How Best to Work with Legal Media with Gina Passarella, Editor-in-Chief at ALM Media
In this episode of On Record PR, we go on record with Gina Passarella, the editor-in-chief of global legal brands for ALM media. We talk about how best to work with the legal media, the do’s and don’ts, key media terminology, and understanding timing.
Gina Passarella is the editor-in-chief of global brands at ALM Media, where she works to connect others across the legal industry. Gina has worked with ALM since 2005, where she began as a reporter at its Pennsylvania publication, The Legal Intelligencer. She has covered the business of law around large law firms since that time. She moved into a role as senior editor on ALM’s Business of Law desk in 2016 and became editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer in 2017. Her role has since evolved to include overseeing ALM’s global and national brands, including Law.com International, Corporate Counsel, Legaltech News, The National Law Journal and China Law & Practice. Gina connects the profound insights of ALM’s niche audience segments, building communities across the entire legal industry.
This episode was recording on March 22nd, 2020, during the first full week of the Pennsylvania stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic. Both Gina Passarella and Gina Rubel were working from home, learning how to manage what they hoped would not become the new normal. The talked about general media relations and how coronavirus changed the media landscape
More About Gina Passarella, Editor-in-Chief at ALM Media, from Her Perspective
As you mentioned, I started back in ’05, and I didn’t even know what the business of law was. I just lucked out and got a job in Philadelphia, close to my home in South Jersey where I still live. I started covering large law firms and realized it was just fascinating, and it was such an interesting time to start too because those were the tail end of the heydays of large law. Everybody was doing great. The numbers were skyrocketing, and then the recession hit. It was such an interesting experience to watch how those law firms evolved, and that evolution continues till today, as they increasingly become more like businesses, as they expand around the globe. We have followed them as well as a company. Now, here we are in another uncertain time, and there’s a lot going on. It will be interesting to see how firms have learned lessons over the last decade or so and how they apply that to the time period that we’re in now.
What is different about ALM Media?
This place has kept me my entire career. I haven’t wanted to go anywhere else because above anything else, I still enjoy working with the people, both internally and all of the people that we cover. What we try to do across all of our many legal brands – and even in our other verticals in insurance, real estate, finance, consulting – is tell you not just what happened but what it means, why it matters, and why it matters to your business. That really gives us a chance, as reporters, to dive down and get the nuance that our readers need, and we have a sophisticated and busy audience who need us to cut to the chase for them but also keep them abreast of the most important issues in their industry, so that they can be as successful as possible in their business.
We take that responsibility to heart. And we’re lucky because we get to do that through a platform that has a global newsroom of reporters all over the world who are talking to each other every day, working on stories together every day to bring that full picture. We have a newsroom that covers every aspect of the legal spectrum from law firms, the clients, legal tech, regulatory litigation in the courts, to alternative legal services providers. And then we marry that on-the-ground expertise that we have in our communities, that we cover, with all of the data that we’ve been collecting historically for 40 plus years. And it really allows us to accomplish that mission that I said, which is to explain to you what’s really going on, why it matters, and putting that in context.
What are some of the trends you were seeing in the legal industry prior to coronavirus?
A lot has shifted in terms of what our coverage plans will likely be for the coming months or the year. In general, some of the core themes that we had been following were innovation, and I almost hesitate to use that word because what does it even mean? It’s how the legal services delivery spectrum is evolving, how are legal services bought, sold and delivered. And, that has been changing for the last decade plus, but it’s really speeding up. And we’re looking at that through a few lenses. One, alternative legal services providers and the big four. How are they coming into the market and disrupting what traditional providers, the law firms have done? That’s something that we have been watching for a while. Again, it’s really speeding up who’s doing what and in what meaningful ways? How will that shift how clients buy legal services?
Then, you have discussions around the country in different jurisdictions about the deregulation of legal services, law firm ownership rules. Who can have an ownership stake in a law firm? Who can do legal services? And what types of legal services can somebody without a law degree do? All of those things. and that was taboo. People have tried that time and time again over the decades and it seemed to have more of a footing this time around then it has in previous times. We were really watching that closely, whether or not things like that get scaled back because of what’s happening. It was founded in Access to Justice, so there may be an even greater push and then greater needs for things like that to happen in a time of recession. But things like that are what we have been following.
And then, certainly how law firms are expanding internationally. We launched Law.com International at the beginning of this year, and we’ll continue to cover the legal industry across the globe, with our reporters and all of the different places that we have them based, and follow those trends as they play out in varying jurisdictions. A lot of the issues that we were going to cover all circle around the issue of competition and how the market is evolving. I think what the COVID-19 crisis is going to do is perhaps speed up some of those issues and put some of them on the back burner. It’s really going to come right back to competition for clients, for talent, how firms can survive and thrive in this type of economy.
Have you been seeing a lot of media pitching around coronavirus topics?
Tons. I can’t think of an email that has come across my desk in the last few weeks that doesn’t have COVID-19 somewhere in the subject line. It’s intense. The clients are getting those same alerts. Firms are doing some pretty impressive things, with not just a client alert – though some of them did great, like the ones targeted to specific business roles within a company or specific industries – but the resource centers that are coming up. I’ve also been impressed with what the big four are doing, in terms of the way that they can quickly analyze a company across all of its unique traits and give some guidance as to how this crisis might impact them. There’s a lot of effort put around thought leadership, and thought leadership is really the only thing we can do in this time.
This is what people are craving. The readership on our COVID-19 stories, I frankly thought would’ve died down a little bit by now with how quick news cycles are these days, but it is just ramping up more and more. In terms of what the law firms are doing, I think it’s impressive but it’s a lot, and it’s hard to stand out. We had a webinar last week and Alex Dimitrief, former GC of GE, was one of the panelists. He said, “You know what I would suggest, is give me something practical. Those alerts that I notice, are the ones that give me practical advice specific to my job, not just tells me that there’s a crisis happening. Everybody knows that. Give me a little bit more.” That’s what I think the clients are looking for. They’re looking for that holistic guidance that can help them figure out, how does this all impact every aspect of my business?
How do you feel about still getting the everyday story ideas during a pandemic?
The world, to the extent it can, needs to continue to go on, and I’m sure there’s a lot of appetite for people to read something other than COVID-19. There’s definitely a little bit of items getting lost in the shuffle and the mix of all of the COVID-19 news. I had a firm call me the other day and say, “Hey, we were going to announce a new office opening next week. Do you think that’s still wise? Would you even be interested in covering it? Do you think anybody would see it? What do you advise that we do?” And I said, “We absolutely would still be interested in covering it,” for the reasons I just mentioned. People are going to want to start to read other things. News happens. I think it’s somewhat heartening to know that there are still things going on that show signs of success and growth. They kind of thought about it and at some point decided to hold off.
What should people know about working with you and pitching you stories?
As with anything in life, it really is all about relationships, and that’s just as incumbent upon the reporters and journalists as it is upon the sources that we’re talking to. We make it a priority. I certainly do, as do our reporters, to get out and meet with as many folks as we can. Just for off the record, get-to-know-you meetings. What’s happening in your industry with your company? What trends are you seeing? What do you wish we would cover more? That just helps give us a better understanding of the real issues that are happening out there and an understanding of how certain companies work. We encourage it whether we’ve had that kind of meeting or not. Definitely call us. Talk to us. We understand that you all are navigating timing on issues and how to best position a story. We’re going to cover all angles of it, but we’re happy to work with people on–okay, when does it make sense to release this? We will work with embargoes. We will work with you around timing, but we’re happy to have the conversation.
We welcome any sort of contact, for me and the reporters, whether it be email, phone, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook. If you want a private message or text, however you feel most comfortable sharing the information, we’re happy to receive it that way. If an email gets lost in the shuffle, ping me again. Again, we really value the time that we get to spend talking to people, even off the record and learning about what’s happening in the industry. And I’ll just say too, that I know this is such a crazy, uncertain time, and people are really scrambling to get things done. And law firms particularly, are not only trying to advise their clients on the hundreds and thousands of requests that are coming in, but they’re trying to shore up their own operations. We want to be as responsive to our community of readers as we possibly can be, in terms of writing the pieces that are really going to help you get through this time. If there’s anything that you have a question about– “Hey, I wonder how firms are handling X,” let us know; we can go and do that homework for you. We welcomed this outreach now more than ever, even though I know you’re super busy, but let us help you in any way that we can.
What is an embargo?
For firms or other sources, we’ll call them. We’ll say, “Could we give you this story?” They won’t necessarily tell us all of the details. They’ll say, “There’s a story about this general topic. If you’re interested, we’ll give it to you, but you just have to agree not to run the story until X set time that we all agreed to. They make that arrangement with several newspaper entities or they may make it with just one, and we will often agree to that. We will first go to our newsroom and talk to all the reporters and say, “Hey, is anybody working on something that sounds like this? This is what we’re being pitched.” Because if a reporter had already been working on it, and was about to break it, and close to writing that news, we’re not going to agree to the embargo.
What does it mean to be on the record?
Anytime you’re talking to a reporter, you should assume that what you’re saying is on the record until it’s agreed by both parties that it’s not. If you say to a reporter as you’re talking, “Oh, this part I’m going to have off the record,” and you don’t hear them say, “Okay, we’re off the record,” that’s not an agreement. You need to stop before you continue talking with what you want to say off the record, and make sure that the reporter agrees, and then be clear about when you’re going back on the record. Off the record is essentially that we’re not going to use this information in our story, we’re not going to quote it from you or not for attribution, as in, “A person at X and Y law firm in Pennsylvania said..” there will be nothing like that in the story. It’s just information for the reporter, to help further their background understanding of the story, or to help further their reporting and have other leads that they can explore.
What does it mean to be an off the record media source?
If someone wants to go off the record, they should call and say, “Listen, I want to talk to you about something, but can we be completely off the record?” And I would say exactly what your expectations are, say something like, “Listen, I need to be off the record with you. I can’t have my firm mentioned or my name mentioned. It can never come back to me.” We generally understand that’s the wish, but it can’t hurt to just be as explicit as possible in what your hope is in how that that information is handled.
What should law firms be thinking about regarding diversity and inclusion?
That’s such an important topic and has only been growing in visibility over the last couple of years, particularly, as clients have more and more actively become involved with it. I think even if you don’t have a straight story on diversity, you should always be thoughtful when you’re pitching sources about making sure they’re diverse. Journalists, in general, always want to make sure we’re talking to as many sources as we can and as many new sources as we can. We don’t want to just quote the same people over and over again. A really easy way to help meaningfully promote diverse attorneys or staff is through getting them media opportunities. It doesn’t have to be about diversity. In fact, it’s probably better if it’s not. Get them to talk about the great work that they’re doing, or some specific areas of substantive expertise, and that just helps build their profile.
Certainly, we are interested in stories specific to diversity as well, case studies or unique programs that have helped advance people within firms and the like. It’s unfortunate, and we get a little bit frustrated because every year, the numbers don’t seem to change all that much, and it’s hard to write a new story or something interesting to say. I will be curious how the coronavirus pandemic and the financial outlook for firms impacts the diversity discussion. I think we saw last financial crisis that some diversity directors may have been let go or the numbers across the firm, in terms of the numbers of diverse attorneys, flipped a bit. This time around, I would want to put the ownness a little bit more on the client, only because the clients, over the last year or two, have really made a concerted effort in order to help move the needle, to actively give matters to new counsel, new firms, new lawyers within existing firms, on the basis of diversity. In a time of crisis like we’re in now, it’s natural to retreat to your existing counsel. You don’t have time to think about anything else other than getting the solutions to your biggest problems that your company could face. We’re seeing clients, already, just want to go right to their existing counsel. That makes it a little tough to dole out and think about–Who new can I give work to? They’ll have to try to actively keep the ownness on diversity as much as the law firms will.
What are some of the big topics of interest regarding coronavirus?
The most common issue that people are reading about – and it has not died down in the slightest – is office closures. Far and away, at anything forward-looking, that what we’re doing about how the virus could impact certain practice areas or lateral hiring or mergers. They’re definitely getting read but not to the level of the office closure story. I think that’s because it has so many tentacles. It deals with remote work and firms’ capacities to do that at a broad scale. Do their staff all have access to laptops in the systems? Why don’t they, if they don’t? How do you close offices and still interact with the courts and mail and get signatures? What about wage, and hour, and workmen’s comp issues with having people work from home? What about school closures and how people will work? Kids? There’s so many aspects of that. And every jurisdiction is handling it differently. That firms, which are now national if not global, are just scrambling to figure out how to adjust their operations in light of what’s quickly becoming a nationwide lockdown.
What are some of the do’s and don’ts of media relations?
It really is relationship based. Reach out. Get to know the reporters and the editors. We’re very much a reporter-driven culture here. We want our reporters out there making relationships, developing their own story ideas, and really making those connections, and knowing and owning their beats. It’s pitching us something that you know you would think is news–if it wasn’t about you, that you would want to read–if it wasn’t about you. That’s the idea. And I know that’s easier said than done, particularly when you’re sometimes carrying water on the PR side for a partner who thinks everything they do is top of the fold.
We’re looking for those types of stories that are: a new and novel approach to some things, a unique challenge that was overcome, a case study to highlight, a trend that we’ve been covering, something that– now it’s the third firm that’s pitched us on this–maybe that is a story! To that point, I always say it’s better to send us stuff and we not use it, then to not send it, because eventually they may start to add up and we may realize there’s a trend that we want to cover. It’s a lot easier to cover a few firms in a story than just one. Making sure it’s timely–that’s obviously so important. But a lot of times, particularly in law, we’ve found that things will come in months after the fact, a case it was on or something. We need to know pretty quickly, a lateral that, “Oh yeah, they joined three months ago.” Well, that makes it a little awkward to write about now. Don’t send us links to the article that another publication wrote on the same thing and ask us to write it.
Don’t try to talk us out of the story when we’re writing one that you didn’t pitch. We’re totally open to hearing your point of view on an issue, but if we’re calling about a story and I’ll be honest, maybe there are times where something just isn’t ripe yet, right? If it’s just not worth it. And, we’re doing our reporting and we may come to that conclusion, but it doesn’t mean every time we call there’s going to be an article that comes out of it. When people tell us, “I don’t know why you’d be writing about this. This clearly isn’t a story. This is not news.” It makes me think more that we better write about something. That’s kind of a trigger for me.
What questions should people be answering to put some of their story ideas in context?
I know this is hard for firms to do but for a firm to say, “Hey, we just started this program, and we know of these two other firms who have done it, and we think this is a growing issue,” that gives the reporter their dream of at least three to make a trend. And if we can, we can explore it. You’re putting somebody else in the boat with you, but it gets your story out there if you’re connecting it to, “Hey, I see that you have been writing about this issue a lot; we have a unique angle on it.” It gets difficult for us when it’s the 47th firm to announce a new practice in a certain area. Right? We’re not going to cover that. The first couple we might cover. I guess there’s a first mover advantage in certain aspects of news. Just try to explain to us why this is worthy of, not only our time in reporting, but of our readers time in reading.
What do you learn about lawyers from legal industry award submissions?
It surprises me sometimes, and I know it’s a lot of work to put these awards submissions together. It’s a lot of work for us to judge the hundreds and hundreds that come in, but we really get so much value. It’s some of the best marketing material that these firms could ever do, and we let them. I’m always surprised in the individual lawyers who are leading deals. Talk about diversity efforts. We’ll see in a litigation department-of-the-year submission that this woman led 10 different cases. Yet, when we had a woman attorney of the year contest, that woman wasn’t even put up for it. There are things that people sometimes don’t connect, but we’ll learn about individual sources and experts at a firm practice area, growth industry trends that we wouldn’t otherwise know, but also really unique programs of how they’re running as a business–things that if they pitched us as a story, we probably would have written, but by the time they come through an award submission, it might be a little too late to write about.
What is one thing that can get somebody blacklisted from you ever following up again?
I’m hesitant to blacklist anybody. I’m in the business of getting the information out to our readers that we need to get to them. I’m going to be pretty open. Also, there’s an element of fairness. I’m not going to say you’re blacklisted. But again, if there’s news to be covered, I want to cover it. Treating our reporters poorly, yelling and screaming – and even if there is a correction to be made, there’s a polite way to go about asking for a correction – but sometimes the people who yell the loudest have no correction to be asked of. It surprises me. It really goes back to the relationships. Treat us kindly. Don’t ever lie, of course. We really don’t like it when people will do the embargo for example, with several publications, and then we other publications break the embargo. Often, it’s with larger publications and it’s kind of obvious that they just wanted that larger publication to break it, but they were trying to throw other people a bone–pisses us off. Not going to lie. I think these are the things that happen, so it’s hard to get blacklisted, but I think that if you’re supplying faulty information, that’s probably the end of the line. We all talk every day, all day, and we share sources and ideas, and we work together on stories, and the world is an increasingly smaller and smaller place.
If you’ve enjoyed this episode of On Record PR, please consider giving us a 5-star rating on our Apple Podcast page and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or iHeartRadio.
Connect & Learn More
To learn more about your host, Gina Rubel, click here.
To learn more about On Record PR, click here.
To order a copy of Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers, click here.
For more coronavirus resources, please visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis & PR Resource Center.