Law is a multibillion dollar industry that plays an integral part of nearly every development, particularly in the business world. Law firms are also major employers and community partners. Despite these elements, media reporting on the industry remains light. Even the most basic legal business coverage – “On the Move” announcements – have been dropped by many major newspapers. As the media landscape transitions, it is important that firms take the time to look inward and optimize their communications strategies.
The Changing Nature of the Press Release
Press releases, in their purest form, are succinct summations of developments, such as the arrival of new partners, awards garnered, civic involvement or major client victories. The root goal of press releases has always been to provide facts, offer quotes and entice reporters to consider basing blurbs or full-fledged stories off material provided.
As media organizations – particularly newspapers – have thinned their staffs, there is rarely the bandwidth to do old-school “shoe leather” reporting. And, when reporters are interested in covering legal news, they are often quite green with a limited understanding of the industry and its processes. Further, reporters today are frequently assigned so many disparate “beats” or subject areas to cover that they, through no fault of their own, have little proficiency in pulling intricate details from court filings or interpreting proceedings. Straightforward non-legal stories often win over complex, opaque verdicts.
Today, staffs of fewer than 10 writers, and sometimes as few as two, are not uncommon at both non-major market newspapers and trade publications. When targeting information deep in the country’s nooks-and-crannies, or to a specific slice of an industry, firms need to scrap the basic “just-the-facts” formula of most press releases and actually write the story they want to see run. Broad strokes, such as writing “a more than $50M” verdict, become specific details, “a $50,090,190 verdict.” As small publications often publish press releases virtually wholesale, firms have unique opportunities for end-to-end message control.
Firms may want to consider drafting two versions of a press release for complex, major developments. One short and suitable for sending to dedicated legal reporters and over a news wire service, and one that is longer, more detailed and aimed at lightly staffed publications.
The “Newsroom” and Social Media
Early law firm websites often functioned as a series of distinct silos – practice areas, attorney biographies, “About Us” and the “Newsroom.” Newsrooms were one-stop-shopping for all firm information, from client updates to organizational announcements to press releases. The issue with this siloed approach was, and for some firms still is, that it requires a visitor to actively ask and act upon the question, “What has my law firm been up to recently?” Newsrooms can function like storage closets, overly stuffed, out-of-mind most days and organizationally challenged. In short, these pages add little value and require too much of the viewer.
Thankfully, more and more firms have adopted an integrated approach to content. Press releases and byline articles are linked to related attorney bios, and practice group award announcements and newsletters, or relevant blog posts, actually appear on practice group pages. A steady flow of content keeps websites fresh and leads to greater viewer engagement.
The new frontier for content leverage is social media. Firms are dusting off long-ago reserved corporate Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. These sites were formerly “experiments” for summer interns that often went dormant for years. More and more emphasis is being placed on reaching clients, potential clients and the media on multiple platforms and in multiple ecosystems. The sheer audiences of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn offer massive potential for increased views of content, starting viewers down the funnel that ultimately leads to new and increased business and revenue growth. Joining corporate accounts are more and more “professionalized” personal social media profiles – LinkedIn and Twitter accounts that echo firm branding and reinforce credentialing efforts.
Social media offers firms the opportunity to not only expand their content’s audience, but also a way to piggyback on sophisticated mobile app development and – most importantly – capture viewers scrolling through memes and baby pictures while relaxing in their slippers at night.
User-friendly, interconnected website design and the rise of social media have multiplied the impact and reach of content and served as a partial answer to today’s challenging media environment.
Breaking the Molds
Firm news and communications strategies, as recently as five years ago, were akin to a set of baking molds – press releases took one shape, newsletters another, byline articles a third. Content was created in a print-first world. Frequently, the question asked of communications team members was, “Will this be in the print edition?” If not, promotion was often considered a failure.
Today’s media landscape is very much digital- and leverage-focused. Using the standard molds of five years ago creates content for often non-existent audiences and unrealistic outcomes. In addition to customizing press releases based on publication, these materials also need to be optimized for firm websites – often in punchy blurbs – and for corporate and social media promotion. Writing tweets and LinkedIn updates is now a core communications function.
“Blogs,” or the thankfully dying term “Blawgs,” can no longer be the domain of associates. Senior leadership voices need to be regular contributors and properties should be edited and curated by a designated partner or team. Blogs are the new client newsletter, and they are often the new home for byline articles that used to run in legal newspapers (many of which have gone from daily to weekly to monthly or “online only” editions). And, blogs should have custom brand names and direct URLs – rather than having generic names and being sandwiched in as a page on a firm website
Firm content in the digital age performs best when the barriers of access are low. Publishing content behind restrictive third-party publication firewalls significantly undercuts reach. With quality internal distribution channels in place as an alternative, firms can politely decline to pursue restrictive opportunities or sign limiting freelance agreements.
Welcome to the World of Publishing
As we consider the theme of transition, the reality is that law firms have – due to market forces and the ever-lower bars of entry, thanks to technology – become de facto publishers. This is a role that should be embraced as it offers more opportunities for thought leadership and greater message control.
In the professional services sector, thought leadership anticipates and solves problems, drives conversations and forges long-lasting connections. In a more geographically agnostic marketplace, where upstart firms have repeatedly proven that reputation and name matter but are not sole business drivers, championing and enacting a forward-thinking communications strategy is crucial. It helps firms stand out, and it proactively answers the aforementioned client question, “What has my law firm been up to recently?” Plenty.
Michael Bond is Senior Media Director with communications and marketing agency Blattel Communications. He is based just outside Washington, D.C. and can be reached via email.