By Michael Bond, senior media director at Blattel Communications
The human species is actually very good at adaptation – whether we believe it or not. Some adaptations take generations of barely perceptible changes. Others, like adjusting to an exploding pandemic, occur quickly – disrupting our routines, upending goal and to-do lists and making long-term planning enormously challenging. In 2020, law firms found their media plans largely shredded – just two-and-a-half months in. How can effective campaigns unfold when uncertainly abounds? How do you hit a moving target? Resiliency, innovation, empathy and adaptability are the only ways forward.
Staying Dialed In
Planning for media efforts has, even pre-pandemic, become more and more on-the-fly. As outlets transition away from print-first to online-only, the need to plan for X number of pages and Y ads has changed dramatically. This means increasingly editorial calendars are: a) gone; b) sporadic; or c) largely ignored by reporters and editors.
For law firm thought leaders (and the communications teams that support them), it is essential to stay abreast of topics that are resonating with clients and to pair this knowledge with a plan to reach outlets that speak to target business development audiences. And since those outlets are not closing content weeks in advance to accommodate printing and are constantly posting new articles, it’s also crucial to regularly pair BD talking points with the current news cycle. Historic cold in the South? Might be a good time to talk about electrical grid resiliency, renewables and disaster preparedness. Major federal cyberbreach? Let’s talk cybersecurity dos and don’ts. To modify an old chestnut, “Never waste a news event.”
Awards and Nominations: Constants Throughout Change
Awards and nominations are still a major component of many editorial calendars, even if they are otherwise scant, and these remain good avenues for burnishing an attorney’s credentials. They generally come in two varieties: 1) national and international; and 2) regional, local and hyper-local. The former is a harder bullseye to hit. Each attorney’s body of work needs to be thoughtfully evaluated and submitted for the awards and lists that: a) have genuine business development potential and are more than just pure ego plays (when possible!); and b) are realistic. If past winners are luminaries like Ted Olson or John Roberts, your candidate should reflect this level of professional notoriety and accomplishment. Similarly, a new-ish partner going for a “Top Dealmaker” award is likely an exercise in futility, unless there is some serious heft to the submission.
The good news for awards and nominations is that – with few exceptions – they have proven highly resilient to the disruptions of 2020. For practice and business development plans that have this component, you can write the due dates in ink rather than pencil.
Bear in mind a key caveat – awards and lists may be the canary in the coal mine for outlets. Here’s why: with in-person events limited/cancelled, revenue is limited. For many broader trade publications, in-person events and affiliated plaques and sponsorships are massive revenue generators. One legal media professional relayed that his company made more money from events than advertising. If awards and lists start going away, the canary is definitely not feeling well. Virtual firm Zoom tables all around!
Lots to Talk About, Even if Key Details are Unknown
In 2020, as a nation, we seesawed with COVID-19 restrictions, greatly affecting large swaths of the economy and our collective psyche. The messaging started in March 2020 with, “This is the end of the world!” We then moved on in late spring/summer to, “We’re living with it, and it’s sort-of OK.” Fall brought, “It’s worse than before, but we’re still moving around.” And finally, we have entered, “Things seem to be getting better!”
It’s challenging to live during these times, let alone plan for and run a business. Attorneys and firms needed to adapt their media plans, topics and targets constantly, showcasing a level-headed, problem-solving approach throughout. Judging purely by the perspective of legal and business topics as news pegs, 2020 was a record year! The two massive stimulus bills alone were enormous fodder. No firm media plan could ignore the pandemic and its impact. Those that acknowledged the change and started producing content did well in terms of both media placements and social media results.
A critical, second component that many did not do as well with is acknowledging uncertainty. Because of a lack of clarity with respect to everything from the duration of shutdowns, to the process and forgivability of PPP loans to when offices will reopen, many attorneys clammed up when presented with opportunities to comment or write when the final answers remained unknown. There is still value in mulling over what may be. It has been a challenge for many – in law and accounting in particular – to adapt to an environment where a lot remains in flux. That said, getting over this hump seems critical, as many elements of our lives and businesses lives are poised to be uncertain for some time to come.
Like it or Not, Technology is Here
We all have Zoom accounts. Besides being the best possible news for Zoom the company, it is the reality forced on everyone. For attorneys who were camera shy, or even phone adverse, we now see your home office, your living room and you – often in far more casual clothes than ever before. Deals are being done through videoconference. We’re all on camera, just hopefully not as a cat or upside down at a congressional hearing.
This forced-upon technology means that marketing plans can now more fully embrace podcasts (recorded Zooms often), Facebook Live sessions and even old-fashioned webinars. Media should be invited to relevant offerings, again with the acceptance that no one expects an attorney to have the answers to all contours of a trillion-dollar stimulus bill the day after it passed. Firms can also be more aggressive in offering spokespeople for local news segments, as many of the anchors are also marooned in their homes. There’s no trip to the studio, time in the makeup chair, etc.
Crafting media plans is always a useful, focusing exercise. These documents should be considered “working drafts,” written in pencil and changed frequently. There is an enormous difference between this and just casting about without a plan in hopes of securing quotes and coverage. If a plan gets shredded by circumstances, just write a new one.
There is lots of pressure on everyone as the pandemic grinds on: attorneys, marketers and media are often juggling “virtual school,” local restrictions and sometimes illness. This means deadlines are shifting more than usual as more stuff “comes up.” Bake in extra time and understand that some projects may not get off the ground. This is all part of a well-balanced diet of empathy for a grueling national emergency.
The truth is that, at their core, our firms and lawyers are helping individuals and businesses find the way back to normal. This is the shifting story worth focusing on. Attorneys are helping solve problems and provide crucial counsel. Their talents keep lights on and businesses open, with workers employed safely. This crisis is an opportunity to work on the biggest media plan shift possible: changing the public’s perception of lawyers to see the real good they provide.