Eight Steps in Law Firm Public Relations Planning
Step 1: Establish Your Law Firm Business Objectives
Great public relations can substantially accelerate business development cycles, increase audience awareness and help promote rapid growth. Harnessing this power can be a terrific boost—if you proceed with clear objectives and remain true to your core business goals. You therefore need to ask yourself, “Will public relations help our firm achieve the goals we have defined in our business plan?”
Understanding your business goals or key performance indicators (KPIs) is the first step in defining measurable objectives for a law firm public relations program. When you measure the value of your public relations program, you need to substantiate that public relations has furthered your overall plan.
Law firm business goals should also be quantifiable. Without something to measure, the strategic plans get sucked up in a black hole. Quantifiable KPIs may include increase profits per partner (PPPs), increased profitability by 15 percent, increase profits by 20 percent, expand into new markets through lateral development or mergers and acquisitions (M&A), develop new practice areas, focus on a niche practice area to shed unprofitable groups, increasing the number of lawyers by 10 percent with books of business worth a minimum of $500,000, increase the firm’s ranking on the relevant Am Law list, etc.
As you can see, all of the quantifiable goals incorporate something that is measurable.
Define Law Firm Business Goals
Q. What are your core business goals? (Quantifiable)
A. Now that you have identified your law firm’s business goals, it is time to determine your public relations objectives.
What do you hope to accomplish by executing a public relations plan?
What do you want people to think, say or do when they hear the name of your law firm?
Every attorney or managing partner should ask this question when embarking on a public relations initiative. The answers will help draft the blueprint of your plan and determine the best tools for implementation.
To get started, ask yourself how public relations programs can help achieve your quantifiable business goals. What can public relations do more effectively than other disciplines such as advertising? Once you’ve answered these questions, then you can move on to defining your public relations objectives.
Typical public relations objectives for lawyers include:
• Increase awareness about your law firm and services.
• Build name recognition of your law firm, the lawyers and services.
• Communicate a merger, acquisition or office relocation to facilitate easy communication between your law firm and its constituents.
• Increase new business and profits.
• Retain existing clients.
• Acquire prospective clients in a new market segment.
• Develop employee goodwill.
• Garner media attention regarding a successful settlement, verdict or court finding to shape public opinion.
• Build a case where there are other possible plaintiffs such as class actions, MDLs, Superfund matters and multiple-party matters.
• Generate referrals from other attorneys.
With the digital age of communication, public relations can also be used to create a two-way conversation with your target audience.
Define Your Law Firm Public Relations Objectives
Q. What do you want to achieve by conducting public relations?
A. Now that you know what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it, you need to decide how you want to be perceived.
Step 2: Define Your Law Firm PR Perception
Ask yourself what you want people to think, say or do when they hear about you, your law firm or your services.
How do you want to be positioned or perceived?
What type of business lifestyle do you live?
This is your position statement. For example, if your law firm wants to be known for whistle-blower litigation, then you should craft your position statement around how you protect employees who report employer misconduct.
You also need to determine how you are currently perceived. Ask your significant other to tell you what you do. Jot down his or her response. Do the same thing with your best friend, closest neighbor, parents, employees, children and business associates. Get the picture? If everyone answers, “Well, you’re a lawyer,” then you are barely there. My response is, “So what?” It doesn’t matter that you’re “a lawyer.” The question is: what purpose does your legal prowess serve?
If you are a general practitioner from the neighborhood or a high-powered corporate attorney who makes and generates multimillion-dollar deals, you need to be perceived as such. Or perhaps you would like to be known as the go-to attorney for local injured workers. At the end of the day, you want the most important audience to perceive you the way you want and need to be perceived. In other words, if you can walk the walk, talk the talk for purchasers and potential purchasers of your services.
Define How You want to Be Perceived
Q. How do you want people to perceive you as an attorney?
A. What are features vs. benefits?
Once you have decided how you want to be perceived, there are two things that you need to communicate in your position statement. These are the features of your law firm and how they benefit your target audience. Sales (a word that most attorneys loathe) teaches the promotion of the benefits and to back them up with the features. Then, what is the difference between features and benefits?
Although entire seminars and books are devoted to explaining the differences between features and benefits, here is the answer in a nutshell: features are the characteristics that physically describe your legal services, background or experiences.
For example, when you hold a crystal wine glass in your hand, you know a feature is that it is crystal. Another feature is that it is clear. Yet a third feature is that it is solid. Just about every biography of an attorney describes the areas of law with-in which she practices, her education and professional background, the courts within which she is admitted to practice, a listing of any articles or treatises she has published, and the all-important number of years she has been in practice. Like it or not, most bios communicate features about the attorneys—certainly not the benefits of working with them.
The benefits of the crystal wine glass are that you can see through the container to identify the liquid inside, the object is weighted so that it cannot easily tip over, the object is pure and does not give off any flavor changers or odors that would distort the bouquet of the wine, the wine glass is designed to maximize the bouquet of the wine for maximum enjoyment, etc.
The benefits of working with you describe how your legal services will help your clients solve or avoid problems. The benefits tell your audience what they will gain by working with you or your law firm.
Of course, the benefits language is more highly scrutinized in legal communications because you cannot present information that is subjective, creates an unjustified expectation, is false or misleading, compares your legal prowess to that of another attorney or firm, or omits necessary facts when the communication is considered “commercial speech.”
In a nutshell, benefits tell the target audience what you can do for them and why it matters. Benefits answer the “Who cares?” question. Features establish credibility and distinguish your background from that of your competitors. Just be careful that what you say complies with your state’s ethics rules of conduct and those of any additional jurisdictions in which you practice and communicate your services.
A final consideration when we talk about perception is whether your aspiration is reasonable.
I once had a plaintiffs’ attorney from a relatively small town with a population of less than 9,000 people tell me that he wanted to be known as “the best” attorney in his state, which has a population of 12.3 million and nearly 100,000 licensed lawyers. He also thought he should be on CNN, MSNBC, “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.” Mind you, this attorney had also retired from the practice of law for several years and wanted to make “a comeback.” Setting reasonable goals and objectives is half the battle in successful public relations planning.
Step 3: Identify your target audience
With regard to your public relations efforts, do you know exactly who you want to influence? These people are better known as your target audience, and they should be defined as precisely and accurately as possible. Your target audience should be the thought leaders and decision makers who will ultimately affect your law firm’s bottom line. Other common names for such individuals are “influencers” and “stakeholders.”
For most law firms, the target audience includes current and past clients, prospective clients, referring counsel and firm employees. But what about the thought leaders who influence the decisions of your clients, prospects, referring counsel and employees? Don’t forget about them. They can include clergy, union leaders, corporate executives, trade association leaders, community leaders, government officials, activists and the media, just to name a few.
Identify Your Target Audience
Q. Who do you want to influence?
A. After you define each target audience, you need to dig a little deeper. This is the most difficult task for general-practice firms and big law firms because they usually consist of many practice areas, all with different audience. When this is the case, it is important to break down each practice area and its corresponding target audience.
To hit the mark with your public relations program, you should ask yourself the following questions about your target audience:
• Where is my target audience? Are they local, regional, national or global?
• In which industries do members of my target audience work?
• Is my target audience made up of men, women or both?
• What news publications and programs do my target audience read, listen to and view?
• Which trade and consumer publications do members of my target audience read?
• Does my target audience subscribe to blogs, podcasts or other forms of electronic and social media?
• What conferences, seminars or town meetings do members of my target audience attend?
• What are the age groups of my target audience?
• Who influences the legal service buying decisions of my target audience?
• When you’ve answered all of these questions, then ask yourself one more:
• What are the needs of my target audience and how can I meet them?
Step 4: Establish Your Law Firm Key Messages
Once you have defined who you are trying to reach and how you want to be perceived, you will need to figure out what you want and need to say. This is traditionally referred to as your key messages.”
Your key messages are thoughts, words or phrases that embody the main ideas that you and your law firm would like to express to your target audience. They must be clear, concise and memorable. Your key messages must also align with your business objectives. These are the thoughts that you want your audience to remember above all else. They ensure consistency so that you and other members of your law firm are speaking with one voice to your target audience.
Your primary key messages will be part of the foundation of your public relations and marketing plans. Focusing on a few key messages is vital to effective communication. The primary key messages help to reinforce the foundation of your public relations and marketing plan. Through your primary key messages, you will communicate your overall message: who you are, what you do, what your clients need from you, and what services and benefits you will deliver to them.
Establish Your Key Messages
Q. What do you want and need to say?
A. Building on your primary key messages, you should also create secondary key messages that communicate the nature of underlying or derivative needs. The secondary key messages are used to communicate specific needs or wants that may arise during the course of your business practices. They reinforce your primary key messages and then focus on a particular issue, fact or matter. For example, you might want in-house counsel for national banks to be aware that your law firm served as outside counsel in a successful national bank merger. Your law firm is still conveying the primary key message that you handle mergers and acquisitions; however, your secondary key message will be tailored to the particular industry (banking) rather than the overall nature of your law firm.
Your secondary key messages should vary depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
As a second example of a tailored message, consider a firm that handles general plaintiffs’ matters. If the firm would like to begin picking up class- action cases, a secondary key message would be tailored to the potential class-action lawsuit. Thus, the message might focus on a Superfund site, a prescription drug or unfair consumer trade practices.
Once you have determined the key messages that reinforce your goals and objectives and have tailored them to the needs and wants of your target audience, you will need to determine what you want your audience to do in response to your messages.
Step 5: Craft your Call to Action
Ask yourself what you want your target audience to think, say or do when they hear your message. Do you want them to call your office to join a class-action lawsuit, or do you want them to refer a certain type of business to your law firm? Or would you just like them to be aware that you exist, in case they need your services in the future?
Understanding what you want to happen as a result of communicating your key messages should support your firm’s business objective, and thus be quantifiable.
Craft Your Call to Action
Q. What do you want your target audience to think, say or do as a result of your message?
A. Now that you have identified what you want to accomplish; what you want to say; who you want to reach; and what you want them to think, say or do when they hear your message, you must determine how you will convince them to respond. In other words, which tactics will effectively reach them to accomplish your public relations objectives?
Step 6: Persuade Your Law Firm Target Audience to Act
There are many public relations tactics you can employ to create an ongoing buzz. Tactics designed to increase awareness among your target clients, generate recognition and position you as an authority in the legal industry will inevitably build your law firm’s book of business. By consistently and effectively executing strategic law firm PR tactics, you can build momentum and increase your bottom line.
The best way to determine which tactics will work for you is to identify the typical activities, desires and needs of your target audience.
Earlier, we talked about how to determine who your target audience is; now you need to determine what they want and need. You don’t have to invest a lot of money to make this determination. Do some research. Ask your ideal clients what they respond to. Ask thought leaders in your sphere of influence what makes them tick. Conduct secondary research to uncover general data that will help you make the right decisions. Most importantly, determine and articulate what pains you can alleviate and what problems you can solve on behalf of your clients.
Caveat: Client surveys are the most effective way to determine what your clients want and need. Law firm client surveys should be implemented with caution, however, because if you find something out that you’d rather not hear and don’t do anything about it, then you’re doing your law firm an injustice. Read more about the benefits of client survey.
ABA: Following Up on Client Feedback: The Key to the Survey Process by Salley J. Schmidt
Altman Weil: Law Firm Client Surveys
FindLaw: Making the Most of Law Firm Client Surveys
Law360 [Subscription Required]: How Client Feedback Programs Benefit Law Firms And Clients
Also, find out where members of your target audience get their news. Do they religiously attend particular industry conferences, do they have a savvy public relations program for which they would publicize an award, or are they networking regularly within an industry association?
If you want to generate publicity that will reach your target audience, ask yourself which publications they typically read. If you’re reaching out to referring counsel, are they reading The National Law Journal, American Lawyer, JD Supra, National Law Review, Lexology and Mondaq or are they reading Harvard Business Review, USA Today, Forbes and The New York Times? Once you know which media outlets your audience trusts, you can target your media outreach accordingly.
It is also important to identify who is making the decisions to hire legal counsel. You should recognize and understand the trends in your target audience’s lives and businesses and decide which types of programs (tactics) you can develop to respond to those trends.
In order for you to be a part of the messages getting through to your target audience, you need to execute the strategic tactics that will get their attention. Common public relations tactics include:
• Content marketing
• Digital media strategies such as blogs and informational websites
• Feature Stories
• Media relations and publicity
• Speaking engagements
• Special and community events
• Survey and trend results
• Thought leadership
• White papers
In order to understand which tactics are right for a lawyer or law firm, go back and ask, “What needs to be accomplished?”
If you are an associate, for example, you may have a very limited amount of time to devote to public relations efforts. In this case, capitalize on one or two simple tactics like writing legal articles or blogs and having them published in a trade or consumer outlets. And don’t forget to C.O.P.E.: create once, publish everywhere. In other words, if you publish an article or blog, be sure to send it to relevant clients and prospects, share it on your social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, include it in the firm’s enewsletter, etc.
An associate may also be limited to personal networking, such as getting involved with your local or state’s bar association YLD, getting involved with your undergraduate or law school alumni associations, joining a chamber of commerce committee, or actively participating in your religious institution. Professional networking also includes spending time maximizing the value of social media tools which you can do at any time from any location.
As your career matures, however, you will begin looking to your law firm’s culture and expectations to help define what you should be doing to enhance your name and stature in the community.
On the other hand, if you work in a firm that has a marketing department, now is the time for you to meet with the chief marketing officer (CMO), chief business development officer (CBDO), public relations director or marketing director and ask what you can do to assist with regard to public relations. In larger firms, it is not the attorney’s job to issue press releases or organize continuing-education programs to reach your target audience. Your law firm will have procedures in place (and, if not, it is time to establish them) for all of the marketing and public relations programming. The CMO, CBDO and other marketing professionals will likely be thrilled if you avail yourself.
In the larger firms, it is likely that the firm will dictate what type of public relations you may pursue, but you can find opportunities by analyzing who you are and where your interests lie. Ask yourself: What are my passions? How can I parlay them into promotional opportunities? What industries are most appealing to me?
Most of the time, you will want to employ multiple tactics so you’re not just a blip on your audience’s radar screen. You want more than just 15 minutes of fame.
Step 7: Implement Lawyer PR Tactics to Generate Results
Implementation is the how-to in law firm PR. It is the actual execution of each tactic to reach your target audience with your key messages in order to effectuate your goals and objectives.
Step 8: Measure Law Firm PR Outcomes
With the pressure to be competitive and acquire and retain more and more clients, law firms know they must execute their marketing and public relations plans thoroughly. But few take the time to measure the effectiveness of their communications. How do you know for certain that 80 percent of new cases came from referrals or that the seminar you hosted did or did not generate new clients?
Since the topic of PR measurement can be the subject of a white paper in and of itself, here is a brief list of measurement tools that you should have in your arsenal:
Public relations and marketing measurement tools:
• Google Analytics
• IQ Media
• Mention (Social Media Measurement)
If you don’t measure the effect of your public relations, you are only half-communicating. You created a solid public relations plan, targeted your audience, identified your positions, crafted your messages, laid out your calls to action, and executed a long list of tactics. But you’re only three-fourths of the way there. In order to complete the process, you must measure the results. Without measuring results, you are wasting the money you spent on creating and implementing your plan in the first place.
Make the investment to build your strategic, sustainable and influential law firm public relations plan.