Understand the fundamentals of communications: your goal drives strategy and tactics. Media, social media and marketing are tactics, not strategy. For most attorneys, the goal is to secure a strong result for their client. The second goal is to generate more referrals.
Start planning your media strategy when you sign your client. Make sure you understand early on what your clients want. Some clients are passionate about sharing their stories. Others prefer to maintain their privacy. Your job as an attorney is to comply with your client’s wishes throughout the litigation process.
Screen your clients. Attorneys must work with real people and real facts. Does the client profile inhibit the case facts? Do the case facts hurt the client profile? Not all clients cooperate. Not all facts favor clients. Not all family members in a case agree on a media strategy. Make sure you understand how your client’s profile and case facts will impact the media strategy.
Budget for marketing and media relations on high-profile cases. High-profile cases attract the media and drain law firm time. It’s inevitable. Maybe the client and the attorney don’t want the spotlight – it won’t matter. Either way, the cost is time. Plan for it. Get estimates from local media relations professionals on what it may cost to assist you in managing the media for you and your client.
How to prioritize media strategies for a high-profile media case
The press conference – The press conference is reserved for high-profile cases that already have a media following or will undoubtedly generate a media following. A press conference allows attorneys and their clients to address a large volume of media traffic at once in the span of 30 minutes. Press conferences are best suited for cases where clients want to actively share their story with the media. Clients and attorneys will need to be prepped with an event script, talking points and press handouts for the press conference. Attorneys should hold a press conference on the day the case is filed, settled or a verdict is rendered. Press conferences are expensive and should be reserved for big cases.
Media availability – Designating a time for media availability is an effective way to handle a large volume of media traffic when the client does not want to be involved in the media process. Attorneys handling the case can make themselves available to answer questions and release a statement about the case at a designated time quickly.
Distributing a press release – Attorneys and clients may want to distribute a press release and forego hosting a press conference. This enables both the attorney and client to drive the message around their case while minimizing costs to the client and involvement of the client. Press releases should be distributed on the same day a government claim is filed; a lawsuit is filed; a lawsuit is settled or a jury verdict is delivered. The media does not appreciate receiving press releases long after a case has been filed or settled. It is also important that press releases be sent to the appropriate reporters and editors. Sending press releases to the wrong media outlet, wrong reporter and wrong editor can hurt a law firm’s reputation with the media. Do not send out a press release every time you file or settle a case. Reporters and editors will quickly tune you out. (There is no such thing as the “embargoed” press release. Once you release the information to the press, consider it public.)
Pitching an exclusive – Pitching a media exclusive helps attorneys get ahead of the media storm to ensure a client’s story is told in a preferred framework that favors your client. It gives the reporter and editor more time to investigate the details of your case. Reporters and editors are more likely to give the case a big spotlight from their outlet if they have the exclusive rights to tell your client’s story first. Pitching an exclusive is often the best option when dealing with controversial or complex litigation. Only attorneys and media professionals who have built trusted relationships with key reporters and editors should pitch an exclusive on a client’s case.
When to avoid media – Obviously when clients don’t want their profile in the media, then attorneys should not take steps to generate media. However, if attorneys believe a case is likely to garner media attention anyway, attorneys should prepare talking points or a statement on the case that can be released to the media if necessary. It’s better to be prepared and have a short statement available than to scramble with a reaction or simply say “no comment.” If attorneys believe the client’s profile may hurt the case or that the case facts are controversial or complicated, a law firm may want to consult with a public relations firm for advice on how to proceed before the case is filed. Do not wait until the day before you file the case to ask for professional help.
A word on filing government claims – Major newspapers and television stations routinely check for claims filed against local governments before the case is filed in court. In Washington, government claims require attorneys to provide an estimated value of the claim. The media often relies on these forms and will mistakenly report that clients are demanding this amount to settle their claim. Not all reporters and editors understand that a jury or judge ultimately decides the value of a case if it is not settled before trial. It’s important to educate the media on this important fact: citizens as juries have the last word.
How you write your complaint brief can impact how the media covers your case. Attorneys either use form complaints or customized complaints to file a case in court. The media scours court filings in search of interesting cases to cover. Whether you want the media to cover your case, how you draft the complaint is likely to influence how the media frames your case in the headlines and on camera. Try to include as much factual information as you can. Many attorneys will go into great detail on a settlement demand letter, but scarcely cover the details in the complaint they file in court. More information in your complaint can help influence how the media covers your case. It is important to remember that complaints are public documents and hold much more power over how the media covers your case than a press release.
Prepare your staff and clients for the media. ALWAYS, ALWAYS direct your staff and clients to refer all media calls to your office or a designated media spokesperson so that you can coordinate media coverage as a team. You want to make sure your clients are on message and do not needlessly reveal details about their cases that could damage them. Make sure receptionists, paralegals, investigators or expert witnesses working on a case understand who is the designated media contact for each case. Attorneys and clients who will be participating at press conferences or media interviews should be prepped with talking points and media coaching.
How to respond to the media ambush. There is no such thing as a media ambush if you’ve done your homework and prepared your case for the media early on. As a rule, all clients should be instructed to refer all media calls to their attorneys – period. Attorneys should develop a plan for media that includes a strategy and protects the integrity of the case. If possible, attorneys should try and work with the media where possible and develop personal relationships with reporters. Be honest about what you can answer and what you cannot. Some helpful responses for reporter ambushes include the following:
1) Let me get your name, media outlet, phone number and deadline and call you back ASAP. I’d like to pull up the case and take a look at it so I am prepared to answer your questions. Can you give me an idea of what you want to know?
2) We are currently investigating this case and would be happy to discuss more details after we’ve completed our investigation.
3) What are your questions? If I can answer them now I will. I may have to fact check a few things and get back to you. What’s your deadline and phone number?
A word on social media going viral………………………
Make sure your attorneys and law firm have accounts for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. You cannot impact social media if you are not a part of the social media stream. That means you need to be following relevant reporters, editors and media outlets that cover your issues and region before you file a case. Designate a law firm staffer to manage your law firm social media accounts. Do subscribe to a social media platform like Hootsuite so you can respond and track multiple social media streams at once. This is not a task you do on the day you file the lawsuit. This is a task that should be completed months in advance. It takes many months and time to build a following on social media streams.
Responding to comments on online media platforms and social media streams. Redirect hostile or misinformed comments to a statement, press release or favorable media story listed on your website politely. Do not argue, but simply redirect people to the facts like a press release on your website. Encourage clients to ignore online media comments and social media streams regarding their cases and inform them you are handling this for them. Too often, clients feel persecuted and obligated to respond to comments in a manner that could negatively impact the case. It’s not their job to respond. It’s the job of the law firm to determine the appropriate response.
Do not engage on social media about your case without a complete media strategy. Sometimes attorneys will engage on social media and online media before they have launched a press event or filed a case. Do not engage on social media or online media unless you have a complete media strategy for your case. Advise your clients that their social media accounts will be reviewed by media outlets if the media is covering their case. Attorneys should screen client accounts.
Build your law firm brand around your practice areas and expertise. Engage with opinion leaders, reporters, advocates and allies in the media and social media streams that share your values and reflect the issues of your practice areas. For example, attorneys should be targeting senior editors and reporters who cover the courts, social justice issues, public safety, health, government and specific industries of their practice.
Distribute your message about your case via social media streams. How often you do this depends on the social media stream. Since social media is an interactive platform, you drive the frequency of your interactions with followers and friends. Here are some suggestions: Post an interview or press conference about your case on YouTube once a day. You can post a Tweet about your case on Twitter hourly from 8 am until 7 pm. You can post on LinkedIn and Facebook twice a day. More if you have a high-profile case that commands attention. Hashtag (#) key words that mark the case issue and client name if you want to promote the case. Distribute favorable media stories about your client’s case on all streams as they emerge in real time. Educating the public about your client and case facts is an opportunity to educate the potential jury pool in your favor. Social media platforms like Hootsuite allow law firms to schedule social media posts throughout the day in advance. Nobody needs to stare at their social media streams all day to be effective on social media.
The rules of engagement for social media are slightly different than traditional media. Generally speaking, expect sloppier, mistake-ridden posts on social media streams because anybody can participate. Traditional media outlets generally have stricter guidelines about fact-checking stories. But in the age of social media, all media types (bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, online media, traditional media, etc.) are working harder to drive content out to the public faster and in real time. If you or your law firm mistakenly send out wrong information on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, the general rule is to acknowledge the mistake and provide the correct information – not to delete the post. If you repost content from another party, you are expected to credit the author or source and note if you’ve altered the content. For example, on Twitter, if you modify a Tweet, you repost with MT (Modified Tweet) to acknowledge you’ve edited the original Tweet by another party.
Collect photos and video from clients early on.
Photos and videos of your clients help tell your clients’ stories. You may need them for a settlement-demand package or trial, not just the media, so do not delay in acquiring digital versions of old photos. Purchase a scanner to scan old photos if you do not have one. Train paralegals and staff to collect these items from clients early on and make sure you have a variety of quality images. You will want photos of property damage, crashes and injuries. In wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases, you will also want photos of clients during happier times to illustrate the impact of injuries or loss of life and relationships. Don’t just ask for standard family portraits. You want photos and videos of milestone moments, hobbies, sports, birthdays, graduations, weddings and births to capture your client’s narrative in an emotional way. The media always appreciates access to these kinds of photos. Open a Dropbox account so you can collect digital images quickly over the Internet with clients.
Communications planning builds brand ambassadors.
There is no such thing as a “media ambush” when you’ve done your homework. Build relationships with traditional media, social media, clients, allies and advocates – they are all potential brand ambassadors for your firm and practice.