Legal public relations has undergone a transformation as significant as any other aspect of law firm marketing has experienced over the past six to eight years. The economic downturn had an effect on law firm budgets, so the industry challenged itself to come up with more creative, yet less expensive, strategies that would still allow a firm’s thought leadership to reach critical audiences. Recognizing the benefits of public relations, including its wide reach and cost-effectiveness, law firms began leveraging the power of publicity even more, helping to fuel an evolution that has been dramatic and is still accelerating.
So as 2015 wraps up, what can we expect next year? I turned to three in-house legal PR professionals to ask for their opinions, examples and advice about what’s next for legal media relations. Meet Johanna Burkett, Public Relations Manager at Baker Donelson; Michelle McCormick, Director, Communication, at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP; and Michele Apostolos, Director, Marketing and Communications, JAMS.
Legal PR Is Evolving
When asked about the most important trend or shift in legal PR that has changed their PR strategy in 2015 or will do so in 2016, Ms. McCormick said, “The channels we use to tell our story are changing. A straightforward media campaign is no longer enough. We have to think about blogs, video, social media and how to get content into the hands of our clients and targets. We are all facing information overload. You need a tight, timely message to cut through the noise.”
Ms. Apostolos saw value in a strategy this past year that is reaping benefits, with plans to continue. “We increased our native advertising during 2015 and will likely double that activity next year,” she said. “Our PR and content manager, Tori Walsh, is responsible for the procurement of articles and managing the editorial calendars for these opportunities. Native is a key hybrid PR-advertising tool, which can be tracked and allows flexibility for content adjustments along the way.”
“PR is shifting toward playing a greater role in business development,” said Ms. Burkett. “By working with key practice areas to understand their business development goals, PR professionals can design a strategy that aligns with and can support business development initiatives. Making PR an integral part of the business development efforts adds to the value that PR brings.”
Marketing Will Continue to Integrate
All three recognize the importance of the convergence of media relations, content marketing and digital PR. Over the past year alone, more and more marketers are finding ways to align all marketing tactics via an integrated approach commonly referred to as “integrated marketing.”
“All these elements are essential to a comprehensive and integrated approach to PR,” said Ms. Burkett. “Oftentimes, when people think of PR, they likely think solely of the media relations aspect of PR. But PR is public relations, not just media relations, so an effective PR strategy should also encompass those channels outside traditional media that have the potential to shape public perception. And content marketing and digital PR typically allow for greater control of the message and offer a more direct channel to the audience. PR packs a bigger punch with a combination of earned, owned and shared media.”
“This convergence is a positive trend because it allows us to be strategic and to coordinate our targeted messages across many mediums,” said Ms. Apostolos. “One unexpected result is that it has actually facilitated a closer working relationship among our communications team because people from different functions are collaborating more.”
Ms. McCormick said, “We don’t really have the luxury of focusing in one area anymore. We need to work across a variety of distribution channels. Media relations is still important, but it is not enough to get your message out. You need to be thinking broader. How can you use social media? How can you use video? We have been working hard over the last two years to incorporate more video into our efforts. It can be a bit of a challenge; you need to build champions.”
“We have been doing a lot of work on attorney bio videos and office videos, trying to show the personalities of our attorneys and each office, and they are all different,” Ms. McCormick continued. “Recently, we got a great piece of client feedback on our Dubai office video. The attorneys there were really pleased that people were responding favorably and that the video was helping them showcase more than just the one touch some clients might have with their lead attorney.”
JAMS also recognizes how effective video can be to the PR effort, and this year used video for its promotion of Mediation Week, an American Bar Association effort. “We used ‘#mediationworks’ in conjunction with a video campaign in which our mediators spoke about cases they resolved and the benefits of mediation,” said Ms. Apostolos. “Through this video initiative, we gained new Twitter followers and our LinkedIn analytics spiked during the month of October when the videos were shared.”
The Importance of Professional Development
Given the fast-paced changes occurring in the public relations field, continuing education is more important than ever. The three PR pros I spoke with had resources in common that prove to be helpful in their personal professional development and in helping to keep them on top of their game.
“The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is a tremendous resource that offers numerous ways to stay informed,” said Ms. Burkett. “Their regular ‘Issues & Trends’ emails feature the latest articles from a variety of publications, highlighting topics related not only to PR and digital media, but also leadership and general business trends. PRSA’s on-demand webinars cover a range of topics, and local chapters offer the opportunity to network, discuss challenges and share best practices with other PR professionals. And, of course, the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) is another invaluable resource. To be able to connect directly with other PR professionals who work in the legal field is very beneficial in helping to stay on top of issues that are specific to the legal profession.”
“Ragan.com has a lot of good tips and articles, and I’ve greatly benefitted from Ragan’s trainings in the past,” added Ms. Apostolos.
Ms. McCormick echoed similar resources. “I am a member of PRSA and LMA, and I am ever hopeful that we can get our local LFMP [Law Firm Media Professionals] chapter back up and running. I follow a lot of great peers I have met through these groups online and learn a tremendous amount from what they post and share on social media. I also enjoy Ragan’s PR Daily.”
The Next Generation of Legal PR Pros
Young legal PR professionals continue to be attracted to the field, and the three experts offered advice about PR skills for the next generation.
“Strong writing and effective storytelling are essential and timeless skills. While the formats may change over time, these foundational skills are absolutely necessary to differentiate yourself,” said Ms. Apostolos.
Ms. Burkett also advocates for the importance of strong communication skills. “From being able to write – whether it’s a press release or an email – to being able to talk to and maintain strong relationships with your clients and media contacts, being a good communicator is vital. And these days, it is a skill that is scarcer than people may think.”
Ms. Burkett continued, “Another important skill is storytelling – not just knowing how to tell a good story, but knowing when there is a good story to tell, and sometimes knowing when there isn’t a story to tell. Being able to recognize the difference greatly improves your value to your clients and to the media you work with.”
Ms. McCormick recommends developing your psychic tendencies. “Try to think of the questions your attorneys are going to ask before they do, and give them the answers. And then think about the questions they should ask you – and maybe don’t – and answer those, too. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You are the subject-area experts in communications, but you are not in your attorneys’ areas of practice. If you don’t know what they are talking about, ask. You look much more foolish pretending you know or assuming.”
Ms. Burkett imparted final words of wisdom about the state of legal PR. “It would be easy to just say that the only constant is change,” she said. “While change is inevitable and being able to adapt to change will always be important, there is another constant in PR: relationships. Building and maintaining relationships with media and creating relationships between your clients, the media and the public are the foundation of what we do. Strong relationships will always be an important part of PR, regardless of whatever changes the profession may experience.”
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