Above the Law

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Joshua Stein gives some practical advice to lawyers on how to manage your relationship with the press.

Reporters can embarrass you. But they can also help you and your clients get your message and name out into the world, if that’s what you want.

When a reporter calls, any lawyer’s first instinct is to say “No comment.” That’s a really good first instinct, particularly for anyone except the most senior member of a legal team representing a client. For that senior lawyer, though, “no comment” might not always be the right answer at the end of the day.

Lawyers aren’t supposed to be founts of information, particularly about their client’s affairs – unless that’s what the client wants. All of that is a matter of legal ethics and client relations, and represents the first and most important element of any lawyer’s strategy in dealing with the press. It’s outside the scope of this article.

Once you get past that “gating issue,” you will sometimes want or need to talk with the press. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that.

The Reporter’s Call. When you get a call from a reporter, try to find out two things. First, what questions do they want to ask, or what is the general subject matter of the interview? Second, when is their deadline? Try to resist your urge to accommodate them immediately. Instead, take good notes and then think about what you want to say, how you want to say it, and who else needs to be on board for your response. Once you’ve thought all this through and spoken to anyone you need to speak to, then call the reporter back, well before their deadline if possible, and have your conversation with them. If you decide it’s better not to comment, at least call the reporter back promptly and tell them that.

Objectivity. Don’t expect reporters to be “objective.” Today’s reporters often approach any story with a point they want to make, a message they want to communicate. And it won’t necessarily match up with your interests or your client’s interests. Often, you can figure out a reporter’s view of the world in the first 10 seconds of a conversation. Proceed accordingly. Don’t expect them to just objectively “report.” That idea went out the window a long time ago.

Accuracy and Nuances. Reporters don’t always “get it right,” particularly if you are trying to explain something complicated or nuanced. They are often more interested in pithy sound bites than in a complete explanation. Give them the pithy sound bites they want, but try to do so in a way that can’t possibly be misinterpreted or misquoted. Try to leave out the nuances if you can. As in so many other areas in dealing with the press, keep it simple.

Interviews by Email. If time allows, you might want to use email to communicate at least some of your comments to a reporter. This lets you think through your words much more carefully, and may reduce the risk of mistakes by the reporter. It maintains a record of what you communicated, something that can be both good and bad. In many cases, the reporter will want to follow up on an “interview by email” with a conversation.

Off the Record. Beware of “off the record.” Don’t assume there’s any such thing. If you know the reporter, and have worked with them before, then perhaps you can reasonably expect them to keep something off the record if asked. But you need to ask first, before you say whatever was supposed to stay off the record. And usually if something isn’t supposed to become public, there would be no reason to share it with a reporter. So don’t. Even if you’ll impress the reporter by showing how much you know and thus proving how cool you are.

Reviewing the Article. If you don’t want to be misquoted, wouldn’t it make sense to review the reporter’s article before it gets published? Perhaps, but it probably won’t happen. At best, the reporter will let you look at, or perhaps just listen to, your own quotes before the reporter includes them in the article. Ask for that. If the reporter accommodates you, respond quickly once you receive the quotes for review. The reporter will probably be up against a deadline. Don’t use this as an opportunity to rewrite what you meant to say. Just correct any errors. And if the reporter wants to quote you in a way that embarrasses you or discloses information that was supposed to be off the record, try to correct that too. But it’s an uphill fight. And fight quickly, choosing your battles.

Quasi-Reporters. In today’s era of blogging and online journalism, don’t assume every reporter who calls you is really a reporter (unless, of course, it’s Lat, Elie, Staci, or Joe). If you don’t recognize their publication, you may want to think twice about whether to take the time to talk with them. It may make sense. It may not.

Giving Out Information. Even though lawyers are supposed to preserve confidences, the press often regards lawyers as great sources for information, including information that the lawyers shouldn’t give out. This is somewhat ironic. Don’t let yourself instinctively fall into the “client service” mindset when you talk to a reporter. Resist your natural urge to be overly helpful and explanatory – unless you are absolutely sure it matches your client’s interests and authorization to you.

Not Your Friend. Your reporter is not your friend. They have a job to do. You have a job to do. Try to limit your flow of information to whatever is necessary to getting your job done.

News. Reporters like news – events, changes, trends, secret information, new things happening in the world. Something you do may seem very interesting to you, but if it isn’t news don’t expect reporters to care about it very much. Conversely, think about ways that you can describe something you’re doing as newsworthy. But beware: what you think is newsworthy very likely isn’t. If you have to explain at great length why it’s newsworthy, then that fact alone suggests the press will not consider it newsworthy.

Closings. Reporters like to report on transactions. If reporters get wind of a contract that hasn’t closed yet, they’ll often report it as if the transaction had actually closed. If that confusion would disserve your client, then correct it.

Timing. News gets stale very fast. If you ever have something newsworthy you want to share, you need to share it quickly, as in: immediately. If something happened last week, reporters no longer have any interest.

Relationships. Cultivation of relationships with reporters takes time. Add them to your email blast distribution lists; invite them to events; treat them just like other members of your network and extended network. As with any other networking, don’t expect immediate results.

Strategic Release. On the rare occasions when you as a lawyer have some genuine “news” you want to release to the press, don’t just release it to the press. You can achieve extra attention, if that’s what you want, by acting strategically in who gets the news first, and how long they have an “exclusive” on it. Exactly how to play this card will vary tremendously with circumstances, but you should at least recognize when this card is in your deck and give it some thought.

Publicist. If you want to develop and maintain a relationship and visibility with the press over time, consider engaging a public relations professional to help. Choose someone who is a good match for your industry; your organization; and your personal style and preferences. Don’t necessarily use a large PR and marketing firm. Don’t expect immediate results. It is a slow process, in which you plant seeds and a small minority of them take root and grow. Once you choose a PR adviser, stick with them over time unless they are demonstrably and consistently not up to your expectations. Having that person on your team will help a lot when something comes up that requires you to act quickly and strategically in dealing with the press. They can also help assure that your press releases and other announcements conform to what the press expects, and hence are more likely to get picked up. But you must review and approve every word of every press release. The reporters will perceive you, and not your publicist, as the ultimate speaker behind every press release.

If they Don’t Quote You. Even if you spend a long time on the phone with a reporter, don’t get offended if they decide not to quote you. They often call a lot of people to put together a story. If they don’t quote you this time, there’s still a benefit to building a relationship and becoming perceived as a good source for future questions. You might want to follow through with the reporter – not to litigate about why they didn’t quote you but to reaffirm your expertise in the subject area and availability for future calls, and perhaps to comment on the piece they actually published, including by giving praise where praise is due. Like most lawyers, most reporters are still looking for their next gold star.