‘So what do you do then?’ That most basic of questions we’ve all encountered that either fills in an awkward silence at a social gathering or is a well-meaning enquiry that can lead to either more awkward silence or genuine interest.
Up until not too long ago, my answer was ‘I work for a news and analysis organisation’, which would generally lead to further interested questioning (it wasn’t that interesting). But now, my answer is ‘I work for a firm that does PR for lawyers’, to which the response is either a blank look or ‘Why do lawyers need PR?’
Depending on my mood, I can either give a long or a short answer, but the reasons are various, ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious to the unexpected.
PR is often at best misunderstood, and at worst mistrusted, but has a vital role to play, and it is when I explain what my clients (solicitors and barristers) do that my incredulous social gatherers get the point of my existence: I shout about the great work lawyers do because they are generally either too polite or too busy to do so themselves.
Of course, there is the other more specialised element to my job as a legal PR, which is just as important for any set or firm: dealing with the press when something has gone ‘wrong’, the quote marks here symbolising the press’s view of events.
The need for this can take various forms, from dealing with a press scrum after a high-profile court case to correcting erroneous reporting, but it can also involve dealing directly with the few rotten apples that inhabit the otherwise excellent UK press industry. For example, towards the end of last year, a particularly zealous (horrible) hack from the one of the major newspaper spent the best part of two weeks essentially harassing by email and phone my clients who were involved in a high-profile case relating to a convicted criminal.
The facts of the case made it a very emotive and sensitive subject, and unfortunately the kind of story that gets a journalist frothing at the mouth. However, this particular journalist was ruthless in pursuing a very personal angle; accusing my clients of, among other things, being liars, general criminality and being in opposition to the morality of the good people of Britain. His aggressive tone over email and, more worryingly, on the phone understandably concerned my clients and unsettled some of the people, including employees who weren’t lawyers, he had approached.
We were contacted separately by two different individuals who were being hounded by the same angry reporter, and the advice we gave and steps we took in each case prevented either client appearing in the press or even being contacted by that reporter again. In effect, a misleading and potentially damaging story had been killed.
Because of our hard-won relationships and years of experience dealing with journalists of every type, we were able to use specific knowledge of this journalist and their editor to make sure the steps we took built an insurmountable barrier, resulting in zero negative coverage of our clients appearing in the press.
Being aware of how busy our clients are and sensitive to the highly demanding nature of their work is also essential to another aspect of the legal PR job, which is placing articles, features or guest columns on a specific topic or area of expertise that a lawyer wants to raise awareness about, either in the trade press directed at peers, or national or local papers, aimed at the general public.
Unlike dealing with pesky reporters, which is reactionary, placing articles is an ongoing, proactive process, involving discussion with barristers to understand the topic, who they are trying to reach and where they are seeking new instructions from, before honing the angle and pitching to our press or TV contacts. Each chambers’ needs are specific, as indeed are the needs of individual members of that chambers, and so this process is one that cannot be rushed and must be tailored to ensure they are being represented in the best possible light in each case.
However, probably because of the exhaustive and time-consuming nature of pitching, when a feature idea is accepted, it is all the more satisfying, for both the pitcher (me), and more importantly, the client, who has the opportunity to get their message to their target audience without having used valuable time trying to place the article and then going back and forth with the commissioning editor discussing angles or negotiating deadlines.
On the flipside of cold pitching is what is often referred to as ‘newsjacking’, whereby your friendly neighbourhood PR firm will react to news stories or trending topics and offer journalists expert commentary or handy copy-and-paste-able quotes from their client on whatever the story of the day is. Similarly, press contacts may approach PRs with a specific request for a quote or commentary relating to whatever topic they are researching or reporting on. In this situation, reaction speed is everything, with the availability of the client usually playing a crucial role in hitting a writer’s deadline, which is where good relationships between PRs and journos becomes a significant defining factor.
Once all the hard work has been done to get your client in the public eye, possibly the purest element of public relations kicks in: publicising how great your client is, which in the information age means, for better or worse, social media. But if Twitter is a good enough medium for a world leader to flirt with nuclear annihilation through their 280-character proclamations, then it’s good enough to blow the trumpet of a far more worthy legal eagle.
This brings us back to the answer to the question posed by the mythical social gatherer: why do lawyers need PR? Because somebody needs to highlight the great work these dedicated professionals do. Now I’m not saying that every single lawyer across the land is secretly the legal equivalent of Martin Luther King, Jr, but luckily for me, my clients are passionate about justice for the most vulnerable and underrepresented, with many specialising in cases relating to civil rights, complex immigration procedures, or defending the victims of abuse, whether it be at the hands of a partner or through state intervention.
Unfortunately, the image of a crusading lawyer may not be the first that comes to the minds of the average man on the street, which is why it is important to highlight whenever good work is done, even if it’s not in the same headline-grabbing league as a celebrity lawyer or results in a precedent-setting ruling. This isn’t just so the lawyer can feel great about themselves, it is because, at the most fundamental level, what’s the point of spending the best part of a decade training to become a lawyer if no one knows that you are there to help them.
This isn’t to say that the peer approval and reputational benefits of singing the praises of a client on social media isn’t important, although it was interesting to note last year when the Chambers and Legal 500 rankings came out that there was some significant pushback on social media against what some within the profession see as a gratuitous annual backslapping party. Indeed, one very annoyed barrister decided to take out their frustration at the ranking process and resulting self-congratulatory social media messages by attacking a twitter post highlighting one of our client’s successes. It wasn’t a personal attack on the lawyer in question, more an angry rant about the concept of the Legal 500, but of course my team had to kick into reputation-protection mode and take quick action to dissociate our client from the irate poster.
This quite small and exceptional example in many ways embodies why lawyers need PR: while you’re fighting the good fight, you need someone to simultaneously promote and protect all that hard work.
Damian O’Loughlin, Account Director at specialist legal PR firm, Uprise PR