Know When to Play Offense or Defense
Lawyers are sometimes presented negatively in the court of public opinion. For example, a 2013 survey from Pew Research Center found lawyers last among 10 professional categories for “contributions to society,” garnering an 18 percent affirmative response. By contrast, the military was 78 percent, teachers 72 percent and doctors 66 percent.
The American Bar Association (ABA) includes a variety of legal profession statistics on its website — regularly tallying lawyer population and salaries — but its most recent Public Perceptions of Lawyers study was published in 2002.
The advice offered in the report was as relevant then as it is today. Robert A. Clifford suggests in the report's foreword that in order to improve public perception, "We can start by being better communicators." Begin by taking a strategic approach to communication with your law firm's staff and clients. This means not only responding to internal and external inquiries, but also proactively initiating communication about your firm's direction and services.
To take it to the next level, you may consider partnering with a communications professional or PR firm to help garner positive publicity, says Alan Breslauer, director of marketing and business development with the Los Angeles healthcare firm Nelson Hardiman LLP. "A public relations agency can provide an outside perspective on how to distinguish your law firm from the competition," he explains. They can also help buffer you against unwanted publicity, if necessary.
Have a Game Plan
Before you play offense or defense in public relations, conducting a reputation audit can help you understand how your law firm is positioned with its clients, the legal community and within the public. The reputation audit should be a third-party analysis that evaluates the perception of your firm internally (e.g., staff, clients) and externally (e.g., media, legal community, social media) and the effectiveness of your communications. A reputation audit can be done through survey focus groups; interviews with staff, past and current clients, legal partners and industry influencers; and assessing social media and media coverage.
A reputation audit can help you determine what you want to accomplish in working with a communication professional by giving some direction to setting and achieving goals.
Being Proactive With PR
Partnering with PR professionals for proactive communication activities can benefit a law firm in several ways, including:
- Increasing brand recognition
- Managing your reputation and image among peers and clients, including hedging against future criticism
- Aiding business development by bringing in new clients or expanding services to existing clients
- Increasing the firm's employee morale, retention or recruitment
Success depends largely on ensuring your internal audiences understand and embrace the PR process and how they can play a role in its success. Internal audiences include the firm’s board, partners and administrators. Then, positioning your law firm’s attorneys as authorities may aid the firm’s overall goals.
“If a favorable PR blitz is one of your PR campaign objectives, then an outside PR firm can really help you generate traction,” said Oliver A. Thoenen, senior manager of strategic communications with Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Minneapolis. “One example at a former firm involved announcing the appointment of a new firm managing partner, the firm’s first leadership change in nearly a decade. We worked closely with our PR firm to develop key talking points, refine our announcement draft and implement a media and wire distribution strategy. We landed numerous stories.”
In Defense of Crisis Communications
Another way a PR professional can help safeguard the reputation of the law firm (and/or a client) during a crisis or a polarizing legal battle. Crisis communications requires complementary, yet different strategies than proactive PR because your top leaders are fully involved. As a result, the firm is highly visible. A PR firm can help in meeting tight deadlines that require quick response times in order to present the firm in the best possible light. An outside firm can also help reduce internal pressure.
“It’s obviously better to be proactive than reactive,” Breslauer said. “Getting out in front of a crisis to determine the issues and potential pressure points takes a special skill set. Experience dealing with crisis situations is key. Familiarity with similar situations enables the better PR firms to provide actionable advice.”
Communicating to internal audiences first, before communicating to external audiences — including the general public, affected audiences, media, legal and regulatory agencies — can help protect against unwanted publicity for the law firm.
However, a crisis doesn’t have to be extreme to require strategic communications. “A good example of a low-grade law firm PR crisis might be a series of departures by lawyers from a given practice group or office location,” Thoenen said. “Choosing how to respond to such a circumstance, whether through official comment or through a separate campaign to redirect to more favorable press coverage, is something any good PR firm should be able to help a client with.”
Law Firm Perception
Communications support is key to law firm perception. Incorporating PR into your communications planning and hiring professional communications support to help with the heavy lifting – whether as part of your internal team or through an outside agency – can help ensure you are playing offense and defense at the same time.
Casey Boggs is president of LT Public Relations, a national PR firm specializing in law firm and litigation communication support.