leader in your practice area, but there are many reasons why your article might not be a good fit for a particular magazine or website. An editor may not have available space or might not be able to publish on a timeline that you prefer. Your topic might already have been covered by the magazine, or the tone of your piece is out of synch with the publication’s style. Generally speaking, a best practice is to pitch an article proposal to a publication before writing something and submitting it on spec.
2. You Have the Right to Review Your Quotes or Articles Before They Get Published
This gets a little muddy — it depends on the media outlet, the individual reporter or editor, and the type of piece. Most publications want to avoid mistakes and welcome review of layout proofs of articles by their authors for factual accuracy, especially if editors have made substantive changes to the content. However, very few legitimate media outlets (with some trade publications being the exceptions) will allow a source to review an entire article in which he or she will be quoted. Many reporters will allow a source to review only her or his quotes from an interview, but consider that a courtesy, not a right. It’s best to come at this with a sense of humility: Politely request; don’t demand.
3. A Close Working Relationship with a Reporter Will Pave the Way for Good Media Coverage
In a word, “no,” it won’t — at least not if the reporter is reputable. Friendly relationships with reporters certainly are a good, helpful thing. They help the reporter do his or her job, and they help the publicist procure good media coverage when it is warranted, as well as possibly soften bad media coverage. The reporter gets help when she or he needs access to a source or has to gather or confirm information, and gives the publicist an open ear when it comes to pitching stories. But that’s where this business relationship ends. Most of these relationships don’t equate to good press. That being said, if a reporter knows you can frequently provide a good source who can meet a deadline, your client is likely to get quoted more often than other attorneys.
4. Whenever a Reporter Interviews You, Your Comments Will Definitely Appear In the Story
Any frequent contributor knows this is not true. Sometimes a reporter is interviewing only for background information or only wants an attorney to share knowledge to help the reporter understand a complex matter or issue better. Other times, a reporter may interview too many sources and have to make cuts, or multiple sources provide duplicative information. An attorney also could fail to offer substantive or eloquent comments. Most reporters want good information, but they also prefer colorful commentary. The best advice for interview sources is to be well-prepared and offer useful information and an interesting narrative. Perhaps above everything else, try to be the first source to get interviewed (and the last to get cut out of a story).
5. Off the Record Is Always Off the Record
This is generally, but not always, true. Most reporters will respect your desire to make comments or offer information off the record, but there are no guarantees. Plus, a reporter can make an honest mistake in reporting something you don’t want made public. The best rule of thumb is not to proclaim that anything is off the record and not say anything that can’t be reported. If you do, be sure you have a history and relationship with a reporter that you can rely on. Similarly, remember that anything you tell a reporter may be published. Also, try to never speak off the cuff because an especially colorful or irreverent comment that you meant as a joke just might show up in print and become an embarrassment.
6. You or Your Law Firm Will Be the Only One Quoted In a Story
This is likely not to be the case if reporters are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and in the name of good journalism. Single-source stories are somewhat taboo for reporters. Any reporter should want more than a single source for a story, and most reputable news organizations require that. Multiple sources make for a better, more-balanced story. The implied endorsement from being quoted in an article is also more meaningful and credible if the story offers multiple viewpoints. This misconception still stands even if you are the source who actually brings the story to the reporter.
7. Since You Wrote the Article, You Can Do Whatever You Want With the Published Version
This is rarely accurate. Most publishers require authors to sign agreements that limit what an attorney or law firm can do with the piece after it appears as published by the outlet. These agreements cover exclusivity (sometimes for a specified time period), reprints and repurposing, social media distribution, and other treatment of what publishers consider to be their property. Often, a fee for a license is required to repurpose a published article for marketing purposes. It’s best to know the rules up front and shop your article around if you feel a publisher’s requirements seem too restrictive or costly.
8. Purchasing an Advertisement In a Publication Will Buy You Better Coverage on the Editorial Side
The answer may be yes for those less-credible, industry-specific journals that don’t hide their “pay-to-play” business models, but high-profile, reputable media outlets have clear divisions between their editorial and advertising operations. Throwing money at the situation will do little to get you published in the magazines and stories that really matter.
9. Results from a PR Effort Should Happen Quickly
It certainly is possible to see media placements almost immediately from a press release or publication of commentary or an article from an attorney, but it’s more the exception than the rule. Certainly breaking news warrants coverage within days or even hours. But timing for other coverage is dictated by current events, news value, publication schedules, reporter and editor workloads, and other factors. Any effort that keeps a law firm or attorney on the radar of media can still pay dividends — sometimes weeks or even months later. The most-effective media relations program should be ongoing and consistent to drive the kinds of messaging and results that will benefit a law firm and its attorneys over the long term. The lesson is to be patient and consistent while evaluating the success of a campaign.
10. There’s Always Tomorrow
It makes a nice song lyric, but in today’s world of lightning-fast publishing via the Internet, timely reporting is critical for reporters. If you miss a deadline (particularly as an interview source), the reporter has probably moved on. Missing that interview also may look like a really bad move the next time the reporter is looking for interview sources.
Don’t let these misconceptions hold you back from providing effective media relations for your firm and attorneys! Media relations can work, especially when keeping in mind these pitfalls.
Randy Labuzinski is a Vice President of Public Relations at Jaffe, a marketing, branding and public relations agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.
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