Stephanie Francis Ward: You may have noticed that some lawyers are often quoted in the press. They might have a practice that naturally garners attention; or perhaps they are great at explaining complex issues succinctly and have a good camera presence. Or it could just be they’re known for returning phone calls and emails in a timely manner.
How can you provide reporters with useful information in a way that also promotes you and your clients in a positive light?
I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, we’re discussing how lawyers can best approach the media when they’d like some press.
Joining me is Vivia Chen, a senior columnist with American Lawyer. Vivia is the creator and chief blogger of The Careerist. Welcome to the show, Vivia.
Vivia Chen: Thank you, Stephanie.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Yes, do you think—is there an art for lawyers who are good at sharing information in a way that’s useful to the media while also promoting themselves?
Vivia Chen: Well, I think it is important to think of it as a two-way street. You have to think in terms of what you’re trying to achieve for yourself or your client, but also what you can do for the reporter. I mean, the reporter is always after a good story—something that’s going to land her on the map.
So, you have to keep that in mind. It’s not just about, you know, what you can say about your client to highlight your client’s achievements, but also what does that add to the reporter’s portfolio, you know, her body of work?
Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you think that if you have useful information that automatically would promote yourself and your firmmdash;I know when you’re speaking with somebody else, it’s like “At my firm, we always do the best.” They give you the spiel about their firm.
That might be what they’re instructed to do, but my sense says that it’s really not useful. And if you can tell us something that’s useful to us that we’re interested in and is helpful, then we’re probably going to think of your firm in a positive light. Would you agree?
Vivia Chen: Absolutely. Yeah, you have to say something that’s a little more revealing than the fact that, you know, “our firm has the best anti-trust department in the city.” You have to say, what makes it stand out? What makes it special? Is it this certain personality that’s there, or is it some kind of unusual expertise within that expertise that make it stand out?
Otherwise, especially if you’re looking at the landscape of large firms, they really do tend to blend together.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And what you just said in terms of making yourself stand out, do you think that most lawyers who are savvy to get calls, do they understand that or is it something that’s kind of rare to find someone who really gets that and is good at it?
Vivia Chen: Well, I think there’s sort of a gap there., I guess lawyers these days are told they have to stand out, right? That it’s so competitive out there—you have to push yourself out there and just make a name for yourself.
But at the same time, they’re a little clumsy at it because they’re not sure how to do it properly. And I think sometimes they make the mistake of hiring a PR firm to help promote them, when that PR firm may not necessarily understand the intricacy of practice, nor do they they understand how the press works, especially those who are in the legal field who are really much more knowledgeable than they might be for the general public.
So I think it’s really a matter of being an informed consumer and an informed promoter. That’s where a lot of firms, I think, are lagging behind.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Very interesting. Do you think, overall, most of the PR strategy in the profession, is it more about getting attention for someone—either if it’s an attorney at your firm or a client—or is it about shaping the public’s viewpoint about a client or a situation?
Vivia Chen: I think that really depends on the organization. From what I’ve seen, law firms tend to promote individuals or practice groups, while advocacy groups tend to promote causes.
Now, that said, I think law firms and lawyers could be a little bit more proactive in advocating for their point of view, especially if they have a controversial client or controversial case. But I think law firms tend to be conservative. So when there’s something that’s controversial, they tend to shy away and try to really just stay below the radar.
Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. Say that you do want some press, what are some just really clever ways you’ve seen lawyers go about getting media attention?
Vivia Chen: Some lawyers are just naturally better at it than others. I mean, some people just have big personalities, you know, and they’re just natural whether you’re interviewing on the phone or whether they’re in front of a camera or even if you are submitting a question to them via email. Those are the big-personality types, and not everybody can aspire to be that.
So, for those who are your ordinary, let’s say, law firm lawyer who tends to be much more introverted, a little less press savvy, I guess the best way is to be good at what you’re doing and to gradually make a name for yourself as an expert in a certain field. You can weigh in on things. You can volunteer to speak about certain subjects.
Now, how you’re going to approach that is—really it takes time—that’s all I can say. You’re not going to get on my radar or anybody’s radar instantly. It takes time. It takes a bit of cultivation.
I guess lawyers who do some writing tend to grab my attention occasionally. Not so much on a legal press, but if they do some writing, say for Huff Po or do some editorials and so forth, I do notice them.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. Do you think—I was thinking about how people in our profession, how we look for stories. Do you think that we’re using things like Twitter more often now than the email or letter pitches that come to us?
Vivia Chen: Absolutely. I love Twitter because it’s really short.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right.
Vivia Chen: You know, if you can express something in Twitter—and I’ve gotten great story ideas from Twitter, I’d have to say, and sometimes it just hits you. If you express it in a way that somehow encapsulates what the essence of whatever you’re trying to say, then I’ll go with it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: It’s funny, because when I heard this story about how Twitter was considering expanding the character numbers, my first thought was “Well, crud, that means there’s going to be so much self-promotion on it and just garbage. It’s going to become like Linkedin. It’s just stuff that I have to—it will take me longer to scroll through.”
Vivia Chen: I absolutely agree.
Stephanie Francis Ward: With people having more words.
Vivia Chen: I will say this: If you send something out via Twitter and it doesn’t take the first time, try again. Reword it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. Right. Let’s go back to the pitches. We talked a little bit about what a good pitch would be. What kind of pitch would just—you would just X it out of your inbox right away? What’s a real turnoff for you in pitches?
Vivia Chen: Long pitches. Long, dense pitches, and I get these every day, where it seems to go on and on in tight, single-spaced emails, which really don’t get to the point. Now that’s the form. As far as the substance is concerned, anything that has to do with somebody winning an award, somebody being recognized or celebrated, those I tend to—my eyes kind of glaze over them because they really have very little news value, that somebody might be getting the Lawyer of the Year Award from the Chattanooga County or Talladega County or whatever.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And what do you think—I’m sure you probably get these too. We’ll get something in our inboxes, and it’ll be from a law firm marketing person and they say, you know, “we have so and so, he just joined the firm. He’s a wonderful IP lawyer. Would you like to discuss with him IP developments? Would you like to write about him?”
I don’t fault the person who wrote the email, because I suspect he or she was doing what the lawyers told them to do. But sometimes I read these and I think, “Who besides your mom would be interested in this?”
I mean, does it—how could we—do you have thoughts on how could you turn that around so maybe you could meet the ultimate goal and get some writing about this person you’ve been told to send a news release out?
Vivia Chen: Well, I think it’s pretty tough, to be honest with you. Those things seldom, seldom work. I mean, the only time it might work is if the timing is right. You know, news and everything else is about timing. If you happen to get somebody who is an expert in some area—white collar crime, for instance, and there happens to be a case that’s out there, and you’re desperate, and you need to write about it and you’re desperate for a commentary immediately. Then that’s when the stars are aligned and that works out.
But I would not count on it. But I think it’s fine, you know, tell me what’s going on. I don’t mind. I’ll probably ignore it but I don’t mind it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: [laughs] OK. What are some things—can you think of some examples over the years of something in a press release that just really got your attention?
Vivia Chen: Absolutely. Anything with statistics, charts, numbers, something that appears more substantive will get my attention. If you’re doing that and at the same time you’re telling me it’s an exclusive for me, because that’s an area I cover and you know what I cover, then you’re golden.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. We talked about Twitter a bit. Have you seen some other ways that the professionals have used social media to get our attention in a really clever way?
Vivia Chen: To be perfectly honest, no.
Stephanie Francis Ward: How interesting.
Vivia Chen: The reason is because I think lawyers are pretty bad at social media. They’re shy about it. They’re not informed about it. They’re conservative about the whole idea.
And the second reason is because law is not a particularly visual medium. A lot of what works in social media has to do with, you know, a striking image, a funny image, and law just doesn’t really lend itself to that.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Uh-huh. What’s more efficient for you? If you are setting up an interview with someone, would you rather deal with the subject directly, or do you think it’s easier to work with their PR person to set things up?
Vivia Chen: Well, sometimes it’s more efficient to work through a PR person because they’re very good at logistics and, you know, just to set up things or if there’s a cancellation, they’re much more reliable than a lawyer who gets caught up in his work.
Stephanie Francis Ward: OK, besides having useful information to share with you, what are some things that a lawyer could do that makes you think of him or her the next time you need someone in that person’s practice area?
Vivia Chen: Well, I would say the best way to keep yourself on our radar screen is to engage us. Truth is reporters love feedback. We really want to hear from our readers, especially those we write about. So, even if the feedback is negative, I’m really receptive to hearing back as to what you think about what I’ve written. So, I would say keep us engaged. If you like something, tell me why you like it. If you disagree with something I’ve written, tell me why you disagree with it. And that way you will really make a much deeper impression on me as somebody who knows what they’re talking about.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Interesting. On the other hand, can you think of some things over the years that after you interviewed with somebody, you thought “Gosh, I’m never calling him again if I can possibly avoid it.”
Vivia Chen: Oh, I have a long list of people in that category!
Stephanie Francis Ward: Because the longer you do it, you forget who is on the list. You’re like, “Do I like them or not?”
Vivia Chen: It’s not—I don’t even mind engaging with people I disagree with, or maybe not even like, that’s fine.
But the people I have a hard time with having an ongoing relationship with are people who just come off immediately as being suspicious of the press. And that’s happened to me a number of times. You know, people are aware of some of the things I cover, and I tend to cover a lot about issues concerning women or diversity and sometimes, you know, lifestyle issues and so forth.
Every now and then I’ll be covering a story, let’s say about, you know, the number of women equity partners at a law firm. And I’ll call up a managing partner about it, and sometimes the partner will—the first thing out of his mouth—and it’s usually a “he”—and he’ll say something like, “I know what your agenda is.” Immediately they go on the defensive, and I’m on the defensive, and it just creates a really bad starting point. It usually goes downhill from there.
The other type of lawyer who is a turnoff are people who tell you that everything is “off the record.” You know, if everything is off the record, it’s really pretty useless for me. And sometimes people will want things off the record which seem incredibly harmless. You know, it will be statistical information, like how many male versus female partners they have.
When somebody starts on that kind of footing, you realize they really don’t understand how I operate. They don’t understand what I need to write a story, and it just creates this really unnecessarily tension-filled relationship.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. Well, in terms of how you do your work, do you have some ground rules for what’s off the record and what’s on, and how they set it up? What’s your advice—if somebody wanted to tell you something that’s off the record,I guess your first piece of advice would say don’t. But say it was important to them, what—I mean, how should they go about doing it?
Vivia Chen: I always say people can tell me when they’re on the record, when they’re off the record, they can go off and on. That’s fine, and if they’re on background, that’s fine too. But usually, the understanding is if I’m starting an interview, everything is on the record.
Stephanie Francis Ward: What does your publication—or are there rules about unnamed sources? Can you use them? Because I find when someone says they want to be off the record and you say, “Can I use without your name?” they’ll say yes, but not all publications allow for that.
Vivia Chen: We tend to shy away from that; however, there are always exceptions to that rule. I mean, sometimes the subject matter is just too sensitive and that’s understandable. So, we will allow some non-attributed quotes.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. And going back to what you said about if you call someone and they say “what’s your agenda,” have you found in your experience that when a source does seem really defensive or argumentative, perhaps he or she is concerned you’re going to find something out about them that they don’t want you to know. That can be a sign. That’s like kind of a weakness to a certain extent, and showing your cards. Would you agree?
Vivia Chen: Absolutely. In fact, sometimes I’m not even sure they intend it that way. I mean, sometimes I think they don’t have anything to hide, but they’re just being so defensive at the beginning, it makes me feel like “Oh, my gosh, there must be something more to this.”
You know, lawyers are just a little bit—I guess by training, they’re a little bit paranoid.
Stephanie Francis Ward: They are really nervous sometimes, it seems like. Perhaps as reporters, we forget that they’re nervous about speaking to us if they don’t do it a lot. Would you agree?
Vivia Chen: Absolutely. Absolutely, and sometimes they like to hide behind the skirts of their PR people, which to me does not help their credibility. I mean, I’ve had instances where I’ve interviewed some very high-power, well-known lawyer, and they will insist on having their PR person there. And to me, it just really diminishes their stature and their credibility.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Interesting. Well, what do you think about when the source wants their PR person to sit in on the interview? Do you mind?
Vivia Chen: You know, I find it mildly annoying. I’m pretty good at this point at tuning them off. I mean, but they are kind of like having a chaperone on a date. [laughter] You know, you’re supposed to get to know the person you’re talking to. You’re supposed to develop this relationship and maybe hit some points of intimacy, but instead you have this third-wheel in the room.
Now, sometimes they—sometimes the PR person will interject herself and sometimes they won’t. Generally, I think it’s, you know, if you must be there, be seen but don’t be heard. That would be my rule.
As I said, I find it mildly annoying. I’ve been pretty good at tuning it out, but I know some reporters won’t allow it at all. And frequently, editors will tell us we should not have a third person there.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, really? That’s interesting.
Vivia Chen: Yeah. I think these days though, lawyers like celebrities have gotten used to this idea of having a PR person. They do regard them as a crutch of some sort—like a psychological crutch.
But, you know, most of us, I think we’re willing to put up with it to a certain extent. And I’ve found that the PR person sometimes actually can be useful, too, in that if there’s something that needs a follow-up, the PR person will get back to me on it; or if there is a verification of some kind of fact that I’m discussing during an interview, the PR person can get back to me. So, you know, I’ve sort of learned to use them as a third source of information.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. I think that’s a really good point. Do you think lawyers consider being quoted or going on TV and cultivating relationships with the media, do they see that as business development?
Vivia Chen: Absolutely. I think that’s the era we live in, isn’t it?
Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah.
Vivia Chen: Everybody wants to be a celebrity of some sort. You want to be a brand name.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Yes, that’s absolutely true.
Vivia Chen: That’s the aspiration!
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. All right. Well, I think that’s everything I wanted to ask you today. Did you want to add anything else?
Vivia Chen: I think that’s basically it. I mean, I would encourage people if they want to be quoted and want to have some kind of public profile, they have to try to relax a little bit. Try to talk freely. Be willing to be a little provocative. Show a little skin, because otherwise you’re just another lawyer amongst the sea of other lawyers that we see all the time.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. Vivia, that’s everything I have for you today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Vivia Chen: Thank you.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. Thank you for listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.
End of transcript
Updated on Feb. 4 to add transcript.