As a legal PR, contacting journalists can feel a bit like shooting arrows in the dark. Pitching to get your partners in key publications can mean bursts of emails that gain no response. Distributing press releases can yield very little traction. Journalists most often won’t have time to give detailed feedback on why you didn’t make the cut.
So what do legal journalists (really) want from legal PRs?
Here to answer some key questions of legal PRs are:
- Jonathan Ames, Legal Editor at The Times
- Catherine Baksi, Freelance Legal Journalist
- James Booth, Legal Reporter at CityAM
- Edward Fennell, Freelance Legal Journalist at The Times
- Eduardo Reyes, Features Editor at the Law Society Gazette
- Rose Walker, News Editor at Legal Week
What makes you choose one lawyer’s quote over another’s?
Quality of the quote first. “This is an outrage and the world is going to spin off its axis as a result...” goes in the copy, whereas “On balance, the legal position is that it is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and of course it could be a little bit of the other...” does not go in the copy.
Then prominence of the lawyer. Sadly the legal profession stubbornly maintains a class structure of partners on top and solicitors and associates below and QCs, senior-juniors, juniors and pupils. Partner department heads and QCs are more likely to be quoted, but junior types will be quoted if they comply to rule one above.
For news stories, I am looking for fast, pithy, insightful, quotable comments – that move the story on by telling readers the likely impact or wider significance of a case or event. For features, I want pretty much the same thing, although there is more scope to explore wider issues, but the quotes should still be focused and succinct. I am always keen to get ideas for features, which might be around trends, new areas of work, changes to law and practice, diversity or education and training initiatives, as well as any scandals for news, so do get in touch.
Punchy, to the point and presenting an original or interesting viewpoint. The best sources understand this and also understand the need to try and make their point in an interesting and colourful way. Think images, metaphors, something that is going to jump off the page. What I do not want is a heavily caveated, dry, legal opinion.
Because most of my articles are “features” rather than news I am aiming to present a rounded account of an event or a development. So I’ll be searching for a series of different takes or points of view on the issue. What always counts though is the telling insight or the striking turn of phrase which is delivered with a sense of authority. If several people have said the same thing or presented a similar analysis then, frankly, I’ll select the person who said it in the most interesting way. So it’s the person who comes up with an original viewpoint or the most graphic way of describing it whose name is likely to end up in the paper. Bear in mind though that journalism is a rough old trade and sometimes for chance reasons of time or space or sub-editor’s whim one commentator will feature large and another not.
Obviously an existing reputation is helpful, but above that timeliness and clarity. If they have advance knowledge that, say, a judgment that will attract wide interest is about to come out, a lawyer who gives me the heads up on that will likely get quoted. If I go looking for a comment, clear contact details that work.
Colour. Lawyers aren’t always known for their creativity, so when someone puts a different spin on a situation or uses a good anecdote – anything to make it stand out – that’s very useful. And be candid! Tell me what you really feel.
What’s your number-one tip for someone starting in legal PR (in terms of dealing with press)?
Avoid marketing and PR bollocks talk. Tell the story straight, ie, this is a good tale because this will happen or won’t happen. And as mentioned don’t pitch stories to a publication that are not right for it; know your audience.
Familiarise yourself with the publications that you want to pitch to and know what makes a story for them. Find out the press deadlines and the best times to call with a story. When you are pitching by email, put the sexiest top line, telling the journalist what it is about in the subject line, so we have an idea of what it’s about before we open the email, and briefly flesh it out in the body of the email – putting the most interesting point first.
PR, like journalism, is a relationships game. If I know you I am far more likely to read your email properly or take your call. Don’t hide behind email, pick up the phone and introduce yourself.
Understand the context in which the journalist is operating. What is the thrust, scope and audience of that publication? What kind of articles does that particular journalist write? There is, frankly, nothing more irritating than being approached by a legal PR on a scatter-gun basis.
Depending on the publication deadlines can be crucial. For a weekly journalist (as I am) it is no good approaching with a story one hour after my deadline for the week has passed. Get to know the nuts and bolts of how the journalist works.
Read it! Understand the different sections, check who covers what, and take time to understand the topics.
Read the main publications and get to know what they all specifically tend to cover. The more relevant you can make a pitch to my publication, the better. Introduce yourself – please don’t call me and just launch into a pitch without telling me who you are – and aim to build a genuine rapport. It will pay off long term.
What is your biggest bugbear among things legal PRs do?
Jargon is rampant and getting worse. Don’t “reach out with an opportunity” as that prompts me to hit the delete button without hesitation. Do not insist that you have to sit in with lawyers while they are interviewed. These people are all adults on massive wages – if they can’t deal with a reporter’s questions without having their handheld, then they shouldn’t be put up to speak in the first place.
Do not try to insist on quote approval or review. We won’t do it – there isn’t time... and see earlier point about these people being highly paid adult professionals. If they don’t want to see their words published, they should keep schtum.
Emails and press releases littered with meaningless phrases and jargon are unhelpful; always to use plain English that conveys simply and clearly the story you are putting across. Sending out press releases and then having no one around who is able to answer questions about it is unhelpful, given the pace at which we have to turn stories round. If you are inviting us to an event that is being held under the Chatham rule, please let us know that in advance. It doesn’t mean we won’t come, but it is helpful if we know in advance.
Be on the ball and try and think originally. It feels like some PRs get to work, have a flick through the papers and then email asking if you would like a comment on X story. The problem is, that is yesterday’s story. I want to know what tomorrow’s story is. And if you can help with that you are much more likely to get something into the paper.
Responding to a request for an interviewee by saying they are confident they have someone and then either not delivering or by the individual being not as expert as claimed. The role of the PR is, in my view, to act as the good-faith intermediary between journalist and authoritative commentator. That requires judgement on both availability and expertise of the person concerned. Over-promising what can be delivered is always to be avoided.
I realise clients can be obnoxious and demanding, but the stress of dealing with them shouldn’t show through when you’re dealing with the press. If a PR has overpromised to win a client, that’s their problem, not mine!
There are several. Not being fair. I expect PRs to be honest with me and I will do so with them. Calling me if I have phoned a lawyer – if I wanted to speak to you, I would have phoned you and not them. And finally doubting my integrity. I work hard to be as honest and open as possible – I’m not trying to trick you. I appreciate you have a stressful job too. Let’s work together to make each other’s lives a bit easier!
What’s the greatest factor that determines whether or not you’ll run a story?
Not my decision on the news front. Ask the news desk. In my experience they are keen on stories about animals and sex – and if you can combine the two all the better.
It sounds obvious, but a story must be new, interesting and relevant to the publication. The news editors ultimately decide which stories are published, but if you help the journalist get the best stories, with the most authoritative quotes, that fit the publication, that’s half the battle. Timing can be key – if there’s a fresh angle to a big story that’s always good and bear in mind the quieter times in the year, like the summer and Christmas when there will be fewer stories from parliament or the courts – it’s a good opportunity to pitch quirky ideas.
A former news editor used to say: “It’s the news, not the olds”. I want to be pitched stories that are new, fresh and interesting, not some stale old press release that has been knocking around for a week or has already appeared elsewhere.
For my feature stories it is very rare – but not impossible – for me to follow up on a suggestion for a PR. I am driven by the wider business news agenda – that’s what shapes my selection. Topicality and freshness. I am then looking for experts to comment on it.
For the micro-stories in my Legal Diary I am looking for something which is a bit unusual and can be explained simply in 120 words. I have four slots (usually) and ideally they will all be different. both from each other and from what appeared the previous week. So it can be a matter of luck.
Does it have novelty or controversy? And will/should my target audience be interested in it?
How easily accessible is the information I need? The best emails I receive about deals a firm has worked on, for example, include the team of lawyers that worked on it, and any other law firms that were involved. How relevant is it? Deal news should be sent the day the deal is in the wider press, ideally. Don’t send it to me when the deal has closed. We will not run it.
What’s the one thing you wish more legal PRs understood about being a legal journalist?
I want to speak to senior experts at their firms who will not faff about with caveats but give me a decent story and some good quotes. I don’t want to go for coffee mornings for a general chat that just makes some new partner feel important. If I go to a meeting I want for there to be at least the whiff of a story.
In the era of social media and 24-hour news, journalists have to turn stories round very quickly and work at a fast pace. We get many emails every day and it is easy to miss things. The easier that you can make it for us to sell your story to the news desk, the more likely it is to get published. If you’ve got a great story, do pick up the ‘phone and give us a call.
Time, time, time. It is endlessly frustrating when you call a PR with a request then chase them up and they have clearly not done anything to move things forward. If you can help, great - try and deliver as quickly as possible. If you can’t, that is fine. I would rather know quickly and then go elsewhere.
The other issue is PRs being overly by the book. Someone who is willing to go off record and brief out stories is infinitely more preferable to deal with than a robotic statement-issuer.
Time and space is tight. Unless the story is really quite exceptional please do NOT pick up the phone and speak to me.
For professional publications, we’re not a poor relation of the regular press – we often cover things first, and the resource we have to focus on the legal sector is often much greater.
I will try my absolute best to be reasonable and give you sensible deadlines, for example. I want to work with you from a position of trust and honesty. If you respect me, I’ll respect you. I also don’t mind being chased – as a news editor I’m juggling a lot and some things slip my mind. But if I tell you I’ll get back to you if I think something’s interesting then I will. Don’t phone me again if I don’t!
The PRCA Legal PR Guide showcases new insights from leading legal PR, communications specialists, business development and marketing directors, and lawyers. These cover everything from thought leadership and litigation PR to measuring the effect of PR and making your mark as a legal PR and much more.
The guide comprises contributions from top global firms such as Mishcon de Reya, Mayer Brown, Fieldfisher and BCLP. It provides you with crucial advice from legal journalists on what they’re looking for in a story. And it features guidance from highly experienced external PRs and agency specialists who see the industry with a fly-on-the-wall perspective.