But why spend money to engage a PR firm? The answer is that an outside communications expert can offer a unique vantage point, assess situations differently, and act in a more objective way. Lawyers and law firms often assume the world understands their issues, language, and perspective the way they do. Skilled PR professionals approach a project with an eye on the bottom line-creating communication that will have an impact on external audiences.
Family Advocate: Marketing Your Family Law Practice (Buy Issue)To many people, public relations can be a little fuzzy. I'm often asked "now, exactly what is it you people do?" My standard answer is that public relations is the practice of building and maintaining an organization's reputation—its good name.

Another advantage is resources. Good PR firms have people who specialize in dealing with the media. They get to know the media, understand their work environment, and most importantly, what makes them interested in a story. They build relationships with reporters and editors over the years and bring these contacts to a law client.

The true essence of PR is building relationships, and PR folks pride themselves on the community and business connections they accumulate as well. Our job is to infuse creativity into everything we do, whether it's in solving a difficult communication challenge or selling something. In today's media-saturated world, creativity can be the difference between being heard and seen or being condemned to obscurity in the Yellow Pages.

Hiring a firm

Keep several points in mind when searching out a PR firm.

1. Understand what you need. A law firm that can identify the desired communication outcomes and the gaps that are barriers to ful?lling them has a good start in knowing what it needs from a PR firm.

2. Get referrals. Talk with other law firms about their experiences. Ask for names and look at the PR firm's background and experience. Many firms specialize by area of practice (e.g., in publicity, media training, community relations, crisis communications) or industry. However, the best way to be confident that an agency really does have the goods is to check out the background of key personnel.

3. Consider the size of the agency. Large firms can offer tremendous resources and bench strength, but smaller firms may be more attentive, and firm principals are more likely to be directly involved in your account. The downside is that a small firm won't have the level of in-house resources of a larger firm and may outsource some services.

4. Personality, comfort level, and trust. Interview the principals. Simply stated, if you don't like someone, it's hard to trust them. Take some time with the interviews and get to know those who will be working on your account. A greater comfort level will pay dividends in the long run.

5. Search the Internet. Any worthwhile firm will have an informative Web site that will outline the capabilities, experiences, and backgrounds of principals and key personnel. Some will feature case histories. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Web site ( www.prsa.org) provides information about the profession and how to select a PR firm. Most areas of the country have a local PRSA chapter with Web sites, and some include member listings.

Money

The first practicality that comes into play when considering a PR firm is money. Fees generally are dictated by the market; larger markets command higher fees. Public relations firms work just as law firms do: on a project-based flat fee, a retainer, or on a time-and-materials basis. Short-term projects, perhaps the launch of a new law firm specialty or communicating a merger, would lend themselves to a project fee or time-and-materials arrangement (often with a "not to exceed" price). Longer projects or ongoing work will usually work best under a retainer agreement. Ask for a rate schedule and make sure to agree on charges for travel and other expenses that may be incurred above the hourly fees.

Structure

Beyond the financial terms, your relationship must be structured. A solid work plan forms the foundation for PR programming, and clear lines of communication, approvals, and clearance ensure that things will go smoothly when the pressure is on. If you are concerned about ethical considerations, access PRSA's Code of Ethics on its Web site, including a comprehensive set of ethics guidelines complete with examples.

Another reason for a good structure is speed. Events and issues evolve rapidly, and a streamlined process that is set up from the beginning can be critical to your PR success. Building a rewarding relationship with a PR firm means fitting the right pieces into place from the beginning and building on a solid foundation of trust. Doing so will help to avoid pitfalls, foster success, and ensure a happy marriage of law firm and agency. FA

Charles M. Lombardo has a 20-year background in public relations and marketing. He is President and founder of CML Marketing Communications, a full-service marketing communications firm located in Traverse City, Michigan. Contact him at www.cmlmc.com.

Published in Family Advocate, Volume 29, No. 2, Fall 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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