As part of the PRCA Legal Group, we recently hosted a panel event discussing the questions most commonly asked of legal PRs, and how junior PRs can manage a nightmare situation.
The panel was made up of industry-leading experts, including:
- Andrew Rieley, Head of Communications and PR, Stephenson Harwood
- Clemmie Hay MRPCA, Associate Director, Byfield Consultancy
- Lydia Rochelle, Head of Marketing, Fieldfisher
- Andrew Newsham, Senior Media Relations Manager, White & Case
How do you measure the value of PR?
LR: The way we measure the value of PR has evolved in the past six to seven years, thanks to technology. Historically, advertising value equivalency (AVE) was the leading way of measuring the value of PR but the PRCA doesn’t use this system anymore. For me, it’s the mixture of analytics with modern media monitoring systems that shows the real value of PR.
AN: PR strategies generally are usually focused on achieving certain goals, which can be used as measurement benchmarks. It’s important to understand the strategic priorities of your firm and align the PR activity with these. This clarity about what you’re trying to achieve will help you assess press coverage. This works at the level of individual stories or coverage over an extended period.
AR: Don’t overlook the anecdotes. Find out what feedback partners have received from clients or contacts after appearing in the media or winning an award, so that you can share them to help illustrate the value of good PR.
CH: You must remember to set expectations at the start of any campaign so your clients know what to expect and how it can be measured.
Should I be picky in the type of publications that I engage with?
AR: Yes, be picky. We do avoid certain publications.
CH: PR should always be aligned to your firm’s strategic objectives, so if it’s not going to further this then don’t pursue it. It’s the same with award submissions, sometimes it's better to say it’s not worth the time and resources.
AN: The reality in law firms is you need to be flexible and understand where your baseline is in terms of the publications with which you engage. For example, is there a cost attached to the editorial? If so, is that opportunity achieving the goals you’re seeking to achieve from coverage? You need to assess the value attached to each individual opportunity. But be as picky as you can be. Allowing quality to drop is a slippery slope – there are no exceptions, only precedents! – so always aim for the best possible quality.
LR: For in-house PRs it can be harder to push back and tell a senior lawyer that it’s not worth pursuing a certain editorial opportunity. If you find yourself in this situation, focus on the value-add for them – is it worth their time What real benefits will they get from it?
How do you tell a Partner their announcement is not newsworthy?
AR: Honestly. “Lawyers don’t make the news” is a phrase I use a lot. There are obviously exceptions, but if we’re talking about deals or disputes, it’s the clients who make the news – the legal advisors are a footnote at best. For us it's about trying to find opportunities for partners to contribute to a story – and mostly that's by providing market context.
AN: Ask the ‘what are you trying to achieve’ question. The partner you’re speaking to may seek an outcome that is not necessarily achieved through news coverage, there might be a more appropriate channel like social media.
CH: Analyse why the story isn’t newsworthy. For example, if the topic is niche there might be a more specialist title that would publish the release, or you might be able to find trends related to the topic which may be more newsworthy.
LR: It’s important for junior PRs to be aware of the wider news agenda. Lawyers may want to discuss something that’s quite generic and been covered a lot. If you're aware of the news agenda you can explain to the lawyer that the topic is not best pitched cold, but that a journalist meeting to highlight that lawyer’s expertise may be more appropriate. Sometimes the news agenda itself makes it difficult to pitch certain topics e.g. Brexit, the US elections.
How do you tackle a situation where you have a firmwide brief, but one team gets more news coverage than other teams?
CH: Strategy is very important in situations like this, as well as ensuring that you are working closely with the in-house team to meet the firm’s objectives. If they say they want you to balance the love, then it’s up to you as the PR to ensure you aren’t just taking the easy wins but are spending time on the other teams too.
AN: As PRs we’re likely to be supporting several practices, and the reality is some partners are the source of commentary that’s more newsworthy than others. But remember that most partners will have something of interest to say to someone, even if it can take time to unearth it. There’s no silver bullet, you have to go back to basic PR principles; what’s the objective and what are the steps we can take to achieve it? It can take time and effort to understand what your partners want to achieve, but the effort is likely to be worthwhile.
AR: In my experience, due to the capacity of in-house teams, it's either incredibly difficult or impossible to work proactively with every practice. Support the strategy and focus on working with the partners who understand the value of PR. Some teams are naturally more news-friendly than others.
LR: From an agency perspective this is where account management plays a vital role. In the legal sector there's media-friendly law and law that may seem less interesting at first glance – just because it's not interesting to you does not mean that it's not relevant or interesting to a lawyer. The onus is on you as a PR to question your lawyers and find the story - don’t be afraid to drill down to basics to understand the topic. Whether you’re in an agency or in-house, the lawyers are your clients, and your job is to deliver the best coverage in the best publications.
I work in an agency with two competing firms who are coming up with the same ideas, what do I do?
CH: PR strategy meetings are crucial here -drilling down into what each firm wants to achieve, the target publications, as well as key audiences – you will see that each firm has different aims if you drill down deep enough.
AN: I suspect that law firms can seem quite similar to the outside world and there’s a constant striving to communicate points of differentiation, so my message to agencies is please be as creative as possible in helping make my firm seem different. As advisors, law firms are in a sense ‘secondary’ press commentator and we have to work hard to achieve air time anyway, so the more creative we are the more likely we are to achieve good press coverage.
How do manage expectations when coverage hasn’t generated new business leads?
AN: If you want to be a business winner in a firm, media relations may not be the right game for you! It’s one communications tool that can help create a positive impression with clients, potential clients and other key audiences – it doesn’t stand alone. If a partner challenged me on this, I would explain that PR has other roles to play, such as third-party endorsement, or that building good relationships is valuable if the firm runs into stormy weather.
LR: It’s important that the comms is always supporting the business development objectives; I don’t like a scattergun approach to PR, so everything we do should be done in conjunction with the firm and business development strategy and front of mind.
AN: The goal of press coverage isn’t to win mandates. Firms can use the coverage we generate for various purposes, such as supporting wider marketing or social media efforts. You don’t talk to journalists to get work, but you can use the outcome to help in broader communications efforts.
How do you work with a maverick partner who does things he’s not meant to do?
AR: In my experience, I've had success by explaining and showing the value that the PR team can bring. We're here to support partners, not obstruct them. That said, some partners don't want the support. And in these situations, you have to identify the risk with senior management.
CH: Try to showcase how little can be done if they don’t bring you in on time – if it’s a negative piece explain that you can’t go back to the journalist and resolve the situation. It’s about explaining the processes and recognising when something becomes a management issue.
LR: Your role is to protect the firm’s reputation, not just individual partners, so you have to advise them - it reflects well on both and know when issues need to be escalated.
What do you say to a client if they’ve had a comment published which has been taken out of context?
AN: Typically, publications are willing to cooperate if they’ve reported something factually inaccurate. You need to be clear about the impact of the coverage and the outcome you want to achieve. Journalists generally don’t want to harm an individual’s reputation.
AR: We pick it up with partners as part of the education process about what it means to be a spokesperson and engage with the media. Unfortunately, it does occasionally happen, but mostly when there's some ambiguity about the motive for a conversation and when the PR team hasn't been involved.
LR: There are lots of good journalists out there who value their integrity and there are the occasional ones who can be tricky – as in any walk of life. It’s about briefing your lawyers in advance and noting if it happens repeatedly with a journalist and evaluating that relationship.
AN: You can’t overprepare your partners about the rules of engagement with the media. Ensure they go into these situations as prepared as they can be, understanding the basis on which interviews take place, what the journalist wants to get out of the discussion and what the outcomes might be.
CH: Even if the comment your firm issues is neutral, the piece it sits in it may not be. Warn people of this risk beforehand, and state that they will not have final editorial control on the article.
What do you see as key to building a successful career in legal PR?
AR: When I worked in an agency, influencing the c-suite was difficult because of limited exposure. In-house is very different and you have much greater access to the key decision makers. It’s about understanding how you can get your ideas through to make an impact at that level.
AN: Three factors stand out to me. First, preparation. Developing your professional skills is very important and try to approach each situation you’re presented with as well prepared as possible. Preparation is key for working with partners.
Second, have the courage of your convictions. Back your judgement – partners have a lot to think about and like clear direction from their advisors.
Third, your job title doesn’t necessarily matter hugely, it’s about the influence you can wield. This is built over time by providing good advice. Be brave, make sure you have your own view about what should be done and be ready to express it in an appropriately forceful way. Don’t be someone who asks for permission, because you’ll sink in a law firm.
LR: Don’t be afraid to challenge.
PR is often about changing lawyer behaviour which can be difficult and you have to not be afraid to challenge them.
Prioritisation – knowing the strategic plan for the firm.
CH: Dedication: understand what keeps your clients up at night. Passion is also key; turning up and showing enthusiasm goes a long way!
What was your best day in legal PR?
AR: I still get that buzz when I get a piece of great coverage. Media relations is my great love; speaking to journalists, identifying and pitching stories and influencing coverage is what I enjoy.
AN: Surely the best day in PR is the next day – tomorrow! As a media relations person, the bottom line is that coverage is still king. If you lose the thrill of delivering good coverage, it may be time to do something else! Reputation management issues are probably what gets me into work each day; being part of the team that looks at the most important issues in the firm which are causing the most anxiety, and helping senior partners reach outcomes that help them achieve their goals.
CH: Working on a high-profile divorce case at Byfield was my best day in legal PR. From the moment we sat down with the client right through to managing media inquiries when it made it to the Supreme Court. Going home and hearing friends talking about the case due to its profound implications and seeing it on the front page of a national paper was one of my most gratifying moments.
LR: It’s the buzz of media relations. I got an op-ed in the FT in my first year at Byfield- I was thrilled.
Fast forward to last year, where I had a full page spread in City AM. Even now I still love the buzz of seeing something I've placed.
To learn more about the PRCA Legal Group, please click here