A Lawyer’s Guide to Dealing with the Media
By Ann Macaulay
You probably recognize the names of lawyers who appear in the media on a regular basis. You see them referred to repeatedly and wonder “why does no one ever call me for a quote?” Or perhaps you’ve been interviewed but you’re not being called on a regular basis.
Getting mentioned in the media is a good way to build an awareness of you and your practice. It builds your reputation as someone who’s knowledgeable about your area of practice, and it can highlight an area of your work that you may not have focused on in the past but that you’d like to explore more.
Some lawyers wonder why they should even make an effort to be quoted in the press, heard on the radio or seen on TV. It’s simple—because your competitors are doing it. “If you don’t tell your story or talk about your practice, other lawyers will and potential clients are going to see them rather than you,” says Kevin Aschenbrenner, an account supervisor, media relations in Vancouver with Jaffe Associates.
There are excellent ways to ensure that you’ll be called for comments by the media—and often. It’s just a matter of learning how.
A Marketing Opportunity
Being quoted in the media should be part of your branding strategy. Media mentions can be a good source for your website and other marketing materials. If you have a page of recent media articles or appearances in which you’ve been quoted, he says, “it shows that you’re in the know, you’re current, you’re working on issues that probably are affecting clients right now.
“The media is in some ways a third-party validation of your expertise,” he adds. The reporter’s job is to talk to sources, to get opinions, to assess people’s knowledge and expertise and then winnow out who is the best person to interview. “So if you show up in an article written by a reporter who’s known for being hard-nosed in their sources and diligent—or even just in an article in general—there’s going to be some assumption that they’ve done their research and they’ve decided that you should be quoted on this.”
One or two mentions won’t guarantee instant name recognition by potential clients—it’s good to start small and realize that media relations is a gradual process.
“Start making contact with some reporters that you read regularly in the paper,” says Aschenbrenner. “I think it’s appropriate to send a very short e-mail and say I really appreciated your article—you stated the issues clearly and I think it was a good discussion of whatever. And say if you’re ever looking for someone else who can talk about this, let me know, I have a background in this and recently represented such and such company.” You may get a response and you may not. “The key to working with reporters is to catch them in ways where they don’t feel that they have to do something right away, where they don’t feel like you’re hounding them or like you’re just hawking yourself. Because they have fairly sophisticated sensors as to when they’re being manipulated. Be sure that your tone is right.
“Think about PR and media relations in a reactive and a proactive way,” says Aschenbrenner. “Reacting is just waiting for the phone to ring. But do some proactive PR, do some story development, and think about the issues that you would want to have reporters call you to talk about. You have a lot more control then, because you’re basically dictating the story. It’s helpful to see that your relationship with media is a back and forth. Sometimes you’re answering calls for interviews and sometimes you’re putting out ideas.”
Natasha Chetty, principal of Isis Communications in Vancouver, contacts editors, reporters and producers on behalf of her lawyer clients and places them on resource lists. Her advice is to let reporters know that you’re an authority on certain topics.
“It just takes a discreet inquiry,” she says. “Make sure it’s an outlet that you really identify with and that your target market will be paying attention to. Radio call-in shows are always really good. It’s more credible than an advertisement.”
There are other simple, straightforward ways to get your name out there so the public—and potential clients—will see it. Become known as an authority in your area of law by writing regular columns and guest articles in target publications. And if you know you’re going to be quoted in a trade publication or if you’re going to be publishing an article, try and place an ad in the same issue, advises Chetty.
Regular letters to the editors are another good way to get your name known. “If you have something that you stand for and you see things being published that you don’t necessarily agree with, write a letter to the editor,” says Chetty. Be careful, because the public and your peers don’t look favourably on grandstanding. Sometimes “a lawyer will phone reporters and say ‘well, I just want you to know that my client did this and this.’ That has happened. It’s a bad idea. It’s obvious media-mongering.”
Be Accurate and Succinct
Getting an accurate message across helps you maintain your professional integrity. “If you start giving people false facts and figures, some reporter is going to find out and prove you wrong and it’s going to be very embarrassing,” says Chetty.
Part of getting an accurate message across includes being available for interviews. Sometimes lawyers wait days or even weeks to respond to a reporter. “That’s unacceptable,” says Chetty. “You wouldn’t do that to a client.” And don’t send out a press release about your client’s case and then jump on a plane. It’s been known to happen.
If you’re asked to comment to the press while defending a client, be aware that facts and figures in your client’s cause can be subject to the editorial slant of the media. Make sure your facts and figures are correct.
Staying on message should give you some control during the interview. Lawyers often worry about being misquoted, interpreted incorrectly or misunderstood, but figuring out what to say in advance and sticking to your key messages is one way to keep the balance of the interview in your favour.
Be succinct. Lawyers tend to get caught up in sharing their intimate knowledge of the type of law they practise, but often they give far more information and detail than a reporter really needs. This applies particularly with a radio or TV interview, where a reporter is often simply looking for a short sound bite. Getting to the point quickly and giving pithy quotes increases the chance that you’re going to get called often.
“It helps to do as much work for the reporter on your end as possible,” advises Aschenbrenner. “The reporter knows right away that here’s someone I can talk to who has the right thing to say, I can use them in paragraph three, sentence two.”
It’s perfectly acceptable to ask a reporter questions before the interview. That will help get to the point of the interview and use the reporter’s time efficiently. Ask what the story is about, what angle does he want to take, what are some of the issues he wants to discuss?
Often lawyers “don’t know the culture of working with a reporter, they don’t know it’s okay to ask and they don’t know that they should be asking,” says Aschenbrenner. To get the specific questions ahead of time “is sometimes difficult, because the reporter may not appreciate that, thinking you’re trying to control the interview. Often they don’t want to be handled quite that much. Any reporter who’s going to be fair and balanced and who is worth working with should tell you essentially what the article’s about and the kind of things they’re looking for.”
Of course, your first obligation before being interviewed is to your client. But if the client agrees, you can communicate with a reporter and often set the record straight, even use it as a preemptive strike in the client’s favour.
It pays to do your homework. Find out what information the reporter already has. If s/he has an incomplete or inaccurate set of facts, deal with that first. Then you’ll have a sense of where the interview is going to go. Keep in mind that most reporters are not trying to ambush you—they just want the facts. As Aschenbrenner puts it, “In most cases reporters are not the enemy.
Remember that the reporter is simply doing a job. “Reporters have deadlines,” says Bob Sokalski, senior litigation partner at Pitblado LLP in Winnipeg. “Likely even more severe than the deadlines faced by lawyers most of the time. Respect their timelines. If you say you’re going to call back at two o’clock, do so plus or minus 30 seconds. Don’t leave a reporter hanging. It’s common courtesy. And you’re not doing your job as a lawyer if you’re not courteous in doing that.”
“The media, like most people, have long memories,” says Sokalski. “In the face of controversy, do not become inaccessible. Because that is going to be perceived negatively and sometimes silence speaks volumes.”
A reporter has called you because you’re seen as an authority. “Make sure you bone up on the issue, get up to date and up to speed,” says Sokalski. “Once you’ve had the opportunity to reflect, make some notes. If you have authorities to refer to, have them handy. You can share that with the reporter, make your job and the reporter’s job easier.” Making notes can’t hurt if you’re doing a print or radio interview, although referring to notes during a televised interview does not present well. Rephrase your key points in different ways. A good interview that gets the message across includes phrases like “in other words,” or “let me put it another way,” or “as I said to you before.”
A print interview can go into far more detail than one for television, which operates in shorter 15- or 30-second clips. It may sound somewhat contrived for a lawyer to speak in such short sound bites, but TV won’t give you the opportunity to explain in detail the point you want to get across. Pare down what you want to get across and make sure you get your best points out.
“Above all, be honest,” says Sokalski. “If you’re not conversant with the topic, say so. Don’t guess or speculate. If the topic goes into an area in which you don’t have adequate knowledge, say to the reporter ‘I don’t have that at my immediate disposal, I’ll see what I can do to get that for you.’”
You should have three to five key messages that get your point across if you’re being interviewed on a specific case. Keep going back to those key messages if you’re being asked a leading question. Preparation will reduce any anxiety or defensiveness you may feel during an interview.
Checklist for preparing for an interview
- Check with clients and clear any conflicts first.
- Practise a question and answer session with a colleague or your marketing advisor.
- Unless you’re on TV, have all your key messages in front of you, including some statistics and facts to remind you of the basic points you want to focus on.
- Dress appropriately, especially if you’re on TV—don’t wear flashy jewellery or distracting ties.
- Use your firm’s library for interviews—it looks professional.
- Make sure the room you’re being interviewed in is tidy.
- Don’t leave any confidential papers on your desk.
- Research the reporter and the article they’re writing as much as you can.
- Try to avoid using jargon or legalese.
Get the Right Message Across
Lawyers sometimes ask if they can review an article before it runs. “That’s usually not possible,” says Aschenbrenner. “It’s very rare for a reporter to send you his or her entire article and ask you to read it over and correct any mistakes. But it’s sometimes appropriate to ask for them to either read your quotes back to you over the phone if you’re doing a print interview or e-mail them to you just to let you know what they’re going to say. Generally if they do that they would accept an alteration. But there are some reporters who just will not do that because of time pressure. They see it as your responsibility to manage yourself in the interview and to say what you know you can say and not to say anything you don’t want printed.
“There is a fear about being misquoted and it does happen,” he adds. “You may not remember having said it or it may be taken out of context, but it does fit. But if you don’t say it, it won’t show up. There is a possibility of being misquoted or of quotes being created, but chances are it’s not going to happen if you’re dealing with a professional reporter who works with a mainstream professional news organization. It’s not their job to paint you in a flattering light or to show you off—that’s your job. Their job is to get the article written with what they perceive as the truth.”
Sometimes you’ll be interviewed and your quotes won’t be used, which can happen for a number of reasons. You may have been cut in editing, you may not have been on point, or somebody else may have had better quotes. The focus of the article may have shifted while the reporter was doing the research.
Preparing for Different Types of Interviews
If you’re doing a TV interview, “your appearance should reflect the kind of persona you want to put across,” says Aschenbrenner. “Be aware that certain colours don’t work on television. Stripes tend to strobe. If it’s a sit-down interview in a studio you’re probably going to be made up, but possibly not if they’re coming to your office.”
Remember that your interview will be edited. “Any expression you make, anything you say is going to be available for editing,” says Aschenbrenner. “On television you may not actually be sitting down in front of anyone—you may go into a studio and talk to a disembodied voice or somebody on a television screen.”
In radio, it’s your voice that carries that interview. “Speak clearly and slowly,” says Aschenbrenner. “Make sure that the comments you make are to the point and quick.” Don’t do an interview on a cell phone, especially for radio. The sound quality can be poor and you don’t want a reporter to have to guess at what you’re saying.
If you don’t understand a question, don’t repeat it. “If it’s a question that could be damaging then you’ve now given them a sound bite,” says Aschenbrenner. “Think before you speak. If you don’t understand a question, it’s perfectly all right to ask for it to be rephrased.”
You may be asked to comment on a topic via e-mail, but that doesn’t happen often. It can work well if you’re travelling and the reporter won’t be able to reach you by phone. “I don’t think a wire reporter or a major daily reporter would do an e-mail interview because they want that in-person verification that you’re actually the source and they’ve talked to you and vetted you,” says Aschenbrenner. “Some of the technical publications may do e-mail interviews and some of the trade publications probably will, even some of the legal trades. In e-mail interviews, pay attention to things like spelling and grammar. The reporter may lift your quotes and use sic to make fun of you. Chances are they won’t but you don’t want to leave any opportunity. Have someone else read it over.”
Beyond ‘No Comment’: How to Handle Difficult Questions
Don’t rely on saying something is off the record. “Whatever you say, from the time you pick up the phone or sit down in a chair, to when you hang up the phone, or leave that reporter’s presence, is on the record,” says Aschenbrenner. Even if you’re giving background information, anything you say could be attributed to you.
“Never tell a reporter anything you do not want to see splashed across the front page of the newspaper,” advises Sokalski. “Even if something is said to be off the record, not every reporter knows the law. So if you don’t ever want to see or hear that comment again, ‘off the record’ is not necessarily a guaranteed protection.
“If you do want to go off the record, it doesn’t work if you say so after the interview, because past consideration is no consideration,” says Sokalski. “The off-the-record promise or the promise of anonymity or both is literally a legally enforceable contract if there’s an exchange of value. Lawyers should know the law of contract and that you can’t exact a promise after the fact because there’s no value being given. The value has already gone out the door.”
If for some reason it’s not appropriate for you to comment, then say so. Sometimes you can’t comment because the matter is before the court or you may be prohibited from speaking for a certain reason. Simply explain the reasons, since saying ‘no comment’ sounds evasive.
Take the high road—there’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.” It’s always better than no comment and it gives you the opportunity to get back to the reporter. Simply say, “I’d like to tell you but I can’t.” No comment can imply that you have something to hide.
“Tone of voice is really important,” says Chetty. “You don’t want to come across as defensive, condescending or belligerent because it will make both you and your client look bad. If you’re on TV and somebody asks you a question you’re really uncomfortable with, don’t roll your eyes. It looks terrible.”
Aschenbrenner advises lawyers to take a tip from politicians. “The good ones are very good at getting their message out and staying on message. They aren’t thrown by odd questions, they’re very prepared. They’re good at keeping their cool and they understand the importance of that. Watch the news, listen to the radio, read the newspaper. Rather than focus on the story, focus on what people say, how they’re quoted and how they say it. Be aware of how other people handled it, what techniques are involved.”
Keep yourself on a short leash
Kevin Aschenbrenner tells the story of a lawyer who did a fairly significant, high-pressure interview. There were some possibilities for some tense situations and some areas that the lawyer did not want addressed.
“He got training and did a great job through the interview. He stayed on message, used all the techniques. And then, showing the reporter out of the firm, he promptly in the elevator rattled on about everything he wasn’t supposed to say in the interview. Of course, that’s what got printed. So keep yourself on a short leash and talking only about what you want to talk about is really important.”
Draft a Model Media Policy
Firms should have a policy to determine who is authorized to speak to the media. Have a plan in place so that unwanted leaks don’t occur and to ensure that the right message is getting out.
If you decide to have more than one person who will talk to the media, make sure everyone is on the same page. If there’s an ongoing dialogue with the media, keep a file, maintain a record of paper flow—you can use a service that monitors media. If there will be ongoing media interest in a case or file, hire a media consulting firm. Lawyers are generally not trained to deal with the media. If it goes beyond one interview, such as a piece of litigation or a transaction that’s going to be the subject on ongoing media scrutiny, get a consultant involved.
Before you do any media, get client approval and do a conflict check. “No media opportunity is worth losing a client over,” says Aschenbrenner. “If you are in a crisis situation it’s even more important to have a policy for that particular situation as to where media calls go and who handles them. Have the same person handling all the media if possible. That way the same person is being quoted, the same message is getting out. Choose the best person, the one with the most media savvy, the most controlled in a crisis situation, who’s most in grasp of the main issues and what can and cannot be said.”
Recognize that a lot of media is time-sensitive. If you want to do press on a new deal, or on a settlement or on a court victory, recognize that the more time you let go by, the less valuable that news will be. “If you don’t do anything within the first couple of hours of a big victory, then you’ve probably lost the wire press,” says Aschenbrenner. “Within five hours you’ve probably lost the national dailies. And it goes on from there. You just need to keep people’s deadlines in mind.
“When you’re working with the media, be helpful, respectful, understand what a reporter wants, understand the demands on a reporter and what they face every day and how they get their job done,” Aschenbrenner advises. Often when people have issues with how they’ve been covered, it stems from a lack of understanding of how media works. “When you’re talking with a reporter, make sure you spell your name correctly for them, make sure you spell the name of the firm and if possible ask for it to be included. It’s likely that if they said they would, it’s gotten cut in the editing process. Understand that things like this happen, and the article is ultimately not about you, it’s about the story.”
Chetty advises lawyers to take every opportunity they can to educate the public through the media. “The public has a perception that all lawyers are just out to take advantage of people’s misery and it’s up to lawyers to try and change it. You can’t just sit back and hope that public opinion is going to change on its own. Public opinion is a fickle thing, so don’t be afraid to try and change the tide.”
Ann Macaulay is a Toronto writer.
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