For all of us, communications aren’t what they used to be only 10 years ago: when spoken words could leave no trace and it was hard to prove what was said behind closed doors. As some Congress members and CEOs are still learning in this brave, new, transparent world: Any communication could be "on the record," online stories never die and nearly everyone is packing a smartphone that can record and broadcast with a touch of the screen.

In the recent election campaign, President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gave the media a myriad of messages, some scripted and some unscripted, some quite successful and others with quite unintended effects. From the campaign, what lessons can attorneys glean for better messaging to the press and to clients and prospects?

To answer this question, the Legal Marketing Association (LMA), on February 21, gave the reins of its monthly lunch-and-learn to Joshua M. Peck, senior media relations manager at Duane Morris; Larry Ceisler, public communications executive at Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy; and Kenneth E. Davis, senior director at Duane Morris Government Strategies. This panel of media experts, as well as an audience of legal marketers and attorneys, dissected video clips of Obama’s and Romney’s commercials, debates and speeches.

For effective marketing, attorneys and law firms (and their marketers) should articulate a narrative that expresses the desired brand and message to clients, and lawyers and firms’ activities and communications should reinforce that narrative. In a political campaign, however, a second goal (if not the first) is to negatively write the opponent’s narrative. Therefore, the Democratic campaign composed a narrative for Romney as a rich, out-of-touch, vain man, while Republicans wrote a narrative for Obama as a failed socialist.

Words Out of Context

In one sense, this was a contest of, "I like being able to fire people" versus, "If you have a business, you didn’t build that." Most voters still remember these damning phrases. However, when put back in their contexts, many might agree with both of these statements:

"I want individuals to have their own insurance [rather than it changing with each new employer]," Romney said January 9, 2012, in Nashua, N.H. "That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say I’m going to get somebody else to provide that service to me."

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," Obama said July 13, 2012, in Roanoke, Va. "There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Romney’s statement makes sense in terms of motivating insurers to focus on preventative health care. However, as Peck pointed out, "Then he says a phrase that reinforces the narrative that Romney doesn’t live like the rest of us, doesn’t know the fear of being fired, that he’s like Donald Trump (‘You’re fired!’)."

Similarly, Obama’s statement makes sense in meaning that a business owner did not build the roads and bridges on which commerce relies. But out of context, the offending sentence plays into the socialist, far-left narrative: that all success depends on collective effort and big government.

Lessons from ’47 percent’ and ‘Guns or Religion’

It is inevitable, in a long campaign of constant speeches and sound bites, that some things will blow up. The worst moment for Romney was the release of a camera-phone video from a private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla.:

"There are 47 percent … who believe that they are victims … who pay no income tax. … I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Obama had a similar explosion in the 2008 election, also recorded at a private fundraiser, this time in San Francisco:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years. … And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion."

As Davis noted, "No longer is anything off the record." The PR lesson for lawyers, Ceisler said, is that if an issue is controversial, "Don’t let the top person talk to the press, in case she’s needed later to clean up a mistake. Once your top person makes a mistake, it’s over," as it was for Romney. This may be a good reason, in issues with media ramifications, to have a lawyer speak for the client. In case something goes awry, attorneys should know there is a plan B with a company spokesman.

Ten Pointers for Attorneys Talking to the Press

1. Keep it simple. Often the first mistake is giving too much information. Distill the details and complexity, and use plain language that everyone understands. What is the most important idea to impart?

2. Keep it interesting. Use expressive language, examples and stories to illustrate the message. If your responses are too scripted, they will be boring.

3. Do your best to thread the needle. Don’t give the same answer to every question, but don’t go off the cuff unless you are sure of your footing.

4. Know your interviewer. While you will not always have time to prepare this way, it is usually invaluable to read the journalist’s last few substantive pieces. You will learn his or her style and preferences as well as level or understanding on legal and business issues, so you can gear your response appropriately. In addition, any interview will go better if you first comment on and discuss a recent article the journalist wrote.

5. Know your audience. You must understand both the broad audience that this piece will reach, as well as targeted subsets of the audience such as prospective clients. Figure out what would make the media and audience want to engage with you more. This almost always entails giving away some advice.

6. Timeliness. When you get a call from a reporter, ask for the deadline. If they want an on-the-spot quote, only do it if you are quick on your feet; otherwise let the interview go. If you can buy some time to prepare, you should do so. Reporters have deadlines, but they are not generally five minutes from now.

7. Preparing and getting help. Anticipating that you might get a call from the media should trigger your preparation for a possible interview. If you have the resource of a good person to help you prepare or your firm has experienced media relations staff or consultants, use their services.

8. Use the reporter’s name repeatedly. It is human nature to love the sound of your own name, and people who repeat one’s name in conversation are more likeable. In addition, this will put you in a relationship with the reporter: taking turns talking, rather than you pontificating.

9. Prepare your remarks and practice your sound bites. Somewhere in your remarks, there should be a sound bite of seven or 20 words that people will remember after forgetting the rest. Your job is to see that this crucial sound bite or quote consists of words you chose, massaged and made perfect. It could summarize your overall point, it could be a great metaphor that clarifies your ideas or intentions, or it could be simply a terse, well-worded explanation of why you are right and your opponent is wrong. If you do not have the time to at least prepare this central quote, do not take the interview.

10. What the audience wants to hear. Most importantly, instead of talking about what you want people to know, talk about what they want to know. Tailor your comments to what will be useful to them. This last point is critical for all communications — in your personal life, your professional life, and in all marketing, business development and client relations. •

Richard Alonso is the 2013 president of the Metro Philadelphia chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. He is a writer for Jaffe PR and can be reached at richard@AlonsoMarketing.com.