Your Most Important Public Relations Habit: Getting Ahead of the News

Ever tried pitching a story about something that took place a few days ago, or a trend that’s already been covered? It doesn’t work out so well.

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Forget sending out countless press releases, hounding reporters with the same tired pitch or paying thousands of dollars for media monitoring and database services to track and analyze the latest legal trends.

There is one habit that best positions lawyers for success in their public relations efforts. The practice is so basic, it hardly seems worth writing a column about, but so crucial that it begs to be covered here.

That one good habit? Meeting with your media relations team early and often when you’re anticipating media coverage. Doing so will help you and your team be more effective in developing a media strategy that fulfills your PR goals and expectations. Speaking as a PR professional, some of the most exciting, fulfilling and successful media campaigns on which I’ve partnered with lawyers began weeks or months prior with a simple phone call or knock on my office door.

Whether you have a big filing, trial or deal closing on the horizon, insight into a new trend nobody has written about yet, or maybe even some unflattering news or a crisis situation looming, the absolute worst strategy you can take is to wait until the last minute or after something has become public to loop in your PR team.

Ever tried pitching a story about a ruling or a deal that took place a few days ago, or a trend that’s already been covered exhaustively? As a former hack and current flack, I’ve been on both sides of pitches like those.

SPOILER ALERT: They don’t work out so well.

Not only do your chances of making the news take a hit, so does your credibility and that of the PR person reaching out to the media.

And on the flip side, when you’re expecting some not-so-favorable news, you don’t want your firm or PR team to be caught off guard and scrambling to come up with a response to a media inquiry only after you’ve received it. By then, you’re already too late. You’ve missed out on the opportunity to gather all the facts, shape the narrative you want to tell and stay ahead of the news cycle before it grinds on to the next story.

Instead, meet with your team well in advance. Let them know what’s going on, solicit their feedback and listen to their advice. Your PR team members are valuable resources who deal with the media regularly. If you ask a PR professional for examples of what won’t get media attention, be sure to leave room for the scroll that’s about to be unfurled across the floor.

Maybe it turns out that the big filing or insight into a trend you think will grab headlines probably won’t get media attention, or at least not at the level you’re expecting. If that’s the case, congratulations! You have the opportunity to save everyone—you, your team, reporters and editors—the futile effort of trying to sell something that nobody outside of your firm or department cares about. Credibility is currency when working with the media. Don’t go for broke every time a judge issues a minute order.

Or, maybe you are sitting on something of interest, or an unfavorable matter that you’re anticipating has the potential to snowball in the press. Discussing it early with your team gives everyone time to craft a plan. Every situation is different and requires a tailored approach, but there are often key questions that cut across most scenarios. Among others, these include:

  • Do you have the authority to speak to the media, and if it involves a client, do you have their permission to speak publicly about the matter?
  • Who is your intended audience and what narrative do you want them to see?
  • What is your strategy for getting this news out to the media? On the flipside, what is your strategy for keeping unfavorable news from showing up in the press?
  • Do you need a statement at the ready, and does it need to be sent out proactively or reactively?
  • Who needs to sign off on the plan and how far in advance do you need to get it to them to review and make any necessary changes?
  • Who will be your spokesperson, and does he or she require any media training or coaching on messaging?
  • If the coverage is favorable, how do you plan to leverage it afterward?

These are difficult questions that require thoughtful discussion and analysis. That’s not the type of activity you want to be engaging in on a Friday at 4 p.m. when a reporter with a 5 p.m. deadline calls about something you’ve been expecting for weeks.

Advanced planning gives you several advantages in the execution of your plan. Reporters often rely on sources to alert them to breaking news, interesting trends or upcoming events that actually warrant news coverage, so being able to give them advance or timely notice helps your cause and also makes a deposit into the Bank of Credibility.

Having approved statements at the ready and/or fully prepared spokespeople available on the reporter’s timetable also makes everyone’s lives easier and furthers the chance that your intended message comes through more crisply.

Looking ahead, planning helps you and your team develop ideas for follow-ups and second-day articles to extend the life of a story that you want your audience to see.

I once partnered with two lawyers on a media strategy just days after the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert on their case, which involved issues affecting a large portion of the nation’s population. At every junction after that—filings, arguments and, in the end, the decision in our favor—we had a media outreach plan in place that resulted in a steady stream of coverage over a 10-month period. In another instance, a lawyer came to my team to give us a heads up about an unfavorable issue that could attract media inquiries. We drafted a thoughtful, careful responsive statement that ultimately would not see the light of day outside our firm. Although both of these scenarios played out much differently, they were both success stories in that we were fully prepared for whatever was coming our way, and we planned accordingly.

Meeting with your PR team early and often doesn’t guarantee 100% control over what the media say or do. There are too many factors in play to assure that (release the scroll). Nor would it benefit a healthy democracy to have a press that can be easily swayed by the will of lawyers eager to earn coverage whenever they please. But the good habit of keeping your media relations team looped in gives you the best chance for success in getting your message across to the media when the opportunity arises.

Jean-Luc Renault is a communications manager with Jenner & Block in Los Angeles who handles strategic public relations and communications for the firm and its lawyers.

Reprinted with permission from the November 7 issue of The Recorder. © [2019] ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved. The original article can be viewed here.

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