One of the biggest inhibitors to internal engagement on media relations matters is a discrepancy between what is attainable and what is expected. Managing internal expectations is perhaps one of the most critical elements of any media relations program for law firms.

Attorneys may shy away from media relations outreach activities for any number of reasons. Perhaps they tried it before and it didn’t seem to get the desired results. Or limited time availability could be a deterrent. At the same time, there are many attorneys who do find the time to engage in media relations matters and they seem quite satisfied with the level of commitment versus the returns on their marketing efforts. So what’s the issue?

Managing Expectations

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the press release your firm distributed garnered 100 mentions or just a handful. Or whether a trade publication focused entirely on your firm or included your firm in an article that included four others.

In the end, it’s about meeting expectations.

Why Expectations are Missed

Often, when expectations are not met it’s when attorneys and the communications function aren’t working toward the same ends. This is not to blame either side of the equation. Sometimes, the communications function may have made certain assumptions about attorney expectations. Other times, the firm may not have a culture comfortable with media relations, treating outreach to the media as a nonbillable chore to be avoided at all costs. Regardless, the key is for attorneys and communications to work together — with mutual understanding of the challenges — toward the same objectives. Here are some situations that may warrant some expectations management:

•“Let’s have a press conference.”

Press conferences do not generate news in and of themselves. They are best used as an efficient means to control the dissemination of information that you know will already be of high interest to the media. Most poorly attended press conferences fail simply because what was considered news to the host was not considered by the media worthy of expending valuable reporter time and expense. This needs to be understood at the outset. If an attorney refuses to accept this, he or she must at the very least know a successful outcome cannot be assumed.

•“I want to see the story before it’s published.”

Most journalists worth their salt won’t share the story before it’s published. This is a matter of professionalism. While we sometimes hear that some reporters engage in this practice with insiders at political campaigns or in government, they are the exceptions. More often than not, reporters will not only deny such a request but come away with the impression that those who make such requests are unprofessional.

•“Why does that firm get all the press?”

One of the best ways to get the answer to this question is to conduct an analysis of how much and what kind of media visibility the other firm gets. Determine who they’re putting out front, what they’re talking about, and through what means. This may serve as a model for your firm. Still, if that firm is doing things that are outside your attorneys’ comfort zones, at least you’ll know, and you can use that to establish your own parameters for how your firm wants to proceed in the media relations area.

Common Challenges

The most common challenge at law firms when it comes to setting expectations for media relations is an underappreciation for how the media works and how it perceives its own mission. Here are some things to avoid:

• Engaging with journalists only when you have good news.

If you only want to talk to the press when you have news you want to tell, but you’re inaccessible when the media calls you, you’re hindering the process it takes to forge long-term, positive relations with the media.

• Talking in legalese.

All reporters, even those from legal trades, prefer to interview subjects or receive material in writing that is easily understandable for laymen.

• Limiting interaction with the media to only one or two spokespeople.

Reporters like sources — lots of them. The more your firm can do to provide direct access to a good cross-section of legal resources, the better for your firm.

• Shying from controversy.

While there are many times it’s not prudent to participate in a story, such as when your own client or client industry could be involved, when you engage with the media, know that in many situations, reporters call lawyers to address sensitive topics.

The key to effective media relations engagement is to understand what the media is trying to accomplish, what it needs to achieve its mission, and then to determine what your firm can or cannot do to help toward that end. As you increase your interactions with the media, you will better know what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect, and in the process, you’ll be building fruitful relationships that will aid in your firm’s marketing efforts. •

Tim O’Brien is the owner of O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based corporate communications consultancy. He’s worked on a broad range of communications matters and has worked with lawyers on public relations and marketing issues for the past 25 years. He can be reached at 412-854-8845 or at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.