Legal PR (and How to Do it Effectively!)

Public relations (PR) is a management process used to influence and shape the attitudes and opinions held by a law firm’s target audiences, which could include clients, target clients, employees and suppliers.

PR can help firms achieve broader marketing objectives eg:

  • Improve profile and raise visibility of a law firm
  • build relationships
  • generate interest and goodwill

A key feature of PR is that firms do not have to buy media space which means there is potential for saving on a communications budget: the only cost is the time of the resource required to gain the publicity. Any media space that is given to a firm carries more credibility in the eyes of the target audiences than paid-for space, as the decision to publish with the publication and not the organisation itself.

This is a key value of PR that other forms of marketing communications cannot rival.

Why is PR relevant to law firms?

For law firms, PR is generally used to develop relationships with key target media and publications, sending them information and content about issues of interest to their target audiences.

This could be thought leadership content, designed to position the legal commentator as an expert for the subject matter in question. For example, a probate solicitor may write articles about issues surrounding probate, trusts and wills, thereby improving that person’s credibility in the field. Or it could be a news piece on a recent development about the firm, or information of general business interest, to foster positive perceptions amongst target audiences.

The impact of PR is the culmination of coverage gained in target publications. Used well, it offers firms a platform to promote their credibility through key messages to existing and potential clients.

Using PR as a marketing and communications tactic

If organised well, law firms can use PR as a marketing tactic to develop and improve their visibility much more effectively and in a relatively inexpensive way.

First – identify target publications

As with all marketing activity, you need to start with who you are targeting. You need to know which market segments or demographics you want to reach, then research the publications and media aimed at your target market.

To reach your target market, typically you would use:

  • relevant local/regional media including dailies, weekly business magazines and free weeklies
  • trade/sector press of your target audience eg insurance trade publications if targeting insurer organisations
  • legal press

National press could be used too, though bear in mind, due to breadth of coverage and reach, the level of competition to engage with these publications.

Start to build up a media contact list populated with details of key contacts at your target publications – editor, business/legal section reporters/journalists. Find out when and how frequently they publish – this is important for when timing the dispatch of your releases. Most of these details can be easily found via publications’ websites, or by calling the publication itself. Check the list regularly, and keep it updated to ensure its usefulness.

You can buy in media lists, which hold extensive data and can be segmented by market type, location, readership demographic, etc.. These can be costly services, so tend only to be worth the investment if your organisation is undertaking substantial PR activity.

Define key messages

If one of the functions of PR is to gain coverage in target publications, you should aim for the substance of the coverage to be as close to your organisation’s key messages as possible.

The key messages that are part of your marketing communications strategy should form the basis for all supporting activity such as PR. All marketing communications should focus on the needs of clients..

For example, key messages could be as simple as ‘We are conveniently located in the city centre’ or ‘We are the only law firm in the area dealing with immigration cases.’ So each time you create a press release or piece of content, try to include the relevant key messages – either directly or indirectly. It may appear that you are duplicating your efforts but you want to aim for consistency, and this element of repetition will serve to reinforce your message.

Build relationships with key media

Firms use media relations to provide journalists and editors with information. Having strong working relationships with your target media is important in ensuring key messages reach your target audiences. The idea is that they then relay your messages through their media for consumption by their audiences.

You should use your media list to start making contact with relevant individuals at target publications. You are aiming to build a relationship over time. You want to convey who you are, what your organisation is about and how you can help them. Try to understand how they operate. Offer to provide comment if they are writing pieces on issues relevant to your target audience. Chances are they will already have established ‘contributors’ but that’s not to say they won’t consider someone new, especially if you can provide good, interesting comment quickly.

Industry insight – Should we use a PR agency?

Many law firms happily outsource their PR (public relations) activities, and there is certainly no shortage of agencies and freelancers ready and able to lend a hand. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to outsourcing, and it’s worthwhile considering these before making a decision.

Disadvantages

There are a number of potential downsides to using an agency. However, the good news is that most of them are avoidable from the outset.

  • Chemistry: Relationships between law firms and agencies can fall apart if there is no mutual understanding, respect and trust. You have to get along with your PR team and accept their advice. In particular you need to keep them in the loop with what’s happening in the business. Make sure you choose your agency well and be ready to let the skeletons out of the cupboard.
  • Distance: External PR’s don’t live and breathe the business, and this may mean it takes a little while for them to get under the skin of what you do, and how you do it. The key is ensuring that your chosen agency provides a strategic mapping service at the outset. This will enable the team to agree upon how the campaign will run, what it will include and which audiences and publications (if relevant) it will target.
  • Expertise: Lack of understanding of the nuances of the legal services your firm provides can cause frustration and a loss of respect. Your agency must understand your services and the regulations your firm is governed by. Avoid this issue arising by instructing a specialist legal PR agency.
  • Expectations: Client/agency relations can break down if the deliverables of a campaign are unclear. Most agencies provide a level of service which goes above and beyond ‘time spent’ and meaningful targets and measurement methods should be agreed right at the start, and may include levels of coverage achieved in target publications, web traffic increases, social media mentions or new leads.

Advantages

There are numerous advantages of working with a PR agency.

  • Media specialists: PR agency people live and breathe ‘the media’. They know the journalists and deadlines and understand what each publication wants.
  • Creativity: PR folks are typically very creative, and will often come up with ideas for your business that you and your team would never have considered.
  • Strategy: Being a step removed from the day to day management of the business allows your PR team to plan strategically from a neutral standpoint. This distance means they can provide strategic consultancy at the highest level, avoiding the deadly shackles of office politics.
  • Flexibility: Many of the bigger agencies will require you to sign up to a minimum fee per month, in order to ensure they can deliver against the agreed targets. However, smaller agencies and freelancers tend to have lower overheads, and can be more flexible in the service they offer – meaning that you can turn up or down your PR activities on a weekly or monthly basis as per the needs of the business.

Client confidentiality/approval

It is absolutely essential to acquire permission before releasing any publicity regarding your client.

Permission can be sought while the matter is still a work in progress, so that the PR can be prepped in good time, and sent on to the client for approval.

Requesting approval after the matter has closed can result in delay – which we all know makes news less ‘new’.

It also means any other parties involved may win coverage at your expense. You should aim to achieve a balance between not being too pushy with clients, and taking opportunities to share positive news with target audiences.

Produce content

Some publications have a forward features list. You can find this on their website, or request it from an editorial contact. Look at it and consider which features are relevant to your organisation and its target audiences. Approach the editorial contact for the relevant piece way ahead of deadline, and ask if there is scope for your organisation to contribute with expert insight. It is important to be realistic about what you can and should commit to: it can harm the relationship if you let a journalist down. In particular, you should avoid subject matter that is not relevant to your organisation.

Do take a proactive approach, and if a topic is gaining media interest, you might approach a publication to suggest contributing a piece or providing comment. Again, only take this approach if it is something you can deliver on, particularly if it means relying on other (busy) people.

Writing press releases

The press release is an organisation’s official announcement on a subject matter of interest to your target audiences. For law firms, a press release could be launching a new service line, promoting a significant client instruction (with prior approval and client consent) , or announcing a recruit to the organisation who brings a new line of expertise.

A good press release is the best way to convey your key messages to the media. It should answer the key questions of: who, what, where, when and why, by providing the media contacts/journalists with sufficient detail at a glance, (think how many press releases land in journalists’ inboxes!)

Keep it succinct, and focus on the key messages. Leave the snappy headlines and puns to the journalists.

A quick internet search will bring up a wealth of corporate press releases, so you can get a feel for how they work. Press releases just need to be a basic Word document, and include:

  • The name of your organisation
  • The date of issue
  • The reference number of the release (for internal housekeeping)
  • Headline – a one line summary of the main message of the release
  • Main content
  • Contact details for press queries – include the direct line and email address of the person/people in your organisation who journalists should contact for more information
  • Boilerplate –standard wording, around 200 words, about your organisation, for contacts not familiar with you

The introductory paragraph should comprise just one or two sentences summarising the major points of the release. For example, if the release is about a recent property transaction, you could start with: ‘XX law firm has advised local property developer YY on the acquisition of 3 Prime Square. The transaction completed yesterday at a value of £XXXXX.’

Include as much factual detail as you can. The media will always prefer to have certain facts – the value of a transaction for example. If you have approval to include this, do so, since it will make the story more interesting to the press.

A quotation from key individuals concerned within the main content is routinely included in a press release. Suppose the release is about a recent property transaction: you will want to include quotes from the lead partner and the client. The quotes should complement your firm’s key messages. For example, your partner might say: ‘Given our location in the centre of town, we are delighted to have been involved in the acquisition of this prime local site.’ The client may say: ‘X law firm were a natural choice given their expertise in the region’s property market. We were very pleased with their advice and service.’

The release must be approved before it is circulated to the media which must be factored in to any schedules, especially if you are working to meet a publication’s deadline. The approval process differs between organisations, but should include the person commissioning the release (in this case the the property partner involved in the transaction), the client(s) involved, the partner who usually manages the relationship with that client. A senior manager may be required to give final approval.

Once you have relevant approvals, the release can be sent via email to your media list. Ideally send individual emails rather than ‘to all’ and call up in advance to any publications who you think the story would be of particular interest to. Some publications may ask that you hold the story exclusively for them; this may work out well if it translates into prominent and key message rich coverage. Be prepared to take queries in response to the release being sent out. Answer promptly and ensure you are accurate and factually correct. If you are unsure, it is usually acceptable to say that you will get back to them as soon as possible.

It is rare that a press release is published word for word. Publications have their own editorial policies, and will always focus the angle of any story to best meet the interest of its readership. Consequently a meticulously drafted and approved press release not to turn into the desired coverage. Press releases may be edited to fit within the allocated media space.

Continuing the property transaction example, it could be that when the story actually appears in the local press, it focuses on the purchaser because he is a well-known personality. Your organisation might only receive a cursory mention in the list of all the professional advisers involved in the transaction. While frustrating, the coverage can still be beneficial: your organisation’s association with this high profile individual is being promoted to your target audience, and it could be that had the release not gone out, your organisation would have been omitted from the list of advisers..

That said, all efforts should be made to produce accurate and compelling press releases. You need to minimise the potential for error, inaccuracies and misunderstanding, and a solid press release is the best way to do this.

Another potential outcome is that the piece doesn’t get any coverage at all, perhaps because a more interesting story is occupying that day’s media space or the publication cannot see how your news interests its audience. This is why it is important to ask yourself whether there is something of genuine interest in a story before creating a press release.

Handling media queries

You should make it easy for the press to get in touch, ideally with a central key contact. Put this individual’s details on your organisation’s website.

A press pack can be useful: it should identify key contacts and the topics they can comment on. In short, make life as easy as is practicable for your press contacts..

The key contact must ensure that senior management is informed about queries and for this purpose aprocess and reporting schedule should be developed.

Successful PR depends upon you responding promptly to a journalist’s request but you must always be accurate and comfortable with anything that is said on behalf of the organisation.

Protecting your firm’s reputation is critical.

Measuring PR

Some firms measure PR outputs – number of press releases, articles written, articles published, calls to and from journalists while others use try to measure outcomes. AVE – advertising value equivalent – is one of the older measures.

It attributes a monetary value to coverage received based on what the rate card cost of buying that same space would have been, if purchased for advertising.

This isn’t particularly helpful as rate card prices are the starting point for negotiation.

Remember

Public relations (PR) is a management process used to influence and shape the attitudes and opinions held by a firms’s target audiences, which could include clients, target clients, employees and suppliers.

PR can help organisations achieve broader marketing objectives e.g:

  • Improve profile and raise visibility of an organisation
  • build relationships
  • generate interest and goodwill

For law firms, PR is generally used to develop relationships with key target media and publications, sending them information and content about issues of interest to their target audiences. The impact of PR is the culmination of coverage gained in target publications. Used well, it offers firms a platform to promote their credibility through key messages to existing and potential clients. If organised well, legal service providers can use PR as a marketing tactic to develop and improve their visibility much more effectively and in a relatively inexpensive way.

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