For law firms, the public relations (PR) function is always changing. Much like the word “publication,” and its inherent print-based definition, the term “public relations” at times feels antiquated and inadequate to describe what this function has become. Broadly, the silos of marketing, media, advertising and business development have converged. The end result is a focus on revenue development and meaningful collaboration. Media relations plays a vital role in the process, and underinvesting can severely handicap a firm’s brand. The question then is, “Where are we going?”
Trend 1: The Regional Media Pool Is Shrinking and National Outlets Are More Pronounced
The New York Times recently reported, “According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2017, about one in five news reporters in the United States worked in the metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles or Washington.” In July, the Pew Research Center reported that newspaper newsroom employment declined by a staggering 45 percent between 2008 and 2017. These changes affect both the breadth and depth of news coverage and make non-coastal, regional stories more challenging to place.
The newsroom decline has heightened the competition for lawyers and firms looking to serve as third-party commentators for national outlets, and regionally, it has gutted “state-of-the-firm” type of news. It’s now more important than ever to position attorneys for interviews almost immediately and to provide meaty commentary rather than just a recitation of facts. More media training and responsiveness mandates are needed. While the volume of opportunities has declined, the “prizes” have become bigger; placement in The New York Times or Washington Post offers more exposure than ever before.
Trend 2: A Muddied Content Creation/Distribution Dynamic
Firms are, for good reason, still cranking out content in client alerts, press releases, bylines, etc. However, service providers have been making in-roads in convincing firms to buy into syndication and amplification services. Wrestling with the increased paucity of regional news outlets and trades, firms have increasingly embraced “solutions-in-a-box” that promise to supercharge social media and boost view counts. These products – provided the underlying numbers are verifiable – seem to answer the question of how to achieve circulation scale with in-house published content.
This trend may be worthy of future exploration. However, as an itchy publish finger can close the door on complementary outside publishing opportunities, it also can contribute to “random acts of publishing,” whereby key resources – like the communications team – only see content after it has hit the firm site or has been distributed through a syndicator. The news “nose” that communicators possess can prove quite helpful when positioning content for multiple uses and for spin-off commentary opportunities.
Trend 3: PR for PR’s Sake is Dead
As mentioned, public relations as a function is now integrated across the marketing and business development department. This means that media pros, business development types and practice group leaders are increasingly willing to steer away from media superstars who are not also rainmakers. And while media can lead to rainmaking and burnish a firm’s overall brand, misdirected efforts can sap resources from potentially more revenue-positive parts of the firm. Relying solely on the volume of placements – sometimes only attributable to a small, never-changing coterie of attorneys – puts media relations professionals at risk and can hinder business development. Empowered marketing directors can and should assess media resource relationships and direct pivots when needed.
Trend 4: Creating the “Win-Win”
An evergreen complaint is that, as a practice, The Wall Street Journal does not list an attorney’s firm’s name. A “big hit” – in terms of readership reached and prestige – is somewhat reduced by this feedback. Valuing media hits in a purely binary manner is increasingly passé. Rather, an emerging focus is on win-win outcomes where a client gets recognition and the firm often has no mention at all. The first win is the placement itself, which firms are more and more apt to promote, particularly through social media channels. The second win is the goodwill generated with the client, potentially leading to more business.
The media landscape of today requires a nimble, forward-thinking strategy and team. The easy and quick hits of the past, such as the business journals' “On the Move” round-ups, have evaporated or morphed into costly pay-for-play spots. The reality, however, is that clients and potential clients are still thirsty for thought leadership. By being smart, firms can align resources, priorities and metrics to birth media stars and use PR activity to positively impact revenue.
By Michael Bond, Senior Media Director, Blattel Communications