From the Detroit Bankruptcy to Obamacare implementation; why your law firm should leverage media interest in major business and legal situations – and seven steps to actionably do it
By Matt Yemma
Law360, New York (August 23, 2013, 5:27 PM ET) ‐‐ The news came across the wire late on a summer Thursday. Most of the New York City professional services world was mentally, if not physically, headed toward their weekend plans. But the news was enough to make most attorneys turn their heads: Detroit, the once great Motor City, had filed for bankruptcy. Chapter 9, to be specific, a not particularly common piece of the bankruptcy code.
While the news wasn’t entirely unexpected, it was still a shock to the system. Detroit officially became the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States, and by Friday morning the story was leading the news cycle. CNBC, Bloomberg TV, and even the TODAY Show were covering the story. Then, with the added twist of the city filing a chapter 9, and not chapter 11, many questions arose about the feasibility of the filing. Given the pension obligations Detroit has – could they really just tell firefighters who had served 30 years, “sorry, we can’t help you?” Doesn’t the Michigan Constitution prevent that?
With such interest from the media, and many questions to be answered, the situation provided an opportunity for bankruptcy attorneys at various law firms to provide counsel to members of the press on important matters.
“Legal experts who can translate complex subjects for broad media audiences perform a valuable public service,” noted Don Waisanen, Professor of Communication at Baruch College’s Graduate School of Public Affairs. “Especially with stories like an entire city undergoing bankruptcy.”
One growing law firm, with a well known bankruptcy practice, advised media of the availability of an expert; a bankruptcy attorney from the Los Angeles office that has experience working with Chapter 9’s. The results were significant. After a hectic day of interviews, the firm had secured placements for the attorney in stories with NBC News, ABC News, Chicago Tribune, Reuters News, The Guardian, both the US and UK version, and more. After 24 hours placements had been syndicated globally, including in the China Post.
The moral of the story: when these big business or legal mass media events occur, such as the Detroit Bankruptcy, or when indictments are handed down in the SAC Capital case, or a key piece of Obamacare is instituted, legal sources from all walks of the legal world are in demand by the press.
But how do you actionably promote a bankruptcy attorney or practice with the media? Here are seven steps that will help any law firm or practice group or attorney ‐‐
- TIMING is crucial. As soon as the news breaks begin pitching reporters, or attorneys should let media contacts know they are available for comment.
- THE PITCH is the next big step. Pitches should offer a designated attorney spokesperson as an expert source, on whatever the story of the day is. For example, on the Detroit bankruptcy story, one should pitch bankruptcy attorneys who are familiar with and have experience in municipal bankruptcies. If that attorney is very quotable and looks good on camera, that’s a plus.
- PITCH DISTRIBUTION then becomes the issue. The pitches need to reach the reporters, producers, and editors, who are covering the designated story, otherwise they are essentially useless. Usually premade lists will be compiled of reporters who cover different topics, such as health care, and their contact information. So if you’re pitching a health care attorney about a new Obamacare implementation, the reporter should be covering Obamacare and health care overall. Pitches should be distributed via email.
- FOLLOWING UP then becomes crucial. Typically reporters, producers, and editors, especially at A‐list publications, are swamped with pitches. It’s crucial to call or email again to make sure the reporter sees your pitch. It also gives you another opportunity to promote your attorney.
- ARRANGING INTERVIEWS then becomes the hardest task. Even the most skilled secretary may have trouble with which the pace of this scheduling moves. On fast paced stories, like Detroit, reporters will want to speak with an attorney ASAP, like in 5 minutes ASAP. It’s important to make sure they connect with an attorney, if it’s logistically feasible.
- TRACKING then becomes your next hurdle. A good tip is to send a quick, “how’d it go with Marissa?” email to a reporter who interviewed your source. Also set Google alerts and keep an eye on publications that conducted interviews with your source. Tracking services like Factiva are also useful.
- CONTINUE EVERYTHING, depending on your specific firms goals and objectives, but continue pitching and tracking and following up to begin a cyclical pattern of having your attorneys placed in targeted media. The goal is to get to the point where reporters are seeking out your attorneys for comment and insight when news breaks.
As a field producer at CNBC noted on the day of Detroit’s bankruptcy, “Your source was spot on. She helped us answer a question that we thought we had gotten wrong on‐air earlier. When the time arises we’re always looking for legal sources, so keep them coming,” he continued from a cell phone in Detroit.
Whether it’s a CNBC TV spot, or an American Airlines in flight magazine blurb, these large legal and business stories will always present a media opportunity for attorneys and practice groups to gain credibility, exposure, and get in front of potential clients and new lines of business.
All of this ties into the larger goal of marketing a practice group and a law firm. Many attorneys and firms have traditionally been reluctant to engage with the media because of the perceived risks of being misquoted or taken out of context. They choose instead to limit their marketing to direct client contact or possibly advertising.
But by intelligently and strategically using media relations, a firm or practice group can earn high‐value visibility, credibility and approachability, which all add up to increasing new clients at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing and advertising.
Matt Yemma is a Partner at o2 Group Public Relations in New York, NY. o2 Group counsels legal and financial services clients on public and media relations. You can visit o2 Group o2group.com and Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org