In Part I of Public Relations for Lawyers, Putting the Media to Work for You, I covered:
- Law firm media policies
- How to maximize a lawyer’s relationships with the media
- Effective ways for lawyers to garner media coverage,
- How to use voicemail to pitch effectively
- How to use email to pitch effectively
- Media training for lawyers
Be sure to review Part I before moving on to Part II.
Media Terminology: The Language of Journalists
Let’s get started with a review of media terminology that every lawyer (every person for that matter) should be familiar with.
There are quite a few terms that you should be familiar with before speaking to the media. Then, once you are familiar with these terms, it is important to have a conversation with the reporter to determine his or her meaning of the terminology. For example, people often use the phrase “off the record,” but what does this really mean to the reporter? That is what matters most.
On the record: “On the record” or “for the record” means that what you say is fair game and may be included in the story. Therefore, your comments should be accurate, concise and memorable. They are statements that you want the media to repeat.
Off the record: “Off the record” comments should be avoided at all costs. My personal preference is that attorneys never make off the record comments because nothing is off the record. If you say it, then there’s always a chance that it will end up published. Off the record just means that your name won’t be attached to it (and that’s only if the reporter agrees). If you don’t want it researched or repeated, just don’t say it.
Embargo: An “embargo” usually entails providing an advance copy of an important press release or other information to the media with the explicit understanding that they will not release the story to
the public until a specified date and time. When done right, you maintain control of when the story breaks, and you give the media enough time to conduct research, gather quotes and cover the story. If you offer an embargoed story to a sole reporter, NEVER, give that story to another reporter without the permission of the other. In addition, just because you offered it, doesn’t mean the reporter accepted the embargo because an embargo is an agreement between two parties. Don’t just send a press release or email that says “Embargoed” at the top and expect the media to honor it. They have no duty to do so and oftentimes won’t honor an embargo unless it’s an explicit agreement. With regard to embargoes, you always risk a leak because there are no guarantees. A hungry member of the media could break an embargo without repercussion. Make sure you know who you are dealing with.
Exclusive: An “exclusive” is when you give a particular media outlet the opportunity to be the first to break a story. It is the only outlet to get the interview. In fact, many journalists insist on exclusives. For example, you may need to determine whether you will give The Today Show or Good Morning America an exclusive.
Second-day story: A “second-day story” should turn hard news into a multifaceted story that blends the issues with human interest. It is an update with new information on a story that was previously told. A second-day story fills in gaps in the original story, provides another angle and shares expert opinion, data or other new information.
For attribution: “For attribution” is very similar to speaking on the record. Essentially, the information provided by the source is to be quoted and attributed to the person making the statement. The statement is usually followed by, “You can quote me on that.”
Not for attribution: The exact opposite of for attribution, “not for attribution” is when you provide the media with information that can be quoted and/or used, but that same information cannot be attributed to the source. In this case, the information or statement should be preceded by, “You cannot quote me on this.” Not for attribution can be a sticky way to present information to the media. If you don’t want it attributed to you, then it’s better left unsaid. If you do not wish to provide certain information, you might consider earning some points with the reporter by suggesting an alternative source for her to consult.
On background: According to a colleague who is an undercover investigative reporter, “on background” means that she is not going to identify the source but is going to use all the information provided by the source. That is one reporter’s view. “On background” can also mean that the information will not be attributed or used. It really depends on the source’s preference, and this should be clarified between the source and the reporter.
On deep background: For the most part, when you say you are providing information to a reporter “on deep background,” it generally means that the information is not for the public, but it can be used by the reporter to enhance the story or get additional information from other sources. This is another example of a situation where, if you don’t want it published, then it’s better not to put it out there in the first place.
The general rule of thumb should be to believe that everything is on the record, fair game, quotable, available from someone else, attributable, and about the story, not you.
Performance Tips to Control Your Message
Here are some performance tips that will help you control your message.
Be concise: When speaking to the media, be concise but do not leave out any vital information. You do not want a journalist to find out information on her own and then confront you with it when you are not prepared to answer questions.
Don’t panic: Do not panic if you are asked a question during an interview to which you do not know the answer. Be honest and tell the reporter that you do not know the answer but that you would be happy to look into it and get back to her. Do not attempt to make up an answer. Never wing it.
Never say no comment: An attorney should never say no comment. When a lawyer says this, it is perceived as an attempt to hide something or avoid telling the truth. If something is confidential, then tell the interviewer that you cannot provide confidential information.
Nothing is off the record: As I mentioned previously, there is no such thing as off the record. If you say it, then there’s always a chance that it will end up published.
EFFECTIVE ALTERNATIVES TO NO COMMENT
- I think it would be clearer if I first explained…
- I don’t have all the facts to answer that question, but I can say…
- Actually, that relates to a more important concern…
- I wouldn’t use that choice of words. If you are asking (rephrase), I can tell you that…
Record it: If you’re being interviewed in person, make sure to pull your trusty recorder out in plain sight of the reporter. In the event of a misquote or factual mistake, you can easily supply the reporter with the recording and request a correction. If the reporter refuses, by all means go to the editor. In addition, review your interview to make sure you haven’t left out any vital information.
Listen to your interview technique with a fresh ear. To record your telephone interviews, you can use a simple device like your smart phone, but remember to check your state’s rules for the legality of recording conversations, especially if you haven’t engaged in full disclosure.
Use the reporter’s name: When you speak with a journalist, use her first name and try to relate to her. The more you get to know reporters and become a resource to them, and the more they get to know you, the more likely they are to give you good coverage.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Media Relations for Lawyers
Now that we’ve covered media lingo and some rules of thumb, let’s talk about some additional do’s and don’ts of media relations.
Just like you, reporters have pet peeves. And just like the legal community, the media have their own norms and unwritten rules.
The following do’s and don’ts will help keep you out of trouble and garner goodwill among the journalists you work with during your career.
When communicating with the media, DO:
- Be available and reachable when you say you’re available
- Understand deadlines
- Be truthful and likeable
- Avoid jargon
- Clarify misinformation
- Speak clearly
- Be responsive
- Use examples
- Use inflection, pitch and tone
- Use verbal pace and pause
- Sit or stand comfortably
- Be calm and polite
- Be passionate and energetic
- Focus on your agenda
- Be clear and concise
On the other hand, DON’T:
- Ask for media coverage and then not be available
- Get rattled
- Say “no comment”
- Speak off the record
- Speculate or provide advice
- Fill dead air—silence is an option
- Use negative statements
- Sound smug or arrogant
- Say “um,” “uh,” “okay,” “like,” “you know,” or “er”
- Nod your head during a question
The Specifics of Television, Radio and Print Interviews (All of Which Live Online)
Television: The Rules of TV Interviews for Lawyers
If you are going to be interviewed on television, there are several additional guidelines you should follow:
Watch the show several times before you are scheduled to appear:
It is important to know the key players and the format of the show.
Choose your messages with care: Television reaches a very general consumer viewer, and morning news tends to have a higher female demographic. The producers have chosen to interview you and your topic based on a topic that you have already agreed upon. You must stick to that topic or the reporter will cut you off and move on to a different segment.
Stay calm, cool and collected: Remember to stay still. Don’t sway back and forth or shake your feet. Take deep breaths. Pause between thoughts. Address the interviewer. Never look at the camera or monitors unless instructed otherwise. Keep your body language open and relaxed. Smile if the subject matter calls for a smile.
Speak in short sound bites: Practice your topic in sound bites. Television is a great medium for short, quick sound bites that the viewers can remember. Television reporters are also looking for short, to-the- point sound bites. You’ll rarely see a person talking for more than 9 to 10 seconds during a TV story.
Spare the details: Most television stories run for less than 90 seconds. TV reporters aren’t looking for hours of drawn-out details. Be concise and get to your point.
Count 2 seconds before answering: The slight pause before you answer will make your responses sound fresh and thoughtful.
Use flags and bridges: Signal that a key point is coming up by flagging it with a phrase like, “the key point is,” or link each answer to a positive message by using bridging phrases like, “but let me put this in perspective” or, “but the real issue is…”.
SAMPLE FLAGS AND BRIDGES
- Let’s look at it from a broader perspective…
- The real issue is…
- Let’s not lose sight of the underlying problem…
- There is another issue playing into this…
- The most important thing to remember is…
- I disagree. Just the opposite is true…
Speak in plain English: The general television viewer speaks and reads at a 7th to 8th-grade level. Speaking in plain English will ensure that your message gets across. In other words, avoid legal jargon. It’s important to speak in layman’s terms so your audience understands you and so that your messages are clear.
Remember to highlight your law firm name: When you are first introduced, the reporter will generally mention your name only. They almost never mention the law firm. It is important for you to mention your law firm’s name when it is appropriate and comes naturally, so the viewing audience will remember it.
Focus on your objective: Don’t get bogged down in statistics or lengthy explanations. Speak briefly, directly and to the point. Correct any misstatements or misperceptions. You should have prepared key messages before speaking to the media. Make sure you know what they are and that you get them across in your interview.
Legalese-Buster Plain English glossary
Here are some synonyms that will help you avoid using legalese in your communications:
Beware of interviewing traps: Use your own words. Never repeat negative language or allow the reporter to put words into your mouth. Never lose your cool. Remember that nothing is ever off the record.
Plan your attire: Proper planning provides for a polished product.
Don’t wear white: It glows and becomes the most noticeable thing on the television screen.
Don’t wear black: It’s too harsh and can absorb too much light. Other solid colors work best.
Don’t wear busy patterns: Thin stripes, busy tweeds, and prints produce distracting on-screen effects. This applies to ties and prints on shirts. Pastel shirts work well on TV.
Don’t wear bright reds: They “bleed” on camera and are distracting.
Wear makeup: If you don’t wear powder on your nose, forehead and face, you will look shiny, oily and plastic. Make sure the powder makeup you use is the same color as your skin, not lighter or darker.
Keep your suit jacket buttoned: In general, your suit will look more symmetrical, and you will appear more professional and polished. And for men, this will keep your tie in place.
Watch other people being interviewed: Watch others on TV with the sound turned off to see which mannerisms are distracting to you. Then, avoid using any of the same distracting body language, facial expressions or movements during an interview.
Eat well and avoid coffee or milk: Don’t do the interview on an empty stomach. Your growling stomach will distract you. Coffee can make you jittery or nervous; milk can make your mouth feel gummy and will make it harder to talk.
Radio Programs: The Rules of Radio (Audio-only) Interviews for Lawyers
Like television, radio (audio-only interviews) has its own norms and idiosyncrasies. Close your eyes and listen to a radio news broadcast. Listen to interviews. You want to be able to paint a visual picture with words and still keep your message simple and to the point. Keep the following guidelines in mind when seeking radio publicity.
Do your homework: Before you send out a press release or call local radio stations with a story, listen to their programs. Familiarize yourself with the station’s reporters. Get to know the demographics of their listeners and informational needs. This will allow you to target those radio stations whose listeners are most likely to be interested in your message or story.
Make yourself known as a spokesperson for an issue or an area of law: Because of the immediacy of radio, news employees have precious little time to hunt down sources when a story breaks. If you readily come to mind, they are more likely to contact you.
Understand what radio news is: Understand that your law firm’s story or event will not be discussed on the radio unless it has true news value. If there is a human-interest angle, find out who should be contacted and whether the station covers human-interest stories.
Be a good guest: Know your material and answer the host’s questions with the listeners in mind. Keep your answers brief. Provide enough information so the listeners will have learned something. Thank the host for having you as a guest, and be sure to send a thank-you note after the interview.
Ask for a copy: Many radio stations will provide you with a digital copy of the program. Request information about the outlet’s copy- rights and whether or not you are permitted to utilize the materials for your own promotional purposes. You may be able to use the audio recording on your website. But before you do, make sure it would be of interest to your target audiences.
Remember that audio lives online too: While your interview originally may have been for the radio, it is likely that the transcript or a summary of the interview will live online as a news story as well. Be sure to provide the reporter with relevant images if the outlet includes their audio interviews online.
Print and Digital Publications: The Rules of Print and Digital Interviews for Lawyers
Print media can usually donate more space to a story than its television and radio counterparts while digital media can allocate even more than print. You can provide more information, photographs or other visuals to promote your story in print and digital keeping in mind that print will always have physical parameters (such as word counts and content per inch). The more interesting, the more likely the publication will cover your story.
Keep the following tips in mind when dealing specifically with print media and/or digital media.
Go the extra mile—help reporters see both sides of the story: Reporters must not mislead their readers. Therefore, think like a journalist. You can help the reporter create a balanced story by going the extra step and providing her with opposing perspectives. Showing both sides of a story makes it hard for the reporter to accuse you of being disingenuous or biased.
Don’t ask to proof the story before it is published: Reporters pride themselves on being accurate and professional and may find it offensive to have their work proofed. Additionally, permitting a source to proof a story is highly taboo, and many editors have said they would fire a reporter for doing so. Fear not, however, as many reporters will call to double-check names and facts before a piece is published.
Request corrections wisely: It is not uncommon for there to be errors in a story. This is oftentimes not the fault of the journalist, but rather happens during the editing process. It is important to request corrections to factual information when the incorrect information affects the overall story. For example, if the story said, “In an interview on Monday” and it was actually Tuesday, and the day of the week is not relevant to the story, then leave the inaccuracy alone. On the other hand, if there is a substantive mistake, respectfully request that the error be corrected especially because the story will live online for a long time.
When done right, public relations for lawyers is a valuable tool to help the attorney and the law firm to gain credibility and validity. When the coverage is favorable, don’t forget to share it as a media mention on your firm’s website and to share it via social media. The more that see it, the more likely it will enhance your business development efforts as well.
Copyright © 2018 by Gina Furia Rubel. All rights reserved.
First published in 2007 | Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2007941911
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