Public relations is an important part of any business development and marketing program — and its role is becoming increasingly more vital in the law firm environment. But what does the job entail? LMA PR Shared Interest Group Chairs Cheryl Bame, principal of Bame Public Relations in Los Angeles, and Ryan King, director of communications at Ogletree Deakins in Atlanta, share their insider knowledge and tips on the topic of PR in the law firm.
How long have you been in the public relations field, and how did you get your start?
Cheryl Bame: I have been in the public relations industry for 15 years. After I left the TV news business in 2000, I got my first job in PR at an up-and-coming firm in Beverly Hills, California, where my focus was on health care. In 2002, I became vice president at a firm that represented law firms and real estate developers. Three years later, the owner of the firm retired and urged me to open Bame Public Relations.
Ryan King: I have worked in the PR field for more than a decade, both in agency and in-house roles. My career began in broadcasting, and I worked in the industry until I simply couldn’t bring myself to say (in my best radio voice): “Sunny and 74! Caller number four wins!” one more time. While I love broadcasting, I knew there was a wider communications net available to me, so I left broadcasting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s marketing department. There, I was part of its first-ever PR team and responsible for media training reporters and editors. Later, I worked on a wide range of clients at boutique and global agencies. These experiences with brands and industries of all sizes (and budgets) led to me my current position with Ogletree Deakins, where I oversee the firm’s PR, media and other communications-related functions.
Why is the PR function important in the law firm setting?
Cheryl: Public relations supports every firm’s business development and marketing initiatives. A PR program provides the strategy, tools and tactics to communicate the firm’s brand and showcase its services and thought leaders. PR professionals bring a unique and important perspective to the firm’s conversation about communication strategies involving lateral hires, a potential firm merger or an internal personnel crisis involving attorneys or staff.
Ryan: It’s not just important — it’s crucial. The PR function can favorably position a firm in a highly competitive industry, as well as mitigate the impact of a crisis. In addition, internal PR resources may, on occasion, partner with a client’s communication staff on litigation or crisis-related matters. The PR function is similar to that of the lawyers in a firm; their job is to ethically pursue a client’s best interest by building trust and rapport while delivering value in a range of situations, including thought leadership, strategic advice, crisis, litigation or otherwise.
What is the difference between being a consultant and being in-house?
Cheryl: Too often, an in-house professional is seen by the attorneys as support staff, and that creates an environment where it is easy to be pulled in many different directions. As an outside PR professional, you are positioned as the expert consultant and have the advantage of being able to have more focus. When you are in-house, it is an all-hands-on-deck mentality, and you wear many hats and juggle more than just a PR/communications role. You are part of a larger marketing team, and your day-to-day can be determined by the needs of the attorneys in your office. Depending upon your role, the attorneys are the experts, and you are there to offer support or ideas, but at the end of the day, they have final say. It’s great for attorneys who get PR — not so great for attorneys who don’t. You can essentially have 500-plus bosses depending upon the size of your firm.
As an outside consultant, you are just that. PR is your job and what you do 90 percent of the time. You can focus on specific goals and help determine the best course of action for the group. You can steer attorneys in a certain direction, tell them what they need to do and where they need to be based on the goals they have. Because the in-house communications professionals we work closely with are so often pulled in different directions, it can be a challenge for them to communicate to you exactly what they are looking for, their priorities and even what their attorneys are looking for. Outside consultants also supplement the services that are not currently in-house.
Ryan: There are certain aspects related to being in an in-house role that don’t apply to a consultant. Often, the in-house role may have a seat at the table, or at least one closer than a consultant might have. The in-house role most likely has a broader understanding of the firm’s activities, opportunities and challenges, including the firm’s culture and the persona of the attorneys who will receive PR-related opportunities. It’s the in-house person’s job to accurately capture this information and convey it to the consultant. Then, the two roles can advance on mutually agreed upon goals that benefit the firm.
How can external and in-house PR work well together?
Cheryl: The in-house and external relationships succeed when expectations are set up front so that each party understands what the goal and strategy are. It is also helpful when a clear process is in place to measure success. The outside consultant relies on the in-house professional to be the eyes and ears of the inner workings of the firm, help find potential stories and keep us updated on news that develops at the firm. Communication is important because both parties are working to achieve a mutual goal. Of course, the attorneys may need reassurance that they are depended upon to provide a steady stream of timely information, but both members of the team have to be watching out for opportunities to deliver the results the attorneys expect.
Ryan: It’s all about relationships and striving to be an extension of the firm’s business, regardless of whether that’s in an in-house or agency setting. In-house communications teams must keep their PR firm(s) well informed so that the environment is highly collaborative and transparent. Agencies are required to help produce and execute new ideas and produce results in a cost-effective manner. The two sides depend on each other for shared mutual success. It definitely helps that both sides have a similar mindset, as that enables both to see the same vision and objectives.
What are the top 3 skills professional needs if they want to succeed in PR?
Cheryl: Excellent writing skills, persistence and patience.
Ryan: Curiosity, hunger and outstanding listening skills. Being curious means always looking for opportunities for your firm/client. Working in PR is tough, so if you aren’t hungry, there are hundreds of people who are ready to step in. So much of PR is about listening — whether it’s spotting new trends, understanding critical needs, working with a variety of personalities or being able to provide sound and relevant advice. Certainly, there are dozens of more skills that could be considered “top” skills. However, if you embody these, you’ll find things might come a bit easier.
The PR SIG would like to provide the LMA membership with a snapshot of how PR professionals divvy up their time. If your job entails any PR/communications activity, please take a couple minutes and share where you spend your time.