Bar communications: Fear no media: Communications advice for the smaller bar

Volume 32 Number 1

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If you are the executive director or president of a bar association that does not have a communications director, should you sit back and hope the year passes without any contact from the media? Or should you send a press release every time you hold a luncheon, elect new officers, or give an award?

The answer to both of these questions is no, according to Brad Carr, director of communications at the Alabama State Bar, and Adrienne Drell, a veteran newspaper journalist and instructor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

“You can’t be reclusive if you’re going to be the head of your bar association,” said Drell, speaking at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago this past March. Your bar needs you to get its message out to the public, and keeping in touch with members of the media is a great way to do that.

But the best way to get your message out might not be to blanket your local media outlets with press releases, Carr added: “Most press releases wind up in a waste bin.”

Press conferences are similarly overused, Drell said, and should be held only sparingly, when something is “really newsworthy.”

So, what should you do if you are not media-savvy but must play the role of bar communicator?

Ask, ‘What’s news?’

The first thing to do, Drell advised, is to learn what is newsworthy and what isn’t. News is original, distinctive, romantic, perhaps odd, she said: “News is what people are talking about, or will want to talk about.” Realistically, that likely rules out much of what goes on at your bar—but not all of it. It’s a matter of taking the tremendous resources you have and making them appealing and useful for reporters and editors, Drell said.

It’s a good idea to read and watch the news, both local and national, she said. And besides TV and newspapers, which are great to keep up with, you might also want to check into blogs or special-focus magazines (such as those covering parenting topics, the environment, or gay and lesbian issues) that might have an interest in particular legal matters or events at your bar.

As for reaching out to the media, it’s best to start in your own backyard, Drell noted; while it’s useful to follow the national media to get ideas, it’s your local TV and radio stations and newspapers that will give you your best exposure. Many local TV and radio stations are hungry for public service announcements to fulfill FCC requirements and will likely respond favorably if you can offer something suitable, she said.

Also, introduce yourself to the editor of your local paper’s editorial page, Drell advised. Then, every so often, call and offer to write a piece, perhaps about 300 words long, on a law-related topic that has been in the news. But beware, she added—the editor might very well say, “Yes, and can you have it by 3:00?” It’s best to have something prepared before you call, and be sure to run it by someone else if writing is not your strong suit, she said.

Carr noted that it might be possible to recraft your president’s page and submit it as a newspaper op ed, so you won’t have to start from scratch. “Sometimes, we overlook using that as a resource,” he said.

Besides the editorial page editor, get to know the business reporter, the courthouse reporter, and perhaps even the lifestyle reporter, Drell said. Reporters always need sources, she explained, and legal matters often make the news. It might be possible to “piggyback” on a topic that is getting a lot of attention, she added, and offer reporters expert local sources for a topic that has national scope.

One recent example is the death of Anna Nicole Smith and the resulting conflict over her estate. You could ask members who deal with estates or family law if they might be able to field a few questions, Drell said, and then you could call an editor or reporter to ask if he or she would like to talk to these local experts about estate planning or DNA testing.

“You’re just using something that’s already in the news to provide information,” Carr clarified, adding that it’s not necessary for the members to offer opinions on the particulars of the case—instead, they could provide useful information that relates to the area of the law at hand.

Become a trusted source

“Lawyers don’t respect deadlines as long as judges grant continuances,” Carr said, pointing out a difference that could cause conflict between lawyers and journalists. Because journalists live and die by their deadlines, respecting those deadlines is imperative to building a strong relationship with them.

But that doesn’t mean you must respond instantaneously to every query, Carr said; on the contrary, it’s a good idea to take some time to consider the topic and determine what positions, if any, the bar has on it. “Personal opinion never trumps [bar] policy, when there is one,” he noted. How can you meet both the journalist’s and the bar’s needs? Carr suggested training your assistant or receptionist to ask journalists who call, “Are you on a deadline?” and “When can he or she get back to you?”

Once you do talk to the journalist, do not expect that you will give information with the condition that you won’t be quoted. Off-the-record conversations with journalists take place “only in the movies,” Carr said; go into any conversation knowing that journalists are almost always looking for quotes, and anything you say is on the record.

Still, Drell said, there were times when she really was looking for background information and assistance, and she was glad to have a network of reliable sources to guide her through the legal thicket. On her second day working as a reporter in a courthouse, Drell was trying to sort through a long, complicated verdict and appreciated being able to call a lawyer she knew and have him walk her through some of the key points.

Constant mass mailings of press releases on bar events may not be the way to build a relationship, but Carr and Drell said there are effective ways to use press releases or other written communications. In addition to contacting the media with sources who can speak on hot topics like the Anna Nicole Smith case, Drell said, you might also want to send out releases each week, each month, or every so often, listing lawyers (again, prescreened) who can speak on more general legal issues. Carr noted that some bars subscribe to an online preview of Supreme Court cases that comes from the ABA Division for Public Education and that passing along some of the highlights might be a good way to keep in touch.

As for press conferences, if you do have something to announce that is of genuine interest—judicial evaluations are one good example, Drell said—you might want to check with a friendly reporter before you schedule a day and time. In general, she added, Sunday is a good day for a press conference because federal offices are closed and there’s typically not much going on.

Protect credibility

What if you take the risk of reaching out to the media—and then you’re misquoted? Or what if you’re not misquoted, but there are other inaccuracies or an apparent slant against the profession?

You must protect the bar’s credibility at all costs, Carr said, and sometimes the best way to do that is to do nothing at all. Before you respond, take a little time to ask yourself and others if the story is really detrimental and requires a response. If it’s not so bad—say, the reporter wrote you had 2,500 members and you actually have 2,892—and if you respond anyway, you’re just compounding it by making it a running story, he explained. But if after a quick consultation it does seem to require a response, Carr said, it’s important to respond “right now, not in 24 hours.”

How do you respond? A brief, clear letter to the editor, written the same day the article comes out, is one good choice, Carr and Drell said. Drell also recommended contacting the writer directly to let him or her know of the inaccuracies and to “warmly and convincingly” provide the facts. “Don’t make an enemy,” she advised.

Seek cheap—or free—help

Feeling overwhelmed? There’s help available. Sample president’s pages, op eds, and message triangles (communications tools often used to respond to contentious issues) are available for free through the ABA Division for Bar Services (www.abanet.org/barserv) and ABA Division of Media Relations and Communications Services (www.abanet.org/media/home.html).

Another helpful resource, Carr said, is the Public Relations Student Society of America (www.prssa.org), which has chapters at colleges all over the country with members who are eager for real work experience. Drell added that you can sweeten the deal by offering a small stipend or setting up a paid or unpaid internship.

For special events such as Law Day, you might want to consider hiring a freelance writer to create speeches or other materials, Carr said. If the purpose of the event fits with your bar foundation’s mission, Drell added, you might be able to secure some funding that way.

But a great—and free—writer just might be in your next CLE session or at a spouse event at your annual meeting. “Look within your own membership,” Carr advised. “Quite a few lawyers at one time were journalists or went to journalism school.”

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