Pressed into service - how to maximise local media coverage (First published in Managing for Success - August edition)

Local papers can be a valuable source of marketing publicity for law firms at little cost. So how can you maximise the chances of exposure for you, your team or your firm? Tim Saunders* and Sue Bramall explain.

The paper media is having a hard time. Revenue from advertising has fallen dramatically in recent years, affecting profitability and therefore the number of editorial pages, including news. This is especially marked in business news, as the mainstay of commercial property advertising has mostly moved online; community news has been less badly affected. There are also many fewer journalists and those left have less time to research stories. Meanwhile, the growth of online news has been almost exponential, both in terms of readership and advertising. Response is far more measurable, but people broadly know what they are looking for and hence targeting becomes essential. This is why, in spite of impressive unique user figures, general advertising is still relatively cheap. 

All this represents both a problem for solicitors wanting to gain attention in a meaningful fashion and an opportunity for anyone prepared to take a little more time to present themselves in an easily accessible way. So how can you take advantage of the changes to get coverage for your law firm in the local media?

Understanding the industry

Some publications operate on an advertorial basis, where space is paid for, but is presented in such a way as to appear more newsworthy than a straightforward advert. However, this is an obvious arrangement, so these legal 'articles' may not be so well regarded and could have an impact on the perceived integrity of the publication as a whole; editors of news-based publications that rely on the trust of the readership tend to be wary of advertorial. 

Some news publications are run for their members or for a specific niche sector and, as an interested party, you may expect to appear in these more easily. Again, this can be a safe and controllable platform for your business, but the content is often all positive and so can lead to a degree of diffidence on behalf of the reader. 

Traditionally, editorial and advertising teams in news-based publications worked entirely separately and, while this is still largely the case in national and broadcast media, the lines have blurred in local print media for economic reasons. Publications are now more likely to welcome – or at least tolerate – more innovative approaches, like sponsorship (paying for and writing a column or paying for your branding to appear with a regular column), or unusual ad content, shape or design. It pays to be bold and innovative.

Building relationships with journalists

This can be invaluable – if not easy. Once a journalist knows that you are a trusted source of reliable, well-presented, useful information, the job is half done. Remember the following.

  • The journalist is doing you a favour if they use your story (not the other way round).
  • They have certain space to fill, so if they do specify a word count, stick to it (or even ask for one – that may be appreciated even more).
  • Think of your audience – who they are, where they are from, and their level of understanding. An editor will not appreciate having to rewrite something that is, for instance, too legalistic, too verbose or too jargon-heavy. Don't be patronising, but also never underestimate the reader’s potential to misinterpret!
  • Meet your deadline. If you don't, you are unlikely to be called again, and there are lots of lawyers eager to get in the same publication.
  • Include an interesting visual. If this is a picture, don't make it head and shoulders facing the camera! Use an interesting backdrop. Include a group (the more people, the more relatives and friends will want to see the piece, the more papers may be sold!). If there is an opportunity to introduce children, or pets, or community groups, all the better. And send it in the right format – ask if they want it in Microsoft Word, with a pdf or jpeg attachment, in the body of an email, or in hard copy. 
  • The publication's editor has the final say. If you have not paid for the space, then you cannot demand to see or approve the final copy – and no amount of persuasion, cajoling or threats will change that!

Making your story newsworthy

Journalists are inundated with news releases of variable quality and importance to their readers – at the same time as they get your release about your office move, they could be looking at content on anything from a scandal involving local celebrities to spending cuts on local health facilities. Your firm's news will obviously be important to you, but it is likely to be seen as self-promotion or outright advertising by a journalist and their audience.

To increase your chance of appearing in the media, consider:

  • Is the story really news?
  • Will it be of genuine interest to a large proportion of the publication's readership?
  • Is it unique? (If every law firm in your county sends out the same press release, like those based on templates issued by legal membership bodies, yours is unlikely to stand out.)
  • Is there a good local perspective? If it's about a particular area of law, why would it be of interest locally?

The journalist is constantly looking for an 'angle' – something unusual or different. To deliver that, the key message you wish to get over may have to be subordinated in the first instance to something that is 'sexier', but as long as the message is still effectively communicated, then the job is done.

Learning from rejection

The most common reasons a press release does not get used come down to not following the guidelines above – things like including too much jargon (legalese or corporate), not having a news angle or smacking of advertorial, poor construction, style or grammar, or a poor headline which fails to get the journalist's attention.

However, it is possible that your release is rejected because of something outside your control, like a run of good stories or a major incident. If this is the case – and you should be able to tell from what else has appeared that day or week – then wait a few days and resubmit it. Use slightly different wording, or a different style or different picture. Constant resubmitting can cause irritation, but there is no harm in ringing up and asking if your release was spotted. Sometimes that can act as a timely reminder, sometimes a story can get 'lost' and sometimes it can be rejected by one journalist, but appeal to and be picked up by another.

You will always get some rejections – the important thing is to understand why and evaluate on an ongoing basis how effective you are at communication. To do this, set up a mechanism to review on a regular basis what you want to communicate – perhaps a monthly meeting of your key team, a team brief or internal newsletter. 

Regular press releases that are well presented will eventually attract attention. Once that has been achieved, the brand association will result in more regular exposure and a higher profile for your firm. It is not rocket science, but it does require a little bit of time, commitment and, most importantly, persistence. 

*Tim Saunders is former managing director of Northcliffe Media West Midlands.

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