How to write for the media

You might have heard of a new website called JD Supra — it’s essentially an online forum and database in which lawyers register, create profiles, and post court filings, decisions, forms and/or articles, free of charge and free to access. Check it out and see what it has to offer you. The benefits to lawyers include raising their profiles, providing research materials for consumers and other lawyers, and drawing journalists’ attention to a case or matter that the lawyer is working on.

It’s this latter capacity that caught my interest, since I quite like the idea of a service that can bring lawyers and the media together for their mutual benefit. Accordingly, I penned a short article with eight points for JD Supra’s users to consider before posting a document to “The Scoop” section of the site. Some of the specific points apply strictly to JD Supra’s setup, but others are more broadly applicable to lawyers’ press encounters in general, and I think you’ll find the overall principles set out in the article useful for all communications with the media.

This also gives me an opportunity to expound a little on a subject that’s been kind of aggravating me lately: press releases. In my capacity as editor of National, I get between 10 and 20 e-mails every day from law firms, law schools, corporations, and non-profit organizations looking for legal media coverage of one kind or another. If you’re one of the people who sends me these press releases, I’m sorry to report that I actually read maybe one in 25 of them, and I actually act on perhaps 1 in 100. I don’t think I’m especially unique among editors in this respect — editors of larger-circulation publications probably get scores of these e-mails per day and delete most if not all of them.

I don’t think communications professionals in legal organizations appreciate just how much potential downside there is to sending out a press release that’s not targeted, properly calibrated, and part of an ongoing relatiionship. For many people, e-mailing a press release is standard operating procedure, part of the publicity machinery: alert the media to our issue/event/complaint/opportunity. But for an editor, opening up a non-targeted press release is akin to a homeowner getting a telemarketer on the phone or an office worker receiving spam: at best irrelevant, at worst insulting.

Here are a few thoughts on press releases, what works and what doesn’t.

1. Read my publication before contacting me. Every month, a large law firm sends me its list of lawyers who’ve made partner or worked on a big transaction, requesting I place it in our “People on the Move” section, despite the fact National has never had such a feature (and if I can help it, never will), and thereby reminding me every month how little interest the firm has in what we actually do here. If you want to know what “bad publicity” looks like, that’s a good start.

2. Pay attention to what country I work in. I get deluged by press releases from the U.S. telling me about an important victory a firm has just scored in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals about auditor liability under Rule 10b-5, or some such. This isn’t just a Canadian thing; I doubt the editors of an Arizona law journal are deeply interested in what the Vermont Supreme Court has decided. Sending the same release to everyone on your list is a bad idea. Tailor or customize a standard release if you must, but make it relevant to the person in the “To” line. This brings us to an extremely important point:

3. Build a relationship with me. A generic press release doesn’t stay in my Inbox more than a few moments. But an e-mail from someone I know — someone who has taken the time to contact me (or one of our writers), introduce themselves and what they do, and find out what I’m interested in — I’ll open that e-mail every time, even if the contents aren’t always what we can use. If I know you and you send me one idea I can use, I’ll forgive ten ideas I can’t. (Probably not 20, though.) And this leads me briefly into a subcategory:

3a. Don’t address me by my first name if you don’t know me. There’s a classic episode of Law & Order where Ben Stone, having finally defeated a chilling criminal adversary who routinely called him “Ben,” tells him: “In polite society, sir, you don’t call a man by his first name unless he’s given you permission. I never did that.” I get a lot of e-mails from utter strangers that begin chirpily, “Hi Jordan”. Assuming I don’t delete the message then and there, I read what follows with a very jaundiced eye.

4. Not everything merits a press release. I appreciate that political considerations, especially in ego-driven law firms, can take the “send or no send” decision out of communications professionals’ hands. But that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of organizations send out e-releases on just about anything that moves within their walls. This just works to cheapen the value of the firm’s media brand with those who receive this stream of messages. It may be big news to you, but is it likely to be big news to anyone else? If not, don’t send it.

5. Make your pitch upfront, as quickly as possible. Outlook 2007 comes with a very handy feature: when a new e-mail arrives, a little window pops open on my screen and displays the sender, subject line, and the first few words, for about five seconds before fading away. I’ve gotten so quick with the Delete button that many of those e-mails are gone before the preview window fades. Don’t waste precious space at the top with stuff like “For Immediate Release” — say what you need to say to get my attention in less than a five-second glance. I know that’s hard, but that’s where we’re at these days.

6. Write a story, not a “press release.” This isn’t so applicable to a magazine like ours, but for daily papers or wire services, it’s critical: craft your release such that a harried editor could copy-and-paste whole chunks or all of it directly into an article. I don’t happen to think that’s great journalism, but newsrooms are short-staffed and under huge pressure, so you might as well send them something they can use right away and earn their gratitude. But even aside from that, the standard “press release” format is so hackneyed that no one wants to read one anymore. If it feels like a release, chances are it will be ignored. Journalists and editors like to read good stuff, too.

Honestly, I think the day of the “press release” is over. We live in a customized world now, where generic, one-size-fits-all communication feels like a relic of the teletype age. If your communications people are still e-mailing the same press release to a large group of media addresses and hoping for the best, they need to rethink their approach to getting coverage.

They may have gotten away with it for so long because there’s been so little innovation by legal organizations in this regard. But I’ll tell you this, a law firm or legal organization that takes a tailored, sophisticated, relationship-based approach to its media relations is way ahead of its rivals on the basis of journalist receptiveness alone, and that’s going to become even more important down the road.

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