Rebooting PR for the Digital-First Era

The role of public relations (PR) in a law firm marketing plan has increasingly gone digital. "Will this appear in the print edition?" types of questions have slowed considerably, and creating content that can be packaged and leveraged across platforms is increasingly the primary goal. Just as the shift in traditional print media to online has been bumpy, the digital PR transition for law firms has provided its own set of challenges. With a venerable bumper crop of new tools and gadgets, it can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff and retool a PR program for maximum business development impact in the digital-first era.

Change Isn't Easy

Traditional PR functions within law firm communications departments and for related consultant relationships are what could be called "bread-and-butter" basics. This includes press releases on new hires and the related "On the Move" and alumni media placements. Not so long ago, press releases were common for all "news," with the drafting, editing and dissemination gobbling up hours of time. While press releases are still useful vehicles for breaking down complex cases or highlighting new partners and practice groups, they have become less useful for conveying “soft news,” such as accolades, speaking engagement participation and internal announcements, without defined third-party media targets. As dedicated legal reporters at major dailies and weekly business publications become increasingly rare, and with publications dropping or charging for "On the Move" announcements, firms are wise to consider alternate strategies that achieve equal or better results and free up resources. Website blurbs and firm/personal social media channels can greatly amplify this “soft news” and reach high-value target audiences.

Changing of the Guard

Both the way news is consumed and the ways in which it is reported have changed considerably. News is being consumed on phones more and more. Print is still around, and smart speakers, iPads and laptops have had some impact, but the dominant medium – especially among the under 30 set – is the device we all carry around in our pockets. This shift is threatening nearly every other type of media, including movies and television. The power and broad array of apps and content available on phones combined with the intimate connection most have with their device has made competition for eyeballs fierce.

Given this shift to the small screen, content producers, including the major media outlets, are optimizing their offerings for mobile. Law firms must wrestle with creating content that reaches a broad demographic swath – from latter-end Millennials to Baby Boomer decision makers and everyone in between. This has created perhaps the greatest challenge to PR efforts: finding the right mix of blogs, social media channels, print pieces and third-party commentary to materially impact business development.

The current news distribution model is also complicated by the evolving role of the media. Reporters now cover more beats and are responsible for more aspects of production – from social media to video to comment curation – than ever before. Law firms need to be active in promoting news and employing resources that can quickly educate a writer scrambling to cover city hall, major construction and technology’s intersection with the law. The days of sending a thin press release and a court opinion, and relying on the reporter to unpack the story are gone. Having fast and succinct writing resources is vital.

The Twitter "Influencer" Myth

Setting aside politics, high-profile attorney Michael Avenatti is, without a doubt, a social media influencer. He has more than 400K Twitter followers and is one of the most supremely media-savvy attorneys in modern history. But most attorneys: 1) do not want to be as high-profile as Avenatti; and 2) couldn't do so if they tried. At the end of the day, all marketing and PR efforts should be directed toward business development. Social media involvement – on both a firm-wide and individual attorney level – is worthwhile. However, having the goal of becoming an influencer may be both unrealistic and unproductive. While social media can certainly generate and help maintain business, for the vast majority of attorneys other principal methods, such as article writing and publishing, in-person networking and regular tending to referral sources, are far more fruitful. It will remain, for quite some time, the exception rather than the rule that business is generated from tweeting.

But Social Media is Critical

While readily offered promises of hordes of followers and the minting of influencers should be discarded as the latest variety of snake oil, social media offers a set of worthwhile communication channels. Going back to the initial goal of leveraging content, an ideal creation path is: 1) blog/client alert; 2) byline article and third-party commentary; 3) website; and 4) social media. At a minimum, core to a digital-first strategy is building out and populating firm LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Measuring Impact

Any number of critically acclaimed TV shows have been cut by a simple fact – not enough people watched to justify the time, expense and effort required. TV networks tap a trusted source in Nielsen to determine ratings. Many law firms have: 1) no measurement tools in place; 2) yawning gaps in measurement, because they have not removed "noise;" or 3) abrogated the development of any in-house skillset to ask incisive questions of third-party data providers. There is a lot of bad data out there skewed by not filtering for internal hits and search engine spiders. And there is a strong incentive – whether acted upon or not – for content promotion platforms to artificially "juice" numbers to show constant upward growth in viewership of firm content.

Capturing an accurate quantitative impact of content is crucial in the digital-first age. It is no longer sufficient to say that X print publication has Y subscribers. Today, with the right tools and analysis, firms can get much richer and more granular data on content engagement, which offers particularly useful insight for targeted pitches. Tasking an in-house professional or trusted outside consultant who is not tied to a content promotion product with mastering content analytics and reporting is crucial.

Navigating the Many Changes

The modern communications landscape, shaped by an emphasis on digital-first, is truly a jungle. It's easy to get lost and essential to have a trusted guide. "Old School” PR still plays an important role. But as seen with the power of viral videos on crisis communications, modern complexities abound. By embracing change, firms can better position themselves to take advantage of new tools offered, navigate generational transitions and create impactful communications platforms.

By Michael Bond, Senior Media Director, Blattel Communications, for the Second Quarter 2018 LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

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