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How to become a valuable resource for journalists

Given the number of attorneys in the United States (some 1.2 mil­lion practicing ones), it seems unlikely that the majority of these lawyers can become trusted re­sources for journalists. Before such a union can materialize, however, there are rules that ap­ply for both parties.

The guidelines below focus on what attorneys can do to form mutually beneficial relationships with report­ers.

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Rule 1: The media do not work for lawyers, clients or firms.

Simply put: Reporters are interest­ed in getting a scoop and writing an article in a compelling, accurate way. To achieve this, they seek and culti­vate relationships with people-in-the-know to glean information to report their stories. It’s up to the journalist to decide what the angle is, with whom to speak, and what information to use.

In short, they call the shots and de­cide what goes in a story and how it’s presented. Lawyers — no matter how high up the firm’s food chain — have no say.

On a positive note, however, a law­yer can have influence by controlling his or her message, understanding that reporters are human too and may make mistakes. There will always be an element of risk, which can be mit­igated via PR prep and counsel (to a point).


Rule 2: Say something relevant, true … and on the record, please.

One unspoken and obvious rule is that lawyers know their topics inside and out.

Information based on experiences is the currency reporters and readers crave. Focus on legal issues and their implications to various audiences de­pending on the media outlet. Get to know a reporter’s beat and his or her articles. A journalist may seem like an ideal contact given a recent story, though it’s best to review previous ones to get a sense of the person’s style and what he or she covered previously.

Reporters love trend pieces, so ask yourself why this is important and what’s next. The “what’s next?” ques­tion will help develop potential fol­low-up articles.

Client sensitivities are certainly le­gitimate concerns, though there are ways to work around commenting on a specific client by focusing generally on the legal issue and subsequent le­gal and business impact, and setting interview conditions (the latter point is a topic for a future column).

Realistic scenarios speak volumes with the media. There may be instanc­es when conditions of a conversation will have to be set, though more times than not a lawyer can provide insight without compromising client rela­tions, while building trust with a re­porter.


Rule 3: Never blow off a dead­line (or a reporter).

The reason reporters have dead­lines is to feed the process of the news cycle. In this age, it’s about posting to the web as soon as possible to attract readers to a site.

Reporters are generally mindful of a lawyer’s time, and it’s fair to be mind­ful of theirs by keeping appointments.

If anything crops up at the last min­ute that forces a cancellation, check with an equally qualified lawyer as a replacement to speak with the report­er. That extra effort and attention to details resonate with the media.


Rule 4: Never ask to see an arti­cle before publication. Never.

Only a select few people are permit­ted to read a reporter’s article before it’s printed, so asking will only demon­strate a lawyer’s misunderstanding of the process and make the process awkward.

Only one thing annoys a journalist more than that, and that is providing juicy information and then saying, “That’s off the record, right?”

Certain media will agree to review quotes with a source, though that con­dition is set before the interview, not during or after.


Rule 5: Embrace media training.

When it comes to seeking legal counsel, people rightfully defer to the lawyers. The same ideal should hold true in media training.

While not lawyers, PR counsel are just as valuable as legal advocates. Reputation is at stake in both cases, so lawyers, while really smart, are best served by listening to a PR pro­fessional.


Rule 6: Follow-up, keep in touch, though don’t overdo it.

After an interview, continue to keep reporters in mind. Send a brief thank-you email. Make investments by keep­ing in touch by providing information that is relevant and useful.

If a lawyer anticipates a regulation to kick in that would affect clients, chances are a journalist would like to cover it. Send a timely and germane client alert with a note saying that you are happy to discuss.

It’s simply a helpful gesture high­lighting a lawyer’s knowledge and takes you one step closer to solidify­ing your status as a trusted media re­source.

Claire Papanastasiou heads the professional services group at Matter Communications, a national public relations firm based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A former journalist at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and American Lawyer Media, she was senior PR manager at Bingham Mc­Cutchen before joining Matter.