As mentioned in a prior article, I was fortunate to spend the early part of my career in Silicon Valley working for technology companies (See, “Those Were the Days: Lessons from Silicon Valley’s Marketing Culture,” MLF, July 2018. In my roles, I worked with the chief executive officer and other members of the leadership team on various media opportunities — product launches, press/analyst briefings, and radio and television interviews. On one memorable occasion, a week or so after a rather contentious press junket interview with a very influential journalist regarding the state of our industry sector, our CEO entered my office with a look that to this day causes me to break out in a cold sweat whenever it climbs back into my consciousness. He tossed an industry publication on my desk, the same one with which we had the difficult interview, and told me to read the published piece. I did. He asked if I noticed anything odd. I could only assume he was referring to the fact that our company was not mentioned anywhere in the article, while our competition filled the two pages of text. I was actually relieved. Most of our key rivals took a beating in the write-up. We were spared! I guess my post-interview discussion with the editor had worked some magic. So why was our CEO so upset? “David,” he said. “There is no such thing as negative PR. If the press isn’t talking about us, we are as good as dead.”
In the years since that episode, I have come to appreciate that there are grains of truth within the CEO’s general observation on the correlation between coverage and relevance (certainly in the technology space). However, I feel more passionately than ever in my belief that marketing professionals have a responsibility to do their best to protect the brands of their employers. And part of that responsibility means avoiding, limiting or addressing, to the extent possible, any negative or damaging publicity. While there are nuances within each industry that determine what can and can’t be done in this effort, there are some universal strategies I think work well. Here are some of my favorites:
We are all familiar with the saying that if we are not out there telling our story, we should not expect others to do it for us. Find ongoing opportunities to promote your firm. They can include such things as practice group newsletters, community sponsorships, client alerts on the latest legal developments, press releases on board appointments and awards, contributed articles to key business and legal publications, and a formal and cohesive social media campaign that highlights charitable, initiative-based and pro bono efforts. While this is a great way to guarantee that the media will view your firm as an ongoing source for newsworthy and/or practical content, it is also an ideal approach to ensure there is a significant degree of positive sentiment surrounding your firm’s brand in the event something goes wrong in the future.
Prepare Key Messages
Being proactive with your publicity efforts is certainly important. But coverage for the sake of coverage will not do much to move the needle, especially when you are using it, in part, to position your firm or specific attorneys in a positive light and generate long-term goodwill. The primary differentiator between neutral press and positive press is key messages, the main points of information you want your audience to hear, understand and remember. They are bite-sized summations that articulate what you do, why you do it, how you are different and what value you bring to stakeholders. Key messages clarify meaning and provide the takeaway headline of the issue you want to communicate. They are important because they serve as the foundation of your firm’s branding and marketing efforts and should be reflected in all written and spoken communications. While communications cannot always be controlled; key messages can. They help you prioritize and define information; ensure consistency, continuity and accuracy; measure and track success; and stay focused when speaking with the media or stakeholders.
Know When to Decline Media Opportunities
It was once deeply frowned upon to see the phrases “no comment” or “declined request for comment” attributed to a company or one of its spokespersons. It implied avoidance and that the company was trying to hide something. At times, that was certainly the case. Times have changed. Companies, law firms and individuals still have occasions when they prefer not to have certain business information made public. But with today’s 24/7 news cycle and the continued rise of “gotcha” journalism, communications professionals must now engage in a strategic balancing act — weighing the pros and cons between responding to and declining certain opportunities. Does declining an opportunity to comment on a negative aspect of your firm make the press more or less likely to let it go and move on? Oh, if I only had the answer. Bottom line: There are times when it is best to remain silent. While you should always listen to what clients and others say about your brand, responding to every negative issue or trying to get in the last word will only create a downward spiral. It is usually better to take the high road and let the positive aspects of your firm’s performance prove the detractors wrong.
Stop and Think When Crisis Hits
We have all heard the saying, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” In other words, plan all you want, unfortunate things will still happen on occasion. So, let’s say a crisis does hit your firm — perhaps a negative tweet goes viral or one of your spokespersons says something in a press interview (and it is later published) that casts your firm in a negative light. Quickly, what do you do? Well, first off, ignore the quickly part. Rather than reacting immediately, take a deep breath and hit the pause button. Take time to think about the matter. What is the real issue? How is this going to affect the firm? Is it primarily an internal or external concern? Are there deadlines to consider? Once you carefully examine the various facets of the situation, you have the information needed to assemble a response team, design the appropriate strategies and respond in a deliberate manner. In fact, it is best to have a basic crisis management plan in place that can be adjusted based on the circumstances. Hopefully, you will never need to put it into action. But having it ready will prevent you from getting caught off guard and make it easier to respond to the particular issue.
Monitor Brand Discussions
News outlets, social media platforms, attorney review sites — the list of entities publishing firm-related content or comments seems endless and it is growing. More importantly, there is nowhere to hide. Whether they like it or not, all firms and attorneys have an online presence. You need to embrace that fact. And the best way to do so (and hopefully influence positive over negative publicity) is to listen to what is going on in the market so that you can make necessary changes, whether they be internal or external. While tools such as Google Alerts and other social listening platforms do not catch everything, they are better than doing nothing and crossing your fingers. If you are actively and regularly monitoring what the various online sites look like, you increase the likelihood of identifying items before they become serious issues.
Develop a Social Media Plan
The existence of social media networks means every firm employee with a presence can impact the firm’s brand. Regardless of title, they are company representatives. As a result, if they speak with members of the media, they are, whether official or not, firm spokespersons. As always, being prepared is the best defense when avoiding negative press. Therefore, it is a good practice to have a social media policy in place and to make sure all employees are familiar with it. This includes establishing guidelines for acceptable content and processes for ensuring compliance. All members of the firm, attorneys and staff, need to be careful with what they say and to make sure they are speaking appropriately.
Even when operating with the best of intentions, there is no fail proof blueprint for avoiding negative publicity. There are simply too many moving pieces, questionable agendas and elements out of our control in today’s information age. But the tools and strategies exist to help minimize these occurrences and address them effectively when they do hit. And while masterfully handling those cringeworthy episodes might not earn you the type of praise or appreciation usually reserved for landing the perfectly crafted cover story on your firm’s leading practice group, I think we all know it carries its own sense of satisfaction. Do you agree?
David McCann, J.D., is director of communications at Snell & Wilmer, a full-service business law firm with locations throughout the United States and in Mexico. He can be reached at 602-382-6517 or 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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