—John McKay, Senior Account Director at Introworks

A lawsuit brought by the grandmother of her grandchild severely injured in a car accident against his parents is won by a firm trying to collect for life-long damages from the insurance company of the child’s parents….An employment issue suddenly being played out in the press gets a fresh perspective from an employment specialist attorney not involved in the fray…..

An opinion piece penned in the Bible of the music industry, Billboard by a longtime entertainment attorney and life-long artist advocate, about the major record labels’ new deal making in the age of digital downloads that is crippling its old business model — and how such contracts are totally stacked against the best interests of those artists — becomes viral, primarily in social media channels. And it takes off online “with a bullet” — and offline, too, eventually even winning a state marketing award…..

All of these cases above are real. And each one was publicized, driven by a strategic public/media relations strategy that underscores the value of leveraging PR as marketing tool for your brand. The debate about whether PR should be a critical part of a firm’s or private practice’s marketing platform was won long ago by those who reaped the exposure and the benefits. It’s simply no contest any longer. If committed to doing public and/or media relations for your firm, the business development advantages should follow, providing you’re working with the right PR people.

Imagine that each attorney in your firm had his or her own marketing genie that would magically report to the public and interested prospective clients about what each lawyer was working on. If you are a 50-plus firm, that’s an abundance of intellectual capital in the house just waiting to find daylight. A good PR person will help you discover those stories, position them for the appropriate media and determine ways to share the news in social media channels. Sometimes a story is good enough to merit an award, another PR function that many agencies or individuals do regularly for clients.

But until you have worked with a PR professional, you might have a myopic view of what it is, or what your current marketing tactics can and can’t do. The conventional legal marketing wisdom is that law businesses do a handsome brochure. Ads are purchased throughout the year to honor award wins or to announce new practice areas or partners. The firm or practice also has a good-looking (but static) web presence, and maybe a couple times a year somebody speaks at the chamber of commerce or a downtown association, hoping to spread the word about how they’re different from the firm that spoke two months ago.

But PR — when handled judiciously by seasoned practitioners who understand how media works, who recognize what a good story is and the nuances of the 24/7 news cycle (and there are almost as many nuances in media as there are in law) — can be an investment that returns 10-times the value of all your other marketing endeavors and dollars. Why? Because it works.

Third-Party Credibility
Let’s look at a few ways — and some of the perceived drawbacks — to doing PR as a marketing platform. Precedent- setting or controversial cases are ideal PR opportunities for firms. And the positive media coverage (assuming you won) immediately provides the third-person credibility that advertising rarely achieves.

This kind of third-party affirmation of what you do is a key differentiator of PR versus traditional marketing/advertising. Everyone knows that when you buy an ad a transaction has occurred. But few people know the number of legal stories that are regularly seeded to the press often come from a PR source on behalf of a client. The public at large (and many businesses leaders for that matter) is not schooled or sophisticated enough to understand how “earned media, or PR, works. But its value is without question.

Developing Attorneys as Sources and Forging Good Relationships with Reporters
A key tenet in public relations is that in some ways, the PR person succeeds to the point that they aren’t needed as much, or at all except to provide strategic counsel or do planning for a coming new year. This usually happens when lawyers have become trusted sources and strong relationships have formed between the attorney and the reporter. A pre-requisite to making that happen is to respond to a reporter’s phone call or message immediately.

Usually reporters are on deadline when they call, or searching for a source about a story they are working on. They don’t have time to wait and they’ll go onto to the next person on their list or cold call until they find what they need. A PR person can be an effective matchmaker and also supervise the relationship so that each party is getting out of it what was expected in the beginning.

Authored Articles
Another effective PR tactic is to write and place articles that demonstrate the knowledge and/or expertise of your legal team members. Don’t have time? Send a brief, some bullet points and have a conversation about the subject matter and your PR person will write it and place the piece, with your name on it. For example, maybe a branch of government is considering a regulatory change to an industry that one of your clients is in. By writing and placing an opinion piece — like those you see often in the Forum section of the Star Tribune, for instance — the attorney and the firm can become “thought leaders” in this area.

Once the piece is published, it can be used effectively as marketing tool by posting the article on your website, or linking back to the publisher. Reprints can be made as leave-behinds for prospective clients, or a direct mail piece can be fashioned out of the article. And you can share in the growing channels of social media.

Social Media as a Deep PR/Marketing Expressway
According to a legal marketing expert, Jayne Navarre, recent statistics show that 80% on the U.S. online population is engaged in social media. Law firms, which have traditionally been slow to embrace marketing and public relations in the past, are again late to the table in this area. But it’s not too late to get wired into the network.

The light-speed rise of channels like Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites and tools provide excellent avenues for your news, views and achievements if done in sync with your other marketing and PR strategy. Smart PR agencies have either partnered with social media specialists or have brought the discipline in house since demand for it is at an all-time high. Is it a fad? No, the numbers and the powerful viral nature of social media dictate otherwise.

The Upside to Doing PR Outweighs The Issues on the Downside
Finally, if you’re going to consider PR as viable marketing or new business development tool, make sure your firm is committed from the top down and through the ranks. Legal PR initiatives generally prove ineffective because those involved are not setting aside the time to execute a PR campaign — or even something as simple as a timely news release.

An insightful 2008 article from the ABA Law Practice Today website outlines the general reasons PR programs fail at law businesses. According to its author, Paramjit L. Mahli, “for any public relations strategy to be successfully implemented, buy-in from the decision makers of law firms is required first and foremost. When that doesn’t happen, relationships between law firm and pr agency are bound to sour, which frequently can be chalked up to the following:

  • The lack of a serious commitment on the part of the firm, which leads to missed opportunities.
  • Unrealistic expectations of the law firm.
  • Attorneys taking the backseat, the assumption being the PR firm must do all the work.
  • Disrespect: not valuing the work of the PR professionals.
  • Lack of understanding on the part of the attorneys on the basics of how media works.
  • Attorneys not improving their skills such as honing the delivery of presentations and interview skills.”

That said, embarking on a PR program as a marketing function is still worth pursing and doing well. PR people — many of them former journalists — know how to tell your story. They understand the news cycle; they know what’s coming in the editorial calendar of the key publications you want to be featured in and what awards you might qualify for; they have good relationships with producers and reporters in broadcast; they can research, write and place articles that position you as an expert in your practice are; they can arrange speaking engagements; and they can make your entry into social media rewarding and worth the time and investment. In the toughest competitive environment and worst recession in the lifetime of most attorneys working today, Public Relations might be the best, most strategic ally your practice ever pursued.