What is Public Relations? And, How Can It Help Attorneys?

Attorney Public RelationsAbraham Lincoln once said: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” Lincoln was a master persuader. He had a gift for the art of indirect influence, which is the heart of public relations.

Public relations has four functions: to establish, promote, protect—and sometimes salvage—the reputation of a firm. The reputation of any firm is its most important asset. Once gone, trust is extremely difficult to rebuild.

Public relations is the art of indirect influence by a firm of all of its “publics” (or audiences): partners, associates, articling students, current employees, the legal fraternity, clients, suppliers, regulators, politicians, and the public-at-large.

A good PR program strives for each (or several) of these “publics” to take positive action(s) to the benefit of the firm. Or, put another way: to stop negative behaviors that hinder the firm.

Public relations is a senior management function; the most senior PR practitioner sits to the right hand of the Managing Partner/CEO/Management Committee and advises on business decisions as they relate to the firm’s reputation.

At first blush, many operational activities at a law firm don’t seem to have anything to do with public relations at all. Until the document management system crashes and attorneys are unable to access client files, for days. Or, cyber-hackers steal confidential information on a pending M&A deal. Or, a faction of litigators leaves to set up a competitor firm. Or, a rogue attorney is found to have stolen millions from a trust account. Then, public relations morphs into crisis management.

How PR helps attorneys

A useful way to think of public relations is like a bank, except we can call it the Bank of Good Will. You or your firm treat your clients and employees fairly. You contribute to social causes, sports, and the Arts. We can call these activities “deposits” into the Bank of Good Will.

You make regular deposits as a form of “reputation insurance” because you never know when you’ll need a large withdrawal of public opinion, in the form of a crisis. When you’re a “good citizen,” the media are willing to cut you more slack when bad things happen to you or your firm that are not your fault.

Another way that PR helps attorneys is through “third party endorsement.” This area of PR is called media relations. If the media are interviewing your lawyers, your firm must be good. Your firm becomes known as experts in their field. That’s good for your reputation. It’s not you “tooting your own horn,” it’s the media tooting it for you. Your clients take note. And prospects who may have been sitting on the fence decide to pick up the phone.

PR is most effective when a firm commits to doing it for the long term. It is like any relationship, better measured in years and decades rather than days or weeks. Like the saying goes, you cannot build a reputation overnight. But you can sure destroy one.


PR is priced like legal services

When law firms or attorneys hire public relations practitioners, they pay for representation rather than guaranteed results. This is just like hiring an attorney; attorneys don’t win every case, but they still get paid.

Reputable PR people are prevented by a Code of Ethics from being compensated for the volume of actual published articles (or “media hits”) or by the length of a TV interview. The only way to guarantee placement of a particular message is to advertise.

Public relations is really more art than a science, which is why talent and experience matter in selecting a public relations professional to represent you.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Jana Schilder

About Jana Schilder

Jana Schilder is a co-founding partner of www.TheLegalATeam.com, a full service marketing, branding, coaching, training, public relations, and social media agency for lawyers. We have small firm focus and big firm experience. Jana was a director of marketing and communications at McCarthy Tetrault, Canada’s largest law firm with 640 lawyers, from 1993 to 1995. She was a manager of change communication at KPMG in the early 2000s where she worked with partners to reduce the turnover of junior accountants. She is also managing partner of First Principles Communication, a public relations agency she started in February 2004 with like-minded, very seasoned associates. She writes for The Huffington Post on public relations and reputation issues in Canada and occasionally writes for The Law Times, The Lawyers Weekly, and Slaw.ca on cyber-security, marketing and public relations.

Website: http://www.FirstPR.ca
Email: Jana@JanaSchilder.com
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