GPSolo March 2007
How to Become a Highly Quotable Source
Here are pointers for how to get and keep your name in front of the press, which in turn will help you keep your name in front of the marketplace.
Planting the seeds. On January 7, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed legislation to end taxes on stock dividends and accelerate income tax cuts. That afternoon, Bloomberg Business Radio personal finance programmer Suzanna Palmer sought out an expert to be a guest on the “Bloomberg Money Show” that evenings to help explain the proposed tax cuts and how they would affect taxpayers and the economy. She called Alan G. Orlowsky, a tax and estate planning attorney and CPA whose two-lawyer firm is in Northbrook, Illinois. Orlowsky appeared for an hour on the call-in talk show, which airs in New York City on WBBR-AM radio and also nationally through Bloomberg’s website.
Why did Palmer call Orlowsky out of thousands of lawyers with similar expertise? Here is why. Three years earlier, with the help of his PR consultant, Orlowsky had sent his media kit to Palmer (and other media outlets), along with a cover letter that introduced him as an authority on tax and estate law. Before mailing the package, he called Bloomberg to ascertain that Palmer was the appropriate individual to contact. Every three or four months after that first contact, he sent Palmer story ideas based on current trends in tax estate planning. Once a year he called her to confirm that she still welcomed his periodic missives. Finally, when President Bush proposed the tax cut, Palmer called Orlowsky because she was impressed with his knowledge of the subject and the articulate way in which he explained complex subjects in understandable terms.
Like most journalists, Palmer kept files full of background information on certain topics. She also maintained a contact-management database with the names of subject matter experts (SMEs) to call on for comments when particular kinds of stories broke. It’s possible that she called one or two other experts from her database who were not available that evening before she called Orlowsky. But the fact is the seeds that Orlowsky had sown and nurtured over three years bore fruit in this instance.
Establishing authority through legal writings. Reporters and program directors have a constant need for SMEs, and they have every bit as much incentive to cultivate relationships with experts as you do to cultivate relationships with journalists. They can’t afford to wait for SMEs like Orlowsky to contact them, however. They attend conferences, hearings, committee meetings, and trade shows, where they meet and bond with the foremost authorities in their fields.
Further, because their news coverage must appear balanced and unbiased, most reputable journalists depend on multiple SMEs on any given topic, rather than rely on the same few sources time after time. So there are always opportunities to become a new source for the media outlets that you target.
Also, when journalists go looking for an SME in the legal field, they do not necessarily look to the biggest or most prominent law firms. They look for individuals who are supremely knowledgeable, articulate, and available. If there is no such expert in the reporter’s contact database, then the reporter finds an SME by combing through the literature in the field, looking for authors of authoritative articles, white papers, and studies.
Putting the pieces in place: The sustained campaign. Now that you have a good idea of how you can become a quotable source, let’s review the essential points of an expertise campaign. For starters, do not wait until a news story breaks to contact a reporter and say you’re a quotable expert. Then it’s too late. The reporter is already on the phone with your competitor. Plant the seed now by sending your media kit and following up with a cordial phone call. Then, if the reporter encourages you to send background information and story ideas from time to time, do just that.
Also, you need to provide a steady stream of educational literature: originally written backgrounders, white papers, newsletters, and articles. “Originally written” means composed by you or others in your firm. No “canned” literature (written by publishing companies and sold to law firms to distribute with their imprint) will do. And, of course, all literature that you send to reporters should include brief bios of the authors and their contact information.
A backgrounder is a comprehensive exposition on a narrow topic that has recently gained media attention. It is usually three to five pages long, for the benefit of journalists who cover that particular subject area. Don’t wait too long after a topic gains popular media attention to write a backgrounder—there’s no point in sending one to a media outlet that has already covered the topic comprehensively.
The backgrounder’s primary purpose is to educate. It does not strongly advocate a point of view, take a firm position, promote a product or service, or espouse a company policy. You may express your own opinion, but you also want to disclose and respect dissenting opinions for balance.
White papers are usually longer and more formal, sometimes with copious footnotes. Although their primary function is to enlighten readers regarding a serious, controversial, critical, or confusing issue, they are often used to convey the firm’s position on the issue. But to appeal to the press, the position must be novel, fresh, contrarian, or innovative.
Firm newsletters can be just as valuable to the press as they are to your clients, prospects, and referral sources. The most common mistake that law firms make, however, is writing on broad topics, which necessarily results in superficial articles. Keep your topics narrow and cover them in depth, using details, anecdotes, case studies, examples, supporting data, and graphics. If you find that you don’t have space for details and examples, your topic is probably too broad.
If you use real anecdotes and case studies, you must get permission from the parties involved or disguise their identities. Hypothetical examples are safer from a privacy standpoint, but real cases are more compelling to reporters and their audiences.
When you write a bylined article that is published in a respected periodical, send reprints or photocopies of it to the reporters on your contact list if you think it will help them understand a complex subject or issue. Always enclose a cover letter, giving a synopsis (no more than two to four sentences) and analysis of how the story affects the media outlet’s audience (a paragraph or two). You should customize the cover letter for each media outlet. Be assured, the time you put into that effort will be a good investment.
In the end, the more educational literature you can provide and the higher the quality of that literature, the better the chances that reporters will call you for comments when a story breaks in your area of expertise. If you keep a stream of literature flowing—two to six times a year is ideal, but any more might be considered a nuisance—you’ll be foremost in the minds of reporters.
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David M. Freedman is the editorial director of Eminent Publishing Company; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Paula Levis Suita is a partner in Smith & Suita, Inc., a public relations and marketing firm; she can be reached at email@example.com. Freedman and Suita are coauthors of The Get Good Press Series for Lawyers ( www.getgoodpress.com).