What to do when there’s no news: 7 proactive PR tips for law firms
We always tell our law firm clients that it’s important to have sustained legal PR efforts. Media relations isn’t something you can do in fits and starts and expect consistent results. It’s hard to stay top of mind with journalists if they don’t hear from you that often. You must come to them fairly regularly with quality story ideas so they remember you’re out there.
But what if there’s nothing going on that’s worth pitching? It’s not like big litigation victories or massive M&A deals happen on demand. There are lulls in the practice of law — and that’s when savvy lawyers have to get proactive with their PR efforts.
Here are some ways to keep the pitch hopper full when there’s no breaking news to trumpet.
1) Become a third-party source for journalists
Nothing happening with your own cases or other matters that’s worth a media pitch? It’s time to pivot to serving as a valuable source to journalists covering lawsuits, deals and other issues that fall within your experience. This is called third-party commentary and is a very important part of the legal PR toolbox.
It’s not hard to do, either. Most lawyers stay informed on key developments in their practice areas. This is just good lawyering — but it can also be leveraged to sustain legal PR efforts. Since you’re already spending (unbillable) time on this, why not get even more out of it?
So, keep an eye on new litigation involving the kinds of clients you represent (or would like to represent). Other things to watch include pending deals, government enforcement investigations, regulatory changes, etc… Anything you have experience litigating or advising clients on is fair game for third-party commentary, provided you can be a good source.
As for how to find all of this…
2) Set up Google News alerts
When it comes to proactive law firm PR, Google News alerts are the best not-so-secret weapon. You can set up a keyword for anything you want to track and Google will automatically send you an email whenever it’s mentioned.
Say, for example, you’re following a particular case that you’d like journalists to know you can discuss. Simply set up a Google News alert with either the name of the case or something like “Smith Industries and Jones Enterprises and lawsuit” and Google will notify you when a media story runs with those words. (Tip: Use quotation marks around phrases or names to ensure Google picks up anything with that exact phrase).
It’s a good idea to do some Google News searches with different keyword combinations to figure out which one(s) will give you the best results. Then, just scroll to the bottom of the first results page and click where it asks if you want to set up an alert. Easy peasy.
You can do this for anything you’d like to comment on, not just the names of cases or litigants. Maybe you’d like potential Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) whistleblowers to know you can represent them? Set up alerts for “PPP fraud” or “CARES Act Fraud” to keep tabs on stories covering that topic. Similarly, a Google News alert for “long-term care abuse” or “DOJ and nursing home taskforce” would bring up stories about government investigations and enforcement actions.
A side benefit of using Google News alerts is that it not only keeps you updated on new stories, but you also see the names of the journalists and outlets covering them. So, in addition to reading the coverage, it’s important to also jot down the reporter and media organization names. These are the journalists you’ll pitch.
Speaking of pitching…
3) Draft a source guide and send to journalists
Once you’ve got those Google alerts rolling in, it’s time to think about how to leverage that newfound information about current stories in your wheelhouse and the journalists covering them. One way to do this is through a source guide.
You can think of a source guide as a form of broad media pitch. Instead of focusing on just one topic, such as a litigation victory, a source guide provides a sense of how you’d contribute to a journalist’s stories on a variety of related topics. They are a great way to approach reporters who cover a specific beat.
So, say there’s a reporter at The Wall Street Journal who covers biotech startups, and you just happen to handle intellectual property for those kinds of clients. A great way to get on that reporter’s radar is to send them a source guide to introduce yourself and provide some story ideas and trends you can discuss.
Source guides usually have two parts. The first is a mini bio for the lawyer. This should be tailored to the specific areas of interest for the reporter, and can leave out information such as education, etc… Basically, this is a slightly longer elevator pitch that lets the journalist know why they should consider this particular lawyer as a source.
The next part of a source guide is a concise, bulleted list of current topics and trends the lawyer can discuss. These should be very specific and as “newsy” as possible. Avoid generic or broad descriptions such as “intellectual property issues facing biotech companies.” A journalist likely already has a stable of sources who can discuss that. But something along the lines of “Biotech startups are increasingly vulnerable right now to scrutiny from the PTAB during inter partes review because…” will likely perk a journalist’s news antenna right up.
It’s important to recognize that sending a source guide might not trigger an immediate call from a reporter. We recently had a situation where an editor got in touch to request a bylined article from the client we pitched more than a year after receiving our source guide pitch. So, it can be a bit of a long game, but it’s really worth considering if you want key journalists to know who you are.
4) Offer background briefings
Most journalists are smart people who have spent significant time learning about the beats they cover. Because of this, they are almost always looking to add to that knowledge, particularly when it comes to new developments. This is where offering a background briefing can be very helpful in establishing a relationship with a journalist.
Often, when we pitch a source guide for a lawyer, we also offer a background briefing to the journalist. These are open-ended, off-the-record conversations that provide an opportunity for a reporter to get to know a potential new source and what they can discuss. It’s also a great way to help a journalist better understand how the lawyer would serve as a source in stories.
It’s important to go into a background briefing in the spirit of being helpful and without an expectation that the specific conversation will lead to being quoted in a story. That may happen, but it’s not the goal. What’s important is nurturing a budding relationship with a key journalist that may lead to an on-the-record interview down the road. (And, you don’t usually want to do a background briefing on-the-record as it can muddy the waters in terms of what you’ve said for quotation and what you’d never want to show up in print with your name attached.)
Does this take time? Yes. Is there a chance nothing will come of it? Yes. Should you still do it? Oh yes. The benefits simply outweigh any potential downsides in terms of time spent. If nothing happens, you’ve spent 30-45 minutes in an interesting conversation talking about what you (hopefully) love to do. But, if a story results and you go on to become a go-to source for that reporter? That’s a home run.
5) Identify opportunities through editorial calendars
Most industry trades and business publications pair coverage of time-sensitive news with reporting on longer-lead topics. These can be trend pieces, or articles that focus on specific topics that are always of concern to a particular industry or audience. Those “evergreen” topics are plotted out a year in advance in an editorial calendar.
Media outlets that use editorial calendars will publish them on their websites and in media kits. They are used to sell advertising so that advertisers can buy ads that fit thematically with a certain section of the publication. But, editorial calendars are also a great way to see what the outlet will be covering over an entire year.
It’s a good idea to find the editorial calendars for the publications that reach your key audience and go through them to see if you’d be a good interview source or bylined article author for certain upcoming sections. Then, you can pitch the editorial staff. Most publications post their editorial calendars in the late fall or early winter — so start keeping an eye out around October.
One thing to note: Media outlets usually work several months in advance on these types of stories, so you should pitch at least three months before the issue date. That way you’re coming to the editors and reporters when they are looking for sources and story ideas.
6) Use timely calendar hooks to develop pitches through the year
Speaking of calendars, events that happen every year around your practice area are great starting places for pitches. If you are a tax lawyer, for example, then sending out a pitch to reporters and editors during tax season that outlines changes that year, common mistakes to avoid, etc… would be a good way to get quoted. You can also plan these pitches out well in advance and have them ready to go around the time journalists will be hunting for sources. As with editorial calendars, you should pitch these a couple months in advance.
If you have a blog, these calendar hook pitches can also do double duty as blog post topics. So you’re getting both content and potential media coverage with just a bit of advance planning.
7) Don’t go it alone — talk to your PR firm
As with any professionals, lawyers are extremely close to what they do day in and day out. It’s easy to lose perspective in terms of what might be of interest to a journalist. That’s when a brainstorming or input call with a law firm PR pro can really help.
I once did a brainstorming call with a lawyer who started the conversation with “I bore my spouse with talk of what I do for clients, why will you be any different?” Over the next 30 minutes, I played curious reporter and got him talking by asking questions a journalist would ask to find out more. Eventually, we teased out some solid trends he could discuss that hadn’t even occurred to him when our chat began. A source guide was born.
The story ideas were always there, just waiting to be found. I simply provided the space and subtle direction that led the lawyer to think differently about his work. I helped him see what he did from the perspective of what a journalist would find useful or intriguing.
So, if you are struggling to make sense of what your Google News alerts turn up, or don’t know what should go into a source guide, maybe it’s time for someone else’s informed perspective. Reaching out to your law firm PR agency to set up a 30-minute call might be just the ticket to getting proactive.
Get proactive and create your own news
There is really no reason to let law firm PR efforts languish between “news events,” especially when there are ways to get proactive. Essentially, you’re creating your own news and pointing journalists to stories and trends they should be covering. That’s also the secret to any law firm PR effort — proactive or not. Being helpful to reporters and providing them with what they need to do their jobs will put you in their good books — and have them coming back to you time and time again because you’re a reliable source.