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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

Press offices must be open for business

Legal journalist Catherine Baksi (@legalhackette) raised a few eyebrows this week with her tweet about a law firm press office.

It read: Absurd that @lathamwatkins will not give me, a journalist, the email address of the person at the firm who deals with enquiries from the press. I point out the absurdity and am told that they can’t give the address to me because it would breach privacy!

Aside from hoping a law firm would have a basic understanding of privacy law, it highlights a not uncommon problem amongst law firms which seems to have got worse since the pandemic.

I think we can all agree that the basic function of a press office is to proactively communicate about your organisation to the media. Most manage to do that, but where I hear a lot of legal PRs fall down is in their reactive responses to journalist enquiries.

Catherine Baksi wasn’t alone in her gripe, I’ve heard my co-founder and editor of Legal Futures, Neil Rose, bemoan the inaccessibility of some law firm press offices for many years. news editor Rose Walker waded in too to Catherine’s tweet with: My favourite is when (not LW specific) the switchboard will only put you through to the press team if you have a name. If I had a name… I would not be ringing through you! Yeeeeesh

Hardly a ringing endorsement for law firm press offices. Having worked in-house and now running the press offices for several clients, I like to think I can speak with some experience and authority on the issue.

At the very least, law firms should have one, preferably more, named contacts clearly displayed on their website, along with their email, direct line and mobile number.

Culturally, a press office should reject a ‘computer says no’ response to journalists. If a law firm has a press office it is safe to assume that they want some form of relationship with the media. To expect that relationship to be one-sided is naïve in the extreme.

I’ve worked in some press offices where there was a very clear Service Level Agreement in place which gave clear guidance as to the response journalists could expect from us. At the most basic level, no email should go unanswered or call un-returned.

I’ve seen press officers get themselves into a pickle because they either don’t know the answer to a journalist’s question or have been told they can’t provide an answer. To the former, I say be honest but commit to go find out by a specific deadline. To the latter, it will be a judgement call as to whether some information can and should be released, but if you’re not going to provide a journalist with information, tell them. Leaving them hanging on as a deadline looms is the worst possible approach.

Everyone has time challenges, but one of the benefits of doing this job as long as I have is that you build up a great deal of market knowledge, and particularly for non-legal journalists navigating law firms can be a challenge, hence why I will always go out of my way to give journalists recommendations of other lawyers or firms who might be able to help them if one of my clients can’t. A little help can go a long way.

Journalists aren’t the enemy. Yes, they can sometimes write unflattering stories, but they are almost always grounded in fact. It’s a press officer’s job to ensure a journalist has all of the facts. It’s then up to a journalist to do the rest. Negative stories are part and parcel of being in public gaze, but how they are handled can have a significant effect on the outcome.

Open for business sign