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There is only one thing worse than being talked about…

  • Author : John Rogers Prosser
  • Date : June 2010
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Rogers Prosser is a qualified Barrister and Director of Warwick Rogers Communications
Crisis, what crisis?

There was once a solid professional law firm with eight rather hawkish Partners and sixty staff. The firm had a good reputation locally and beyond, and ostensibly a bright future. It did a reasonable mix of commercial work, but had a particular specialism and reputation in property related services, which occupied around 35 per cent of the Partners and staff. The firm’s people were bright and hardworking. The economy, and in particular the housing and commercial property market, was buoyant and things were going well.

But one day, everything changed. The inconceivable happened. Virtually overnight, billions of dollars of banking losses brought about by a global pandemic of unsustainable sub-prime debt plunged the global banking system and western economies into crisis.

On a gloomy Friday morning in February, after a number of very tense and difficult months of deteriorating business conditions, the firm’s Partners held an emergency meeting and took a decision they would soon live to regret. On Friday afternoon at 16.45, each member of staff received a plain brown envelope, marked ‘private and confidential’, with a letter from the Managing Partner highlighting their new contracts of employment; under which, from the following Monday morning, their working time would be cut by 20 per cent, and their salaries by 15 per cent. The envelope contained an agreement for signature, and a reminder that staff should not discuss these confidential matters with any third party on pain of dismissal for gross misconduct.

At 18.00 hours that evening, from the seclusion of a local bar, a young Associate made a call on her mobile, setting in motion a chain of events that would, within six months, lead to the end of the partnership and the destruction of its reputation. The opening act in this denouement was a front page story in the local newspaper headlined: ‘Local firm slashes salaries as recession bites’, followed by a leader, analysing the questionable nature of the firm’s behaviour. In spite of an invitation from the newspaper, no comment had been forthcoming from anyone representing the firm. It was the beginning of the end.

Of course, the nightmare scenario above is imaginary…Or is it?

Towards a media strategy

Strong media reputations are not created overnight; a firm must be tenacious and savvy enough to manage the inevitable setbacks that go with the territory. It is now widely recognised that a communications strategy and engagement with the media can be an invaluable business development tool in the marketing portfolio of professional firms. But how do some firms and individuals achieve the kind of media coverage that enhances rather than damages reputations? Why are some firms so much better at it than others? And why should professional firms want to engage with the media at all? ‘The problem’, says professional firm marketeer, David Hunt, ‘is some practitioners still find it challenging to market themselves, and also, because they are so experienced in advising clients, they may not recognise that their own firms could benefit from advice on media strategy.’

But the media is an integral part of business and public life. Increasingly professional firms deal with high-profile public-interest issues and many firms now recognise that a constructive, managed relationship with the media is far more beneficial than any alternative. The media, particularly the trade media, is generally ever more hungry for ‘rich content’; and the finance profession, with its technical expertise, is in a very good position to provide it. Of course, rather like feeding a hungry tiger, there’s always the risk of being mauled, but if you understand the nature of the beast, the risk is at least mitigated.

But where do you start? Any media strategy should begin with the recognition that as a description, ‘the media,’ is virtually worthless now, encompassing as it does, everything from broadcasting, news, technical and trade titles, through social media and the Internet, to advertising media agencies.

This article will help you consider the first steps in building a productive business communications strategy, which will ultimately realise increased fee income.

Who are you?

If you are currently, say a small or medium sized firm, the reality is that you are unlikely, other than in exceptional circumstances, to attract the interest of the national press. This is almost certainly a good thing.

You may not be in the pages of the Financial Times anytime soon, but so what? A media strategy is part of your marketing drive and is directed towards enhanced reputation and fees, not fame. You can still get to know the journalists on your local and regional newspapers and offer a personal finance/tax/agricultural/ business article or column. You can still contribute to your local community website. You can offer specialist skills through the Internet; start a blog; look for a business slot on your local radio station; join specialist networking communities online. There may often be significant local opportunities to attract business through media presence, and, through the Internet, to attract business from similar business communities further afield. If, having got to know the local press, finance-related stories arise, you will be a natural source of commentary. You can write letters to the nationals on high profile professional/business issues of interest to you. If they are published, potential corporate clients in these areas may see them in their press cuttings. You will be noticed. It’s all business. You will have begun to build a media reputation, which will soon acquire its own momentum.

What are your aspirations?

There are media relevant to every professional specialism. If you have specialist skills, there are many opportunities to publish articles in the technical trade press for your sector or on the web. If you produce technical updates for your fee earners and Partners, or reports or newsletters for clients, can these be converted into articles or features for relevant publications? These are all fundamental steps in building your media reputation. Any firm which begins and persists with such a strategy, based on its core fee earning skills will, in time, realise that it begins to attract not only higher value clients, but also higher calibre staff and recognition within the wider media arena, resulting in invitations to speak at seminars and write for a wider range of publications. David Hunt agrees: ‘It is fundamentally important to add value to the marketing effort by pro-actively converting the firm’s intellectual property and expertise into effective external marketing and communications campaigns’, he says.

But this will not happen overnight. To succeed in building a reputation, it must be accepted that the strategy is long-term; will need to be a continuous initiative encouraged from the top down and supported by the entire firm; and is likely, at least initially, to be rewarded with modest success. Keep at it. Remember, ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about… and that is not being talked about’. Perhaps the FT beckons after all, but don’t forget; No comment: no FT.

A media strategy at a glance
Towards a strategy

Appoint a media spokesperson or, if appropriate, a small executive panel of Partners/colleagues to whom media enquiries should be referred, and who can assess the added media value of all intellectual property and initiatives you may be generating. Consider media training if appropriate.

Who’s who?

Make a list of half a dozen of your most relevant potential media contacts and get to know them. A good personal relationship is worth a thousand press releases.

Be prepared

If you know you are to be interviewed or that you have a meeting with a journalist, make sure you know, in advance, what you want to say. Research the journalist’s background and the publication/medium. Use notes if you’re doing a radio interview.

Don’t be rushed

Do not be pressured into a premature blurt. If you receive a surprise request for a comment, check the deadline and don’t be afraid to ask for some time to consider what you want to say. Explain to the journalist that you’d be delighted to provide a comment but you may need some time to prepare. In certain circumstances even a few minutes can help.

Did I really say that?

Remember that generally, every word you utter is on the record, even if you are meeting in a social context or speaking at a social occasion. Be circumspect.

Be prompt

Ensure that you or an appropriate colleague provides the journalist with what they need before their deadline. If you can’t, let the journalist know immediately.

Tell the truth

In the Internet age it has never been easier to check facts. Keep it simple and accurate. Do not be drawn into speculation. Do not lose your credibility as a commentator.

Be nice

Always be professional and courteous. Many are anxious about press interviews but it can also be intimidating for some journalists, particularly those less experienced, to carry out interviews and research. Your courtesy and co-operation will be appreciated and will pay dividends.

Always call back

If you say you will return a call, make sure you do.

No comment?

Always do your best to make yourself available. Never say ‘no comment’. It’s the nightmare scenario.


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