By Evan Nierman, founder & CEO of Red Banyan, an international crisis communications firm, and author of Amazon bestseller Crisis Averted.
When a law firm lands a big client, the lawyers assigned to the case focus their energy on researching strategies to defend their client. However, if the case is high-profile or controversial, it may draw the attention of the media. And knowing whether you should speak with reporters or keep your mouth shut can be stressful.
Having a legal PR team in place to back you up before a crisis occurs and you need help is a proactive strategy that can get results that make a difference.
But choosing the right legal PR professionals can be tricky. If you don’t know what to look for, you may end up with “experts” who don’t know much more about the ins and outs of strategic communications than the lawyers at your law firm. When you begin shopping for the right team of legal PR experts, search for strategic communicators who understand the complexities of the law and understand how critical it can be to get the right message out at the right time. A seasoned team of legal PR professionals that works regularly with law firms understands the importance of collaboration, trust and confidentiality. These specialized PR professionals work in lockstep with lawyers and know when to reach out for publicity and when to step back.
Let’s face it: Lawyers are not public relations experts and may feel uncomfortable talking to the press about the particulars of their cases. If they say too much, they may tip their hand. If they say too little, their case may be misunderstood. Either way, their client could be skewered by the media, no matter what the angle. As a result, some lawyers may simply opt to avoid the media for fear of damaging their position in the court of legal opinion.
A savvy team of legal PR and crisis communications experts can help your law firm put a crisis response plan in place before you need one. Having a crisis plan in place ahead of time is the best way to prepare for the unexpected. Trying to cobble together a plan of action during an emergency is never a good idea.
The same is true for legal public relations. Establishing a relationship with a legal PR firm during good times can help ensure you have a solid working relationship with the agency’s legal PR professionals during a crisis. But knowing how to select the right kind of help is key to making it worth your while.
Here are four things to consider when choosing a legal PR firm.
1. Specialize in crisis response and available at a moment’s notice. Speed can be the driving force that determines the success of a crisis response. Legal PR experts must be able to react quickly and work with lawyers to take control of the narrative and steer it in a direction most favorable to their clients. Select PR professionals who have handled crisis PR cases in the past and have a solid track record of getting results.
2. Have established relationships with reporters to help secure news coverage. Find a team of legal PR experts that includes former journalists and has existing media contacts. Communications experts with media backgrounds are usually solid legal PR experts because they understand reporters, know what makes a good story and often retain contacts with the media. They also understand that it can be just as important to keep something out of the news as it is to get something into the news. Communications experts who are familiar with the media can strategize ways to win in the court of public opinion while attorneys focus on winning in the legal arena.
3. Handle media inquiries and eliminate the guesswork left by ‘no comment.’ Too many lawyers believe that by saying nothing, no harm can be done. Exactly the opposite can be true. Failing to comment puts control of the narrative into someone else’s hands, and inaccurate information can be shared and passed off as truth. The words “no comment” hand control over to the party that chooses to comment. Lawyers need legal PR professionals with a track record of working successfully with the media so they can get clients’ stories told in the way they want them to be told.
4. Ensure clients are represented fairly in news coverage. While counsel is busy mapping out legal strategies to win a case, legal public relations experts should be spending their time determining what kind of news coverage might benefit the client. A talented legal PR professional will make sure a relevant backstory is told if it benefits the client. Choose legal PR experts who are trained in the nuance of public communications and have the resources and time to impact a client’s reputation.
Legal public relations professionals must be able to work in collaboration with lawyers or risk jeopardizing the case in court. Savvy legal PR experts should know how to coordinate media coverage and have experience shaping public narratives and prevailing in the court of public opinion.
Law firms that enlist the help of legal PR pros must do their homework and make sure the professionals they select have a verifiable track record working with lawyers, are available at a moment’s notice and can outline a crisis response plan ahead of time so you are prepared to act quickly when an emergency occurs.