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Vol. 38, No. 5

Bar communicators help incoming presidents sprint toward great columns and interviews

Is it possible for an incoming bar president to learn all there is to know about communications in a brisk hour and 10 minutes? Of course not—but as it turns out, some quick instruction delivered by expert bar communicators can give them a great head start.

Sprinting from room to room at the 2014 ABA Bar Leadership Institute (in order to address three different audiences, grouped by bar size), were: Tim Eigo, editor of the State Bar of Arizona’s Arizona Attorney; Mark A. Tarasiewicz, executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and formerly its communications director; and Jamie A. Triplin, senior social media specialist at the District of Columbia Bar.

It’s likely that each session was a little different; this article is based on the tips that Eigo and Tarasiewicz offered to incoming presidents of bar associations with fewer than 2,000 members. (Note: Because Triplin also spoke at a later program focused on social media, we will cover her tips from this “sprint” and that later, more specific program in a combined article in the next issue.)

President’s pages: From dull to ‘Whoa!’

That’s how Eigo phrased the kind of help he was there to provide, and he came armed with plenty of examples of what makes a great president’s page. One key, Eigo said, is to think not just about what you want to say, but about why the reader should care. Thinking back on the 15 presidents he’s worked with, Eigo identified half a dozen ways to draw readers’ attention:

  1. Write about tips and tools that can help improve a reader’s practice.
  2. Highlight a great bar association program or speaker (but Eigo suggested not doing this in every column).
  3. Invite readers to email you about a particular topic or question, and then write about what you hear from them.
  4. Steal a great idea from someone else. For example, Eigo suggested reading mass-market magazines and perhaps borrowing their propensity toward lists.
  5. Use humor … sometimes.
  6. Include great images or a punchy title.

Eigo shared some specific examples of columns that went over especially well—most, but not all, from his own bar association:

How do you come up with such compelling ideas? It takes planning, Eigo said. “The best time to think of story ideas was 20 years ago,” he believes. “The second best time is now.” If you begin now to jot down some notes during conversations with members, while attending movies or plays, or going about your life—including family life—you can start making a solid plan so you won’t have to panic over what to write about, Eigo said.

“Those that go into the year with a plan are going to do better” in their critical role as “chief engagement officer at the bar,” Eigo advised. How important is the president’s page to that part of the leader’s role? Enough that Eigo really doesn’t like the idea of doing away with the column or ceding it to a guest.

There’s no question that it can be stressful, Eigo said, but the group of past presidents he consulted with before BLI told him that the president’s page turned out to be “one of their fondest memories, and one of the things that drove the most engagement with members.”

‘Do good things, then tell others that you did them.’

That’s the definition of public relations, Tarasiewicz said—and when you become bar president, you also become a PR practitioner.

“The court of law and the court of public opinion could not be more different,” Tarasiewicz said, noting that for proof, all you need to do is get a transcript from a trial and compare it with how that same trial was covered by a gossipy media outlet such as TMZ.

Whereas a trial usually has a deciding moment and a fixed conclusion, the same isn’t true for public opinion, which is often shaped by fragments of facts that might shift over time. “The hero of 2013 can become the villain of 2014,” Tarasiewicz noted.

One way to prepare for the inevitable call from the media, Tarasiewicz advised, is to “read things outside of your comfort zone”—including the mass-market magazines that Eigo recommended. Also, look through your Twitter and Facebook news feeds if you have accounts there, Tarasiewicz suggested; the goal is to stay up to date on what the public is thinking about.

Realize, too, that public opinion doesn’t just traffic in thought: “Human beings feel first and think second,” Tarasiewicz said, and that’s how the media operate, as well. When talking to a reporter, he added, it’s important to humanize the issue you’re talking about, and to use storytelling techniques to help bring it to life.

For example, when current chancellor William P. Fedullo talks to the media about the bar’s Support Our Schools Campaign, he talks about children who attend city schools that can’t even afford enough No. 2 pencils.

Whatever you say to a reporter, Tarasiewicz said, it’s important to say something—and that shouldn’t be “no comment.” If you’re not prepared, he said, it’s better to say you’ll call back in 30 minutes (and then make sure to do just that). If you really can’t comment, he said, it helps if you explain honestly why it is that you can’t.

But do help if you can, Tarasiewicz said. “If you help a reporter, they’ll never forget it,” he explained, and this can come in handy when the bar has a message it wants to get out.

If you can get a little time to prepare for your interview, plan out your key message in advance so you can find ways to highlight it. And remember that it’s an interview, not a speech; you don’t have to cram everything you want to say into one answer, Tarasiewicz said, noting that “the more you say, the more your message is diluted.” Keep in mind that you will be asked at least a follow-up question or two, he advised, so you’ll have a chance to get your message out in stages.

What if the reporter or editor makes a mistake? Tarasiewicz recommended remaining calm, lest an angry response sour what could be an important relationship. “Don’t get into an argument with people who buy ink by the barrel,” he said; instead, simply explain what was wrong and ask if the reporter can correct it.

In many cases, Tarasiewicz noted, this is only possible very soon after the story comes out—and the media outlet may be willing to give a clarification, not full a correction. Tarasiewicz likes to draft these himself, to make it easier for the reporter or editor.

It’s also important, he added, to recognize the many times that things don’t go wrong. “Say thank you to the reporters who get it right,” Tarasiewicz advised. “If you send them an email like that, you’ll stand out.”

(Here are the handouts from this program. Video of Eigo's presentation will be available soon on the Writing Effective President Pages Resource Page at the Bar Services website.)