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Articles

ABA's Entertainment and Sports Lawyer

Volume 20, number 3, Fall 2002

 

How to Make the Most of Big Deals and Cases

Marketing and media relations for entertainment and sports lawyers

By Diane Rumbaugh

I
magine having just won a big case for your entertainment or sports client, or negotiated a multi-million dollar deal. Can you (or should you) turn that big win into positive publicity for your law practice?

           The answer is not that easy.

          Before the early 1990s, the old school of thinking was attorneys should not toot their own horn; promoting, advertising and marketing of a law practice and its successes were taboo. That philosophy began to change with increased competition within the legal industry and when the media began seeing legal news as mainstream--especially if the parties involved were well-known individuals. These two factors forced many law firms to re-think their strategies to attract new business. 

            Gone are the days when lawyers remained with the same firm their entire careers (and kept with the firm their book of business). The practice of law has evolved into much like any other business. It is much more competitive as attorneys and their clients move from firm to firm.

           Law firms need to find ways to attract and keep good attorneys and loyal clients and continually reach out to those who can use their services or refer them business. This means they must know how to market. 

            Entertainment and sports lawyers have two avenues of marketing available to them. The first is a traditional "institutional"-type marketing campaign geared toward reaching attorneys, business managers, accountants and others who make up a solid referral base. A public relations plan to reach referral sources and, in some cases, directly to potential clients can consist of:

1) writing bylined articles of interest to appear in publications reaching the above targeted audiences;

2) speaking before industry trade groups on legal subjects geared toward the interests of trade group members;

3) preparing and distributing informative mailings (i.e., newsletters, e-mailings, article reprints) to the firm database;

4) general one-on-one meetings to cultivate and foster referral relationships;

5) sponsoring or co-sponsoring seminars for targeted audiences;

6) developing web page content/brochures that discuss the services the firm provides;

7) joining and participating in trade groups to develop new contacts and generate referral business. 

The above marketing activities are typical for most types of legal practices. When implemented consistently in a marketing campaign over the long term, the firm should be rewarded with an increase in business activity.

            The second means of marketing a law firm, and one many law firms still shy from, is media relations. The relationship between attorneys and the media must always be a cautious one. An inappropriate comment appearing in print or on the evening news can inadvertently harm a client or tarnish instead of enhance your reputation. Yet, the rewards for an active media relations campaign can be great. Key public relations activities involving the media include: 

1)  acting as a media source for legal comments;

2) contacting the media through news releases, news conferences and media alerts concerning successful cases.

Attorney as Media Source 

Acting as a legal source for the media can provide a positive message about yourself and your firm. When quoted in newspapers, magazines or on radio or television news programs, most people automatically assume you are an expert in your field. A third party endorsement from the media helps establish or cement your credibility.

How do the media decide whom to call when they want an on-air sound bite or quote for tomorrow's newspaper? There are literally hundreds of thousands of attorneys around the country who could provide the same information as you do. First, the media have to know about you. Target the media you want to reach and begin a relationship. Depending on the availability of the newsperson, it may be a quick call or a lunch. Other options include sending the news editors and reporters information on issues that would be of interest to them, information about yourself and areas of expertise and suggestions for story topics. In other words, present yourself as an experienced resource for reliable information.

You could also take advantage of services offered by BusinessWire and PRNewswire. These news release distribution companies offer programs that enable reporters to announce their particular need for expert sources when working on a story. Attorney can monitor these services and send information to the media making requests for legal sources. For example, a PRNewswire item indicates that a reporter is writing an article on current California state legislation on the "7-year rule" involving musicians and their contracts with record companies.

           The reporter is looking for music lawyers who could comment on the legislation. Attorneys who fit the bill would then contact the reporter and the reporter selects the attorney or attorneys to interview. While the BusinessWire service is free to all BusinessWire members, the PRNewswire service costs several thousand dollars a year. However, PRNewswire's service, called "ProfNet," is much more widely used by the media.  

Promoting a Case

The media also learns about legal sources from cases.  Filing a complaint involving a noted celebrity will almost always trigger media interest. If your client gives you the go-ahead, you have the opportunity to generate media interviews and exposure resulting from the case filing. In these situations, attorneys must once again use caution.

Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5-120 discusses trial publicity. The rule states, "A member who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter shall not make an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the member knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter."

            At first read, it would appear the rules dictates that an attorney cannot make any statements about an impending trial. However, the rule includes a slew of exceptions.  

Rule exceptions allow attorneys to disseminate the facts of the case as outlined in public documents. This means a news release announcing a filing of a complaint is permissible as long it does not inject what would be considered prejudicial comments. Once written, news releases about a case filing can be distributed through wire services and individually to targeted media outlets for maximum widespread release. Wires services send the releases to newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations and Internet outlets. When the case warrants it, a news conference may be held to announce the filing.

If the opposing side makes public comments that are derogatory to your client, the glovesare off. Rule 5-120 states: "a member may make a statement that a reasonable member would believe is required to protect a client from the substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by the member or the member's client." 

During many celebrity trials, requests for media interviews of your client will come in droves.  Be accessible, even if your client isn't (or shouldn't be talking to the media). Take and return calls from media immediately even if what you have to say is limited. Your comments may be tempered by gag orders or comments in general by the judge, in which case, the amount of ongoing trial publicity should be evaluated and tailored appropriately.

Once a case or non-confidential settlement is completed, attorneys are allowed to say much more than prior to or during trial or negotiations.  If the end results are positive, the win will result in a favorable impression of your client and your law practice. Losses will require a public relations strategy that involves damage control. Even then, if the message is crafted properly, the public damage can be muted.

Many media work on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news cycle. Timing of any news dissemination is important. What is news today is often not news tomorrow. Lawyers are notorious for waiting days to release case news, often dickering about a word here or there in a news release. This can cost the firm news coverage and prevent your side of the story from being told. As soon as a case is decided, a news release, containing all the pertinent facts about the case and quotes from you and your client, must be prepared and be ready to be disseminated on the day the case is completed. Once again, wire services come in handy for fast distribution. If the announcement will be made at a news conference, make sure the news release, judge's decision (if appropriate) or settlement agreement is available for all media who attend and to those media who cannot attend.

            Woody Allen is quoted as saying, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Much of the same can be said of media relations. By "showing up" and being media accessible, you have the opportunity to tell your client's side of the story. Rest assured reporters will be talking with opposing counsel, and without your comments, any news reports could be slanted to favor your opposition. If you are uncomfortable talking with the media, hire a media trainer who will help you. These individuals, usually with video camera in tow, will train you to think in sound bites, help you understand the type of information the media needs and, just as importantly, make sure your message gets across. 

            Entertainment and sports attorneys should implement many of the same marketing and public relations techniques as lawyers in other practice areas. Thrown into this mix, however, is the media factor when representing high-profile clients. Treat each reporter with respect and patience and the resulting positive media exposure you receive will pay marketing dividends.

Diane Rumbaugh is a Thousand Oaks, California public relations and marketing consultant. She has represented attorneys and law firms since the mid-1980s. She can be reached at 805-493-2877, rumbaugh@earthlink.net.

 

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