As the media landscape evolves and new digital platforms continue to emerge in a news cycle that turns on a dime and where grabby headlines rule, we invited our panel of experts to discuss what strategies work for them. You might be surprised to learn that while the arena has expanded, traditional tactics—thoughtful, targeted, personalized outreach—are still the name of the game.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a veteran public relations practitioner in with Zumado Public Relation in San Francisco and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.
|John J. Buchanan (JJB) has more than 25 years of strategic branding, marketing, communications and business development experience, including 16 years working with law firms. He is director of public relations at Reed Smith LLP, a 1700+ lawyer law firm with offices in 26 cities around the globe.|
|Heather F. Merton (HM) is the senior communications manager at Nutter, where she is responsible for developing and implementing communication plans that raise Nutter’s profile and position the firm consistent with its strategic and branding goals. Previously, Heather held corporate communications roles at two AmLaw100 firms and in the financial services industry.|
|Chris Till (CT) is the director of global communications at O’Melveny LLP and previously held similar positions at Howrey LLP and Venable LLP (2001-2016). She started as a TV reporter for a network’s Midwest affiliate, and a Spanish language producer for The Discovery Channel; a press secretary to the Democratic leadership in the US Senate and, later, the US House of Representatives; and as a communications consultant to private industry. Before joining Howrey, she was the corporate communications director for ICI Americas.|
|C. Gibson Vance (CGV) is a principal at Beasley Allen, where he practices in the firm’s Personal Injury and Consumer Fraud sections. Gibson is heavily involved in the American Association for Justice, and is past president of the organization. As president, he was one of six national officers representing AAJ’s 60,000 members. Gibson has also been appointed to the Alabama Judicial Compensation Committee by the state’s lieutenant governor.|
NG: Print newspaper readership is plummeting. Multitasking working parents, business owners, and constantly connected millennials like to get as much information as possible in the shortest time frame. How does the changing way people consume news affect your media relations strategy?
JJB: We certainly look at social media platforms (like LinkedIn and Twitter) more than we did previously to push our news out. Those platforms allow us to quickly and directly get in front of readers with news we want them to know about. Also, by linking the posts to pages on our web site, we can more easily pull the reader to our website. That gives us the opportunity to share more information with them and to also get them to spend more time on our site. With 74% of in-house counsel using social media (even if only in listening mode), according to the In-House Counsel New Media Engagement Survey by Greentarget, InsideCounsel, and Zeughauser Group, social media needs to be a key news distribution vehicle.
One other impact is that with your target audience having less time to read news, it’s critical to focus your message and to get to the point quickly. Readers don’t have time to wade through a bunch of gobbledy-gook so it’s imperative to get to the point in just a few sentences—otherwise you’ll lose them and they’ll move on to another news piece that is more easily digested.
HM: The days of thick, hard copy media kits mailed to reporters are over. The news cycle moves faster and reporters want to know immediately why a story matters and why they should write about it now. Media pitches are increasingly relying on infographics, pulled quotes, bullet points, and subheads to deliver news in quick, digestible bites that can be adapted for articles and are easy to scan on mobile devices.
CT: It is very hard to grab quality attention. Even during the workday readers are pulled in so many online directions. Our media relations strategy has got to service the right outlets—generally relevant publications with frequently updated online news capability. We always ask our attorneys, “What do your clients read?” and that question dominates the way we prioritize our own strategy as well. We try to make ourselves present in what our clients—and their clients—read and do it quickly. The 24-hour news cycle means there is no such thing as down time.
NG: The protocol of pitching is ever evolving. Over the years, we’ve gone from faxes to email to Twitter and Facebook. But follow-up on these platforms can be tricky. What are your best practices for reaching reporters that matter to your target audiences?
JJB: While pitching protocols may have changed, you should still follow some tried and true rules:
- Don’t “blast pitch.” Reporters don’t want to be one of 100 reporters being pitched. Customize and personalize your pitch to the reporter as much as you can. The better you know the reporter, the more targeted you can make the communication.
- Ensure that the story you are pitching is of interest to the reporter. Reporters hate being pitched stories they have no interest in.
- Know how the reporter likes to be contacted. Some reporters prefer to be called—or to get a follow-up call after an email pitch—some just want to be contacted once.
The real key is the relationship. If you have a good relationship with a reporter—and the reporter trusts you and knows that you aren’t just a publicity hound—then you will more likely get the reporter’s attention, end up with the coverage you want, and get your story out there.
CT: We take our cue from the various media info sites on how reporters want to be pitched. We prefer email but for really important pitches, we call reporters to reinforce the pitch, get the story out, and create momentum. We also get a lot of reaction to our social media placements, but there is a time lag there that sometimes works against breaking/timely news pitches.
CGV: No matter the environment we believe it is always best to follow up by phone or email, if at all possible. Reporters appreciate quick response and accessibility. Hearing from someone, even if by email serves as a connection that they might not otherwise have.
NG: The newsroom structure has changed. Freelancers, bloggers, and media superstars are becoming more common as go-to sources for storytelling and making connections with customers. How does this change your approach for B2B communications?
JJB: I do think that B2B communications need to embrace storytelling more fully. The new world of “citizen journalists” has had a dramatic impact on the amount of news out there and the personal spin people put on that news. I often think that as B2B communicators, we feel compelled to communicate the facts which we think are important to our audience. What we sometimes forget is that our audiences are people too—so selling ourselves through storytelling can be extremely powerful. I just read a great short piece by Susan Kostal, a former reporter and now legal marketing consultant, called The Power of Narrative: Law Firms Need to Find Theirs To Differentiate Themselves that really gets to the heart of this issue. It’s all about delivering news in an engaging, memorable, and unique way.
HM: More than ever, diligent research is essential when pitching a story. A media database is a helpful asset, but nothing beats actually digging in to see who is writing about your selected topic. Set up news alerts so that you are aware of breaking developments and can begin compiling a media list. Do an online search using different keywords. Befriend your law librarians, as they may have access to additional resources. This research will reveal who and which publications are following issues that you would like to position your firm as a go-to source—and you may be surprised at the results. The more targeted your media outreach, the more likely you will generate press coverage.
As the newsroom continues to evolve and publications rely on outside resources more frequently, bear in mind that some may not have the depth of expertise that an assigned beat reporter who has covered this area for years will possess. Adapt both your pitch and your interview style accordingly—you want to strike the right tone of being helpful and educational on the finer points without coming across as patronizing or impatient. The fundamentals of cultivating strong media relationships continue to apply: return calls, be mindful of deadlines, avoid legalese and jargon, and always be courteous.
CT: We monitor the outlets that are important to us to see who is writing there, and then we make sure to add them to our pitch list, and, if appropriate, establish a relationship with them.
CGV: The evolving landscape makes it more difficult to determine who has the audience’s ear, making it necessary to stay ahead of the game. Without the use of a third party media consultant it simply takes time developing the contact relationships by staying on top of the media coverage of a particular topic.
NG: Are press releases outmoded or an important component of a comprehensive media relations plan? How and when do they fit in?
JJB: I’m a big believer that a good solid press release is still an important media relations tool, as I think it can—and should be—a concise, fact-filled communication that quickly explains the basic who, what, whey, where, and when to the reporter or editor. I also think press releases force you to focus your story and not get caught up in too much marketing-speak. I may be old fashioned, but I like to think that the discipline of writing a good press release forces you to clearly articulate your message.
We also use the press release format for developing short “news items” for our website. The “news item” may not be the kind of thing that a reporter would cover (news about an award or some recognition the firm has received, for example)—but we still want to share the news, so developing the press release and then posting on the web site allows us to share the information and make the news searchable by Google, etc.
HM: Press releases continue to be an important component of a media relations strategy, but you should carefully evaluate if a release will be the most effective vehicle in reaching key audiences. Newsworthy events such as opening an office, a lateral partner joining the firm, or the roll-out of a new brand warrant a full-fledged press release. Ultimately, press releases should be just one arrow in your quiver of media relations tactics.
CT: Press releases have their place. Especially when there is a fact-heavy piece of news, it’s easier to send it all through a release. It generally requires shepherding through the approval chain first, but worth it as it cuts down on the errors, if the reporter can refer back to the release for amounts, dates, correct spelling etc. They are then posted on the website for continued reference.
CGV: There will be times where a personal pitch is more conducive, particularly when a story needs to be developed by a non-biased party. However, press releases remain an important tool when looking to distribute a concrete story, something that can be used by multiple outlets without the need for follow up or confirmation.
NG: The need for quality content still exists and can make all the difference in connecting with key audiences. Do you have a content marketing plan? What’s your advice for tactical execution?
JJB: While we don’t have a separate content marketing plan, as such, we do fold thought leadership pieces into all of our PR plans. The lawyers at Reed Smith generate an enormous amount of content (for blogs and client alerts, for example) so we try to, as often as we can, repurpose those pieces by either having them republished elsewhere or by using them as part of the “credentialing” for our lawyers to be interviewed on certain topics. We’ve also found that, on occasion, the content developed by our lawyers sometimes sparks a reporter to write a piece and we usually get decent coverage in the piece because we helped inspire it.
HM: Quality content is the foundation of a successful media relations plan. Lawyers may overlook storytelling in their focus to address extremely technical matters when they have an idea they want to share with the press. However, readers—and therefore, reporters—are drawn to the human angle. Don’t shy away from evocative or colloquial language to hide behind bland corporate lingo. Anecdotes and case studies offering thoughtful analysis are a more compelling read than a dry summary of the facts.
Your content will often be the first step in building your credibility and awareness in the marketplace, so let your voice shine.
CT: We do a lot of content marketing and plan it out as far in advance as possible to cover resources—people and budget—needs. The delivery vehicle for that content is updating all the time. We prefer to post content on our websites and to push out through social media sites, and a lot of it we email it to clients but there are some materials that we still feel the need to print—not many and not often—but they do occur.
CGV: In our experience, original content is a key component for search engine optimization (SEO), helping our audience to find our message. We make it a priority to provide original content on topics critical to our firm’s mission on a variety of platforms including a traditional website, a blog, and several social media channels such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. This inclusive approach allows us to reach various demographics through the medium they use most often and through which they feel comfortable engaging with our company.