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Media: Plan to stay in control of media

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Cite as: April 2011 85(4) LIJ, p.83

The media – in all its many and evolving forms – holds pitfalls for unwary legal practitioners.

Much has been written on the importance of law firms developing a “media profile”. Today’s marketplace, replete with international players, is becoming more competitive and law firms increasingly interact with the media in order to win business and influence clients.

Building a strong media presence for a law firm is as much a part of marketing as business development and event management. The formula for effective media communication is well-known and five-fold:

  • Select your media channels.
  • Hone your messages.
  • Tailor your messages to the chosen medium.
  • Stick to your agenda.
  • Convince and persuade the audience.

Stick to this and your targets will be so impressed by your expertise (say the PR gurus) that they’ll hire you on the spot.

The reality is not so simple.

The careless comment, the unchecked fact, the fudged response, can do untold damage. Lawyers can’t sidestep awkward questions under the beady eye of a probing journalist.

The media-savvy general public sees through “spin”, and wants answers from organisations it trusts and spokespeople who empathise with them. Unfortunately, statistics show that lawyers, along with used car salesmen and real state agents, feature way down on the public credibility stakes.

So how is credibility achieved? Honesty of course. Understanding how journalists work and the diverse nature of media channels is also a great start. An interview with an industry publication like the LIJ, where “legal-speak” is not only acceptable but necessary, is different to a metropolitan daily, where the interview will be read by a large-cross-section of people and language must be jargon-free.

Empathy with your audience is crucial. In the communications bungle of the decade, BP’s former CEO Tony Heyward memorably proclaimed he hoped the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill would be over soon “so he could get his life back”. No PR team would have suggested such a strategy and it shows what can happen when frustrations and stresses mount under the pressure of the media spotlight.

Bloopers of this magnitude enter the public consciousness and damage an organisation’s reputation irreparably. Not surprisingly, Heyward was deposed as CEO shortly afterwards. “Remember all your audiences” should be engraved on any spokesperson’s heart.

Of course you need a media plan and a set of media policies. Who is going to speak and on what topic(s)? And, in these days of 24-hour news gathering and information sharing, you will need to factor in engaging with Web 2.0 platforms such as Twitter, SlideShare, YouTube and even Facebook as part of that plan.

No two interviews are alike and journalists have individual approaches. Here is a (light-hearted) guide to the five most common interview styles. Recognise them and you will definitely survive your own personal media jungle.

The Machine Gunner

The Machine Gunner will try and hijack your comfort zone by firing several questions one after the other. There’s only one way to handle such an aggressive line of questioning: pick the question you feel most comfortable answering and leave the rest. Your interviewer will follow on from your last point – it’s a dialogue with a logical sequence, after all.

The Interrupter

Interrupters are rude, cutting you off before you finish your sentence, butting in before you’ve made your point. It’s easy to lose both your temper and your focus.

Simply remember this is your interview and refuse to be flurried. Say: “I’ll answer your question in a moment, but I must finish this important point.” The thought of missing a potential scoop will stop most Interrupters in their tracks.

The Paraphraser

Paraphrasers simplify and abbreviate your statements, probably incorrectly. You must eliminate inaccuracies immediately, or they will become established facts. You have every right to correct a journalist who is putting inaccurate words into your mouth.

The Dart Thrower

The interview will bounce along comfortably, and just when you are beginning to relax, the Dart Thrower delivers a deadly jab – a question on the corporate secret you never wanted divulged.

Be prepared. Journalists will try and catch you off-guard, so rehearse answers to difficult questions in advance.

The Good Mate

The Good Mate will continue talking to you after the interview is over, jollying you into a false sense of security so you stray into “off-limits” topics. Don’t be fooled. The Good Mate will either use this information directly or trade it to a colleague. There is no such thing as off the record.

Good luck.

DINA ROSS is marketing and communications manager for the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office. She is a regular media commentator and author of Surviving the Media Jungle.


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