With an increasingly competitive legal services market, most lawyers and law firms know the importance of getting positive media coverage. Yet many don’t maximize media opportunities when they do come along, or, worse yet, seem intent on sabotaging those opportunities.
A wise man learns from his mistakes, but an even wiser man learns from the mistakes of others. Keeping this in mind, I have compiled the following list of ten ways lawyers and legal marketers sometimes alienate reporters. Don’t try these at home (or at the office)!
1 Send all media the same press release. When your firm scores a big win, it’s tempting to prepare a press release, address it to every media outlet in town, and then hit the send button. You may get some media coverage this way, but many media outlets will treat your email like junk and delete it. To maximize your chances of actually getting your story reported, you should tailor your release to the type of media and the audience. If it’s a business magazine, stress the impact on local businesses; if it’s a lawyers’ publication, the impact on legal practice; and if a radio station, include a list of potential interview subjects.
2 Don’t return a reporter’s phone call. There’s a great scene in the 1994 movie “The Paper,” where a reporter goes into a bar and runs into the parking commissioner. The reporter has written a series of scathing stories about the commissioner, who is drunk and carrying a concealed weapon. When he sees the reporter, the commissioner pulls out his handgun, aims it at him and says, “I know the [parking department] is [messed] up, it was [messed] up when I got here. Why did you have to pick on me?” The reporter shrugs, responding, “You should have returned my calls.”
Reporters try to be fair, but it’s hard to get both sides out when only one side gives the reporter his or her story.
3Blow a deadline. If you tell a reporter you are going to call back (or provide written information), make sure that you do so in a timely fashion. That reporter may be relying on your comments to balance off the story. If you don’t do what you say, the story may not be as balanced as the reporter wanted. Blowing a deadline also hurts your credibility in the reporter’s eyes.
4Misrepresent a fact. While reporters generally will suspect you are providing some spin in the way you present the facts, there is no surer way to completely destroy your credibility than to venture into misrepresenting a fact. If you get caught in such a lie, you have permanently blown your credibility with the reporter, the audience, or both.
5Spin beyond all recognition. Again, reporters expect some spin, but you must keep it reasonable. If you strain credulity (e.g. ,“This ruling throwing out my client’s $100 million verdict is actually a victory”), the reporter will likely call you on it. Worse yet, the reporter may quote you, making you look ridiculous.
6Call for immediate feedback on your press release .Surprisingly, a lot of busy people seem to think that journalists routinely read all their emails within five minutes of their arrival. A good rule of thumb is to wait an hour at minimum and longer if possible before checking on the status of a release you send. (This does not apply to urgent matters that are extremely time sensitive).
7End a conversation with, “This is off the record.” This is a pet peeve of almost every journalist. You cannot place your statements off the record after you have said them. Imagine yelling something out publicly and then adding parenthetically that what you just said is protected by the attorney/client privilege. It doesn’t work. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t stuff it back in.
8Insist on seeing an advance copy. Most journalists have rules against having sources preapprove articles. Reporters have to maintain their independence, and having a party approve an article would compromise that. When you want to make sure that the reporter gets a difficult issue right, you can ask the reporter to call you back and describe how what you discussed will be presented. Reporters will usually be agreeable to such a request; they want to get things right as much as you do.
9 Insist on providing your comments in writing. Lawyers frequently try to provide their comments in writing, possibly because it gives them a greater measure of control. Written comments tend to be overly formal and often appear unnatural in the conversational tone of an article. Even if a reporter allows you to provide comments in writing, as a general rule you should avoid it.
10 Treat a reporter discourteously. While most lawyers are good with the media, it’s still surprising how many times a lawyer will be curt or discourteous to a reporter. Reporters are human beings (most of them anyway) and, as such, deserve your respect and courtesy. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.”