The path from obscurity to media spotlight requires an investment of time and effort
By Geri L. Dreiling, Esq.
Perhaps one of the most envied gigs among lawyers is that of legal commentator. It allows an attorney to get his or her name in the press as an independent observer while avoiding messy client confidentiality and pretrial publicity issues, and it also feels safe: The likelihood that the resulting press will be negative is generally low.
But moving from the wish to be viewed as a legal expert to actually getting quoted in the media is difficult. As in most situations in business and in life, you need to build a relationship first.
Drawing on my experience as a legal and investigative reporter for a variety of local and national trade and general circulation publications, I have assembled five tips for building and maintaining a relationship with members of the media.
1. Focus on local reporters.
All news is local, so the saying goes. Before trying to land an appearance on CNN or in The Wall Street Journal, start with your local newspaper and the legal trade publications that cover your geographic area. Not only is it easier to build a relationship with local reporters, but the audience will also be more closely aligned with your prospective client base.
And remember, reporters move — a lot. Today’s local journalist could be tomorrow’s national correspondent. Even if a reporter remains with a local media outlet, he or she may still freelance for national publications. No matter where the story is appearing, a journalist, especially one working on deadline, is likely to turn to tried-and-true experts.
2. Get the reporter’s attention in a professional, respectful way.
Have you read an article lately that you liked, that was informative or that touched on your practice area? Most media outlets now include the reporter’s e-mail contact information, so send a quick note introducing yourself and letting the reporter know that you liked the piece and why.
Of course, you can also pick up the phone and call the journalist. It is a good way to quickly establish a rapport, but remember to spend at least 70 percent of the conversation focusing on the piece and the reporter rather than on you and your credentials. If you do choose to make a phone call, follow up with a short e-mail to ensure that the reporter has your contact information.
3. Submit guest articles for publications.
Instead of waiting for a reporter to put you in print, be proactive and submit your own work for publication. Most trade newspapers and magazines are searching for guest articles, generally consisting of around 1,000 words written in approachable newspaper format rather than a footnote-laden law review opus.
Legal reporters, whether they work for mainstream media outlets or trade publications, spend a lot of time looking for story ideas. Guest articles often inspire an idea that a reporter will then pitch at his or her editorial meeting. If the story gets the green light, the reporter already has one quotable source identified: the author of the guest article.
For more information on how to get guest articles published, read our three-part series “Use Guest Articles to Promote Your Practice.”
3. Leverage the Internet to highlight your legal expertise.
Show me a reporter trying to find a qualified legal expert and I’ll show you reporter using Google or another search engine.
As a journalist, when I needed an expert — especially one in a highly specialized field — I researched the Internet. I was looking for guest articles, websites and blogs devoted to the niche topic in question. The lawyers who wrote those articles, hosted those websites and wrote for those blogs were the ones who were likely to receive calls from me looking for quotes.
4. Return a reporter’s phone call or e-mail immediately.
I cannot stress this enough. As someone who made the shift from courtroom to newsroom, I can assure you that time moves differently in the two professions.
Among lawyers, a policy of returning phone calls within 24 hours is considered highly responsive, with good reason. The practice of law is demanding indeed. A trial lawyer spends a lot of time away from his or her office and in courtrooms and conference rooms.
In the space of 24 hours, though, a daily reporter has likely researched, interviewed and written one story and is well on the way to finishing a second or even a third piece. By the time you get around to calling back, the piece the reporter called you for has already been published.
A lawyer who comes through in a pinch by calling back or returning an e-mail right away — and who employs staffers who go the extra mile to help reporter and lawyer connect — is a prized source. Even a response indicating that you aren’t available for an interview at that moment is appreciated.
5. Keep in touch.
Just as the legal practice involves constant movement to the next case, so, too, do reporters move on to the next story. But that doesn’t mean you should let your name be forgotten, especially if you’ve only worked with a reporter on one piece.
Once again, when you read an article the reporter has written that you like, send a note. If the reporter wins a journalism award, extend your congratulations. When you hear or read of something that might make for an interesting story — even if it doesn’t involve you — pass the nugget along.
If you’re a reporter, do you have any other suggestions to add? Perhaps you’re a lawyer who’s found success in becoming a notable quotable — how did you make the transition?
A quick side note for all those who use the AP Stylebook as the style guide for their press releases, websites and blogs: Henceforth, “Web site” will be “website.” For more updates and information, check out the AP Stylebook’s website.
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