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Dedicated communications positions are popping up in the Legal Marketing Association’s job bank regularly, and law firm names are making appearances in the job listings on the Public Relations Society of America’s Web site and in the PR industry trades. Firms increasingly recognize the need for marketing communications expertise and are taking these functions in house. Fueling this trend, firms are expanding their communications function beyond the one-man or one-woman show and dividing the responsibilities into specialized areas, including internal communications, corporate communications (firm-produced publications), external or market-specific publicity and community relations. Further, there are firms that are hiring multiple professionals at the coordinator, manager, director and executive levels. So, how does a firm know whether to take the communications function in house? There are a variety of considerations — some more concrete and measurable than others — that should assist in determining how best to approach firm communication needs. PRIMARY AUDIENCES Identifying the audiences with which the firm wishes to communicate is a critical element in assessing a law firm’s communications needs. Typical audiences include: attorneys and staff (aka internal); clients and “friends,” such as former clients, alumni and “warm” business development leads; the legal community, including judges, in-house attorneys, competitors, referral sources and potential recruits; industry-specific business development prospects (e.g., biotech executives); the regional business community; and consumers at large. In addition, it is important to consider the potential geographic reach of the firm’s communications. Is the firm targeting a global audience, or is it most concerned with its local community? Armed with the intended audiences and their relative distance, the firm can prioritize its communications targets and goals. A more internally focused program or one that targets a limited geographic or industry audience may be manageable for an in-house professional. A communicator with proven media relations experience also may be ideal to serve as the firm’s primary liaison with the journalists who will repeatedly cover the firm and its news. By developing strong individual relationships and a track record for providing reliable information and access to attorneys, an inside communications contact may serve the firm well in the face of good and less-than-good news. On the other hand, a program targeting a widespread audience or audiences of greatly varied interests (e.g., legal, biotech and real estate) may be better served by a combination of in-house and external resources or an agency with complementary expertise. FIRM CULTURE A particularly private firm or one with limited experience in communications outreach may benefit from the work of an in-house communications professional. Attorneys and staff are likely to feel more comfortable sharing information with an “insider,” management may be more receptive to giving him or her a “seat at the table” and all will likely be less concerned about “leaks” or the premature spreading of information. Also, if the firm is undergoing a significant cultural shift, such as post-merger blending or major management or administrative change, an internal communicator will have an advantage in working through the management team and identifying communications hot buttons — whether they’re percolating internally or in the larger community. IMMEDIACY AND VOLUME Does the firm have a high volume of “breaking news” — or newsworthy information that is particularly time sensitive, such as litigation wins, high-profile or “brand name” case filings, notable transactions or issues-oriented work? Given today’s tight news cycles, juggling two or more newsworthy items can sink even the most experienced in-house professional and limit the media results. Continuous “crisis” or reactive attention to the firm’s communications needs can also sideline a limited communications staff, making proactive or business development-focused efforts impossible or, at best, slow to produce results. Additionally, a firm with experienced attorneys in particularly newsworthy practice areas, such as online piracy pre- and post- Grokster, needs a communications strategy that ensures the resources necessary to take advantage of the immediate news value of the issue — and it is critical to realize that the opportunities for media relations of this sort are short-lived. In the event of high news volume or if aggressive and proactive efforts are desired, looking for external PR resources that offer a larger staff on demand, broader media contacts across a range of geographic and industry areas and proven tools for getting information out to multiple markets quickly may prove a wise investment — whether used exclusively or to supplement internal efforts. PERSPECTIVE An agency can bring an outside or more widely-focused perspective to the PR process. While a particular matter, practice or trend may look unique to one firm, there may be others in the marketplace with a similar experience. The perspective of an agency immersed in the industry can help a firm determine if information is truly unique, part of an emerging trend or simply a “me too” observation. This is particularly important if your communications program is business-development focused and involves positioning firm attorneys as thought leaders by submitting bylined articles and booking speaking engagements. Often an attorney will suggest an excellent topic on which to write or speak; however, if the subject matter has already been addressed by the publication, is too self-serving, or does not fit an overriding theme, an opportunity is lost — or worse yet, the thought leader is now seen as a “follower.” RESOURCES Public relations efforts require a wide range of tools for effective and efficient implementation. Among these are publication and wire service subscriptions, media directories, journalist query services and clipping services, all of which most agencies share across multiple client budgets. Modifications to the firm’s Web site or development of an internal communications mechanism, travel and entertainment expenses for event attendance and media outreach and reprint costs associated with the reproduction of media results should not be overlooked — and these expenses can be expected whether the communications professional is in house or external. Expenses should be weighed in conjunction with determining the communications budget on the whole. In many cases, the ideal solution is a combination — an in-house communicator who liaisons with an outside agency to cover information flow and confidentiality concerns while effectively handling breaking news and reaching its target audience. When the budget or dynamics of the situation do not allow for this combined approach, a thoughtful review of the considerations discussed can put a firm on the path to drafting its job listing or agency request for proposal. Traci Stuart is vice president at Blattel Communications, a business-to-business-focused public relations and marketing agency with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. She is also president of the Bay Area chapter of the Legal Marketing Association.

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