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By David M. Freedman and Paula Levis Suita
How do you react when you see other lawyers repeatedly quoted as authorities in the media? You probably feel some admiration and even some envy. You might ask yourself, as many others do, "How can I get quoted like that?"
Here is the answer to your question: You wage an expertise campaign. An expertise campaign is where you let the media know that you are available if they need a subject-matter expert (SME) to either provide background information about a news story or comment for attribution about the story. The goal of an expertise campaign is to get quoted often, in print or on the air. The key to the campaign is to keep periodically reminding the press of your availability.
Reporters rely on SMEs for two very important things—first, to gain a better understanding of a complex issue, and second, to convey to their audiences an insight or opinion that is credible only when it comes from a knowledgeable authority on the subject. 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.
On January 7, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed legislation to end taxes on stock dividends and accelerate income tax cuts, which he said would cost the U.S. Treasury about $670 billion. That afternoon, Bloomberg Business Radio personal finance programmer Suzanna Palmer sought out an expert to be a guest on the "Bloomberg Money Show" that evening, 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 Web site. With the producer's permission, Orlowsky later transcribed the program and mailed edited copies of the transcript to his clients and other contacts.
Why did Palmer call Orlowsky out of thousands of lawyers with similar expertise? Here is why.
Like most journalists, Palmer kept files full of background information on certain topics. She also maintained a contact-management database with the names of 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 sowed and nurtured over three years bore fruit in this instance.
Orlowsky has also talked about estate planning on local TV programs and has been quoted in magazines and e-zines in the personal finance field. But again, it didn't happen overnight. He planted the seeds and cultivated relationships with journalists for several months before he started getting their phone calls. Meanwhile, he has had dozens of bylined articles published in newspapers and newsletters. "My practice and my fees have grown much more quickly since I started doing media relations five years ago," Orlowsky says.
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, for example, 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.
That's how Business Week reporter Amy Borrus found a bankruptcy lawyer to provide a comment for her article on the new bankruptcy law that went into effect in October 2005. During her background research she found a very well-written article about the new law published in the St. Louis Dispatch and written by Norman Pressman. Pressman is a bankruptcy and creditors' rights lawyer with the five-lawyer firm Goldstein & Pressman in St. Louis. Borrus then called Pressman, who helped to explain the new law to her and also gave her the names and phone numbers of additional experts on the subject. As a result, the Business Week article quoted Pressman in its explanation of the complex "means test" for Chapter 7 relief.
Now that you have a good idea of how one 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 (or better yet, a topic that will shortly gain 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. When Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example, reporters received a flood of backgrounders, literally within a few hours, because a slew of law firms had been preparing for the eventuality of the law's passage.
The backgrounder's primary purpose is to educate. It should 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 dis-close and respect dissenting opinions for balance.
These 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 (but no gratuitous 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 (real people) are more compelling to reporters and their audiences.
When you write a bylined article that is published in a respected periodical, by all means 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 (not necessarily all at once) 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, while more than that might be considered a nuisance—you'll be foremost in the minds of reporters.