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Lawyers and law firms work with media in myriad ways and with various intentions.

Lawyers’ work with media may be proactive: an individual or a firm may reach out to a publication, editor or journalist to propose a story or to provide information. In other cases, lawyers’ connection with media may be responsive: editors or journalists may have reached out with questions, seeking either advice or comment for publication or broadcast.

The intention of the lawyer or the firm in both cases may be to educate the public or the niche audience of that media, to attract clientele, or to establish their expertise and credibility within a particular field of law. It could also be that the lawyer proposing or responding to media has a personal, vested interest in the issue in question and there is a desire to be a voice in that conversation.

Working with the news cycle

News cycles move fast. Today’s headline is usually forgotten a week later.  It is of paramount importance for lawyers that if they want to comment on an issue in the news, they do not wait days or weeks. Of course, acting impulsively is never recommended, nor wise, and the speed with which you reach out to media or respond to questions, and how expansive your response is, will depend on the topic and the level of experience and seniority you have in dealing with media.

Most reporters are not legally trained. It is wise to assume there will be a degree of education and that the reporter will represent their audience. The goal, in working with news media, is to make complex or confusing legal elements of a news item accessible and understandable for the audience. Lawyers are advised to speak to reporters as if they are the audience, and with the patience, consideration and professionalism that is paramount to their interactions with clients.

Be proactive if you want to build a media profile

Build or purchase a database of media contacts that lists publications, editors or journalists and cultivate those relationships. Introduce yourself, your areas of interest and expertise, and make clear when and how you are contactable and available (some lawyers will be open to a 2am phone interview, but many won’t, so establish some boundaries from the beginning).

If media professionals know that they can find credible and relevant information and quotes via a firm or a lawyer’s website, they will come to trust particular names and firms as a source to quote and to refer to. This, in turn, builds a sense of trust between the firm, the lawyer and the audience. An online portal may provide a form for contact, and include a phone number, press releases that are either proactive or responsive to news items, and attributable quotes in written form, as well as audio files or graphics.

Cultivate good working relationships with editors and journalists

“The single most important rule for lawyers wishing to engage with the media is to know your audience,” Michaela Whitbourn, legal affairs reporter at the The Sydney Morning Herald, says.

“Don’t send unsolicited press releases about law firm promotions or new recruits to a court reporter or legal affairs reporter like me, because this is not relevant.”

Finding contact information for media is not difficult, thanks to social media and Google. Often, journalists who are open to being contacted will provide an email address or enable social media messages via their Twitter profiles. Be selective, though, and rather than reaching out to 20 journalists reach out to one or two who have an evident interest in the topic you’re expert in.

“If you are working on a matter or engaging in a policy debate and want to speak to the media, try to find a journalist who has written those stories in the past, and contact them directly. I am always happy to be contacted by email and my address is available on my Twitter bio,” Whitbourn says.

“Journalists, like lawyers, are time poor and love to be given a heads up about significant cases and legal developments that may not be on their radar. It always helps to keep the communication as succinct as possible.”

Whitbourn’s preference is for lawyers to contact her via email so that she is not disturbed while working on a story under tight deadlines, and because she is often watching court proceedings. She also prefers that lawyers get in touch directly rather than via an intermediary like a public relations firm or agency.

Ultimately, be clear in your intention. Simply wanting your name in print is not good enough reason. When you’re clear about why you are offering expertise and commentary, this enables a greater trust with media and the public, and a clearer articulation of your message.