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Please release me:
What do the media look for in a law firm press release?

Janet Ellen Raasch

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers and other professional services providers – helping them promote themselves as thought leaders within their target markets through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or jeraasch@msn.com.

Each day, editors and reporters are inundated with press releases in a wide variety of formats – via snail mail, email and even RSS feed. How can lawyers and law firms make sure that their press releases stand out from all the rest?

“The answer to this question is to think like a reporter,” said Don Knox, former assistant business editor at The Denver Post and a founder of Law Week Colorado. “A reporter is focused entirely on the news.”

News is defined as the information people need to know in order to make good decisions about their lives. In the publications most often targeted by business law firms, this generally means business decisions. In the publications targeted by family law firms, this means personal decisions. News is not defined as self-promotion by law firms.

Events like the hiring of new attorneys, the promotion of existing attorneys, an expansion into new space, or the announcement of various awards and appointments may be important to the individual lawyer or law firm, but are almost always considered routine by the non-legal-industry press – the press that your clients and potential clients rely on.

“Ninety-seven percent of the press releases that I receive are not news by our definition,” said Knox. “They are self promotion – and they go right into the trash.”

Knox participated in a panel discussion on the subject of press releases sponsored by the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Legal Marketing Association Feb. 7 at the Denver Press Club. Also on the panel were Larry Holdren, a principal with public relations firm Pure Brand Communications (www.pure-brand.com) and Rebecca Askew, an attorney and CEO of Circuit Media, publisher of Law Week Colorado (www.lawweekcolorado.com).

“It is better to send out no press release at all than to send out a release that does not have a reasonable chance of success,” said Holdren. “If it is not newsworthy, you are ruining your credibility with the very reporters and editors that you are trying to cultivate over the long term. Do your lawyers a favor. Be honest with them about this.”

A newsworthy press release deals with a subject that is unique and affects a broad group of people within the target audience of a reporter (who covers a particular beat) or a print or electronic publication. If a transaction or trial will interest a large number of people, businesses or other lawyers (like an appellate court decision), for example, chances are good that the news media will be interested.

“In addition, the local media are often interested in stories that provide a local slant on a national or international trend,” said Holdren. “Monitor national, international and industry media (especially websites and weblogs) to educate yourselves about breaking news and trends. Then, contact the appropriate reporter with the name of a lawyer who can provide the local legal perspective.”

One you have determined that your subject is newsworthy, it makes sense to send out a press release. “It should be short and to the point – always less than a page in length,” said Knox. “Do not agonize too much over the language. Very few reporters will use any of your language in your article. The news value and timeliness of what you say will get a reporter’s interest much faster that how it is said.”

Some lawyers – especially older lawyers – are overly cautious when someone suggests that they talk to the press about a matter or case. “Rule 1.6 is very specific that a lawyer cannot disclose an attorney/client relationship – to the press, to or anyone else, for that matter – without the express permission of the client,” said Askew.

However, you can comment on cases that do not involve your firm or your clients.

“In addition, Rule 3.6 states that you cannot say anything that might jeopardize a case,” said Askew. “If you read the rule and its comments closely, however, there are many things that you can say – and times when you are obliged to say something.”

However, what you say should never be “no comment.” “This always sounds like an admission of guilt,” said Holdren. “Never ignore an email or a phone call from the media. Find out what they want. Ask if you can get back to them as soon as possible. Think about your message in the context of the query. Then, seize the opportunity to state your position – framing the discussion in your own terms”.

If you have reason to anticipate that the media will be interested in a matter or a case, it makes good sense to come up with a media strategy – well before you need it.

“First and foremost, get the permission of the client,” said Askew. “Second, determine who will be the spokesperson – client or lawyer. All requests from the media should be forwarded to this person – and this person only! Everyone on the team should know this.

“Finally, the client and the law firm should sit down together to develop a short statement – the message that you want to get across and that you would like to see in any coverage. When it comes time to talk to a reporter, state this message and then stop. Turn any follow-up questions into an opportunity to repeat your message. Re-state your message in the conclusion. Sooner or later, this message will get across.”

The best way to make sure that a reporter or editor pays attention to your press releases is to make sure that they are among the three percent that deal with newsworthy subjects.

If you do, reporters will learn to trust you as the source of good information that helps them succeed at the job of covering an assigned news beat. If you do not, your self-promoting press releases will join their brethren in the reporters’ trash bins.

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