By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis

This article originally appeared in Lawyers Weekly.

It begins like any other day. You arrive at your office and review your morning agenda. Suddenly, you receive a frantic call from a client. A school shooting has just occurred, and the client is the mother of one of the shooters. She’s asking you for help.

Somehow, the press gets word of this and sets up camp outside. Reporters, news vans, and many other members of the media have microphones at the ready, anticipating your response. You’re trapped, at a loss for words. What do you do?

Believe it or not, this scenario actually happened to one of our clients. We worked to ease his fears and crafted a few statements for him to deliver to the press. But this was just the beginning. This normally quiet and unassuming man was hounded by countless phone calls from reporters and tracked everywhere by media people desperate for news. He gained a great deal of publicity that was unplanned, chaotic and invasive – but very effective.

Being featured, quoted, or profiled by various publications, appearing on radio talk shows or being interviewed on television can be an enormous boost to your credibility. Since most of you won’t have clients whose story automatically brings the press to your door, you must learn how to attract the attention of the press on your own. All it takes is creativity, patience and persistence.

Getting PR

First, it’s important to understand that PR is distinct from marketing and advertising. Both are important, but serve different purposes.

The purpose of public relations is to generate and uphold a positive public image both in the community at large and in your target markets. You want to highlight your firm’s successes, downplay any negative situations that may occur, announce important alliances, broadcast changes in leadership and promote firm-related activities.

It’s important to proceed carefully. The following rules will help you and your firm establish an effective public relations strategy.

Rule #1: Identify your target market

For your PR campaign to be successful, it’s important that your firm identify a target market. Your message must then highlight key issues that personally and directly affect them.

For example, if you are a commercial litigation attorney and want to attract clients interested in protecting their rights as business owners, you might structure your message to address these concerns.

Rule #2: Know the right channels

The next step is to analyze each media outlet to see what type of audience it attracts. General print publications, for example, are read by a wide variety of people whose demographics might be a good fit for potential clients and possible referral sources.

To target a more specific audience, look at the trade publications read by your clients and referral sources. Consider writing an article and submitting it to a publication that reflects your area of expertise. If, for example, you’re an estate planning attorney wishing to cultivate more CPAs, you might have success targeting a publication widely read by this group.

The Internet is another important media outlet. Establishing an online presence, such as a website or a blog, can be a valuable public relations tool – especially when your clients and referral sources use the Internet a great deal.

When you create a new post on a blog, send out an e-mail notifying your list of recipients. You can also alert readers of your blog to new posts through social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook.

You can use Twitter to update media contacts and offer commentary on current events. Learn what methods of communication are most preferred by the reporters and journalists you’re targeting, though, before you focus all your efforts on any one channel.

Rule #3: Become content-driven

Writing relevant posts on your blog is a great way to gain exposure, but you might want to also consider offering commentary as a reliable source in the media. You’ll be regarded as a good source if you or others in your firm can consistently pitch good story ideas.

Take a second to look around, and you’ll realize that opportunities for a good story are everywhere. Just remember that reporters and journalists don’t like to write pieces strictly to promote you or your firm, so the story must have a hook or an angle that makes it interesting on its own.

Begin your search by taking a look at your current caseload. With what problems and issues are you currently dealing? Are any of these issues of interest to others? Have you come up with novel solutions to client problems? Do any of these issues or problems have general appeal? What new laws have passed recently that affect your target market?

Another approach is to look within your own firm. Let’s say a new partner has recently joined the firm with a specific expertise, or your firm throws a charity fundraiser. Either one of these events has the potential to become a news story.

When sending a press release to the local newspaper, or constructing a pitch, remember to cover the Five Ws: the Who, What, When, Where and Why of the story. After you’ve submitted the story, wait a day or two (how long you wait depends on how time-sensitive the story is), then follow-up with a phone call.

Many of the press releases you send will not make it into print, but the ones that do make it will be worth the trouble.

Rule # 4: Delegate your PR efforts

Developing and pursuing a public relations campaign takes patience and persistence. It’s very helpful to designate someone in your firm to handle your media communications – even if he or she is a paralegal or legal secretary who just sets up appointments and places follow-up calls for you.

In addition, many small firms who could not otherwise afford a marketing director are taking advantage of the poor job market right now and hiring recent college grads with marketing degrees to handle their public relations efforts.

Rule #5: Build relationships with the media

Having good rapport with members of the media is perhaps the most important rule. Your chances of having your side of the story told are much greater if you have existing relationships with the reporters and journalists on the receiving end of your calls.

When attempting to develop these relationships, here are a few helpful hints:

  • Before making your initial contact, do your homework. Research the reporter’s past articles or the types of stories he or she usually covers. Find someone who writes for the demographic you are trying to attract. Structure your message so that it addresses concerns relevant to this group.
  • Find out how best to communicate with your media contacts. Do they prefer communication via email, phone or face-to-face conversation? Many journalists and reporters will talk with you on the phone and then ask for a follow-up e-mail.
  • When being interviewed, be yourself – but be the most interesting version of yourself. Try to speak in short, quotable sound bites and hit your main points hard.
  • If reporters do write about the story you pitched, don’t thank them for the story – it may appear too self-serving. Instead, send notes that compliment them on their “thoroughness or writing style.”

Ultimately, a well-planned PR campaign can attract new clients while enhancing and building your reputation. Form a good working relationship with members of the press and your public relations efforts will be rewarded in more ways than one.

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