Given the number of attorneys in the United States (some 1.2 million practicing ones), it seems unlikely that the majority of these lawyers can become trusted resources for journalists. It is possible, and before such a union can materialize, there are rules that apply for both parties. The below focuses on a lawyer’s role in forming a mutually beneficial relationship with reporters.
Rule 1. The Media Do Not Work for Lawyers, Clients or Firms
Simply put: Reporters are interested in getting a scoop and writing an article in a compelling, accurate way. To achieve this, they seek and cultivate relationships with people-in-the-know to glean information to report their stories out. It’s up to the journalist to decide what the angle is, with whom to speak, what information to use. In short, they call the shots and decide what goes in a story and how it’s presented. Lawyers – no matter how high up a firm’s food chain – have no say.
Rule 2: Say Something Relevant, True … and On the Record, Preferably
On a positive postscript to Rule 1, lawyers can influence a story by controlling their messaging, especially if what they say is relevant beyond their internal audience and business goals.
One obvious rule is that lawyers know their topics inside and out before positioning themselves as thought leaders to the media. Because of their work, attorneys are on the frontlines of human and corporate drama, amassing relevant insight and perspective. Information based on experiences is the currency reporters and readers crave. Focus explaining a legal issue’s impact on various audiences depending on the media outlet. Get to know a reporter’s beat and previous articles. A journalist may seem like an ideal contact given a recent article, though it’s best to review previous ones to get a sense of their style and what they’ve covered previously (and how). Reporters love trend pieces so upon reviewing articles, ask yourself (or discuss with your PR team) why this is important and what’s next. The “what’s next?” question will help develop potential follow-up articles.
Client sensitivities by lawyers are certainly legitimate concerns, and sometimes attorneys must pass on a media opportunity due to a client conflict. Clients naturally come first, though there are other ways to work around not commenting or providing insight. Specifically, a lawyer can set interview conditions, perhaps speak on-background with the goal of educating a reporter while cultivating a long-term relationship.
Rule 3: Never Blow Off a Deadline (or a Reporter)
Time is money for lawyers, and the same goes – albeit indirectly – for journalists. The reason reporters have deadlines is to feed the process of the news cycle. In this age, it’s about posting to the web as soon as possible to attract readers to a site (which in theory would generate ad sales and more viewers). Before the web, deadlines kept the process moving by ensuring that copy would get to the typesetter and presses in time to make the press run. A missed deadline then, meant overtime pay. Now, it’s more the speed of disseminating information that translates to Benjamins, though most news outlets continue to publish hard-copy editions. Reporters are generally mindful of a lawyer’s time, and it’s fair and kind to be mindful of theirs by keeping appointments. If anything crops up at the last minute that forces a cancellation, check with an equally qualified lawyer as a replacement to speak with the reporter. That extra effort and attention to detail will resonate with the media.
Rule 4: Never Ask to See an Article Before Publication. Never.
Only select people are permitted to read a reporter’s article before it’s printed, specifically their main/news editor, copy editor and perhaps someone else in the newsroom. That’s it, so asking will only demonstrate a lawyer’s misunderstanding of the media and make the process awkward. Only one thing annoys a journalist more than this, and that is providing juicy information – and then saying, “That’s off the record, right?”
Certain media will agree to review quotes beforehand with a source, though that condition is set before the interview, not during or after, and it’s becoming more rare.
Rule 5: Embrace Media Training
When it comes to seeking legal counsel, people (including PR professionals) rightfully defer to the lawyers. The same dynamic should hold true in media training. While not lawyers, PR counsel are just as valuable as legal advocates because reputation is at stake in both cases. Lawyers – no matter how legally brilliant – are best served by listening to a PR professional. If there’s a disagreement over an approach, an engaging, healthy back-and-forth often leads to a thoughtful and agreed-to media plan.
Rule 6: Follow-up, Keep in Touch … Though Don’t Overdo It
After an interview, continue to keep reporters in mind. Send a brief thank you email. Make investments by keeping in touch by providing information that is relevant and useful. If a lawyer anticipates a regulation to kick-in that would affect clients, chances are a journalist for an industry publication or a beat reporter for a business outlet would like to cover it – or at least know about it. Send along a timely and germane client alert with a note saying that you are happy to discuss – even if it means no immediate ink for you or the firm. It’s simply helpful gesture highlighting a lawyer’s knowledge and one step closer to solidifying a one’s status as a trusted media resource.
A version of the above post originally appeared in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and its affiliates.