Are you ready for your close-up? Prepare before reporters come calling

  • October 26, 2017
  • Ann Macaulay

Most young lawyers would consider themselves lucky to be the person holding the files in the background of a courthouse media scrum, but there could come a time when they’re the ones being interviewed. Avoid the typical deer-in-the-headlights look by preparing well in advance of a potential call by a reporter.

By virtue of their training lawyers tend to be better able than most to speak about a particular topic. But dealing with the media is different than stating your case in front of a judge.

“Lawyers have important things to say and they should be saying them,” says Jana Schilder, co-founder of boutique agency The Legal A Team in Oakville, Ont. But media relations is a unique set of skills, she adds, and there are critical things that lawyers need to know about how the media operate.

Schilder advises lawyers to learn how reporters, editors and producers do their jobs. Journalists are always “looking for great content combined with great style and flair. Those are the sound bites that everyone’s looking for. So one of the things that we teach our clients is what are the two, three or four points that you want to make to a journalist?”

Another thing Schilder teaches lawyers is how a newsroom works. A flurry of emails goes out after each morning editorial meeting to prospective interviewees, who need to react quickly if a journalist calls. “He who responds to those emails first gets the interview,” says Schilder. “Journalists always go to the people who do two things: return their calls on time and give what’s called ‘good quote’.” If you can’t provide those two things, reporters will go back to the same sources they’ve always used.

Whether a journalist is calling in the morning to line up an interview for the middle of the afternoon or they’re calling in a panic at 4:30 because someone else didn’t show up for their piece, there’s a small window to jump in and contribute to a story.

Find out ahead of time who the journalist is and have an idea of what he or she has published in the past. Be careful about what you say and how you say it—don’t swear or use acronyms in an interview. “Journalists are not out to get people but we tell clients you don’t want to put your foot in your mouth either,” says Schilder. “Nothing is off the record until you have a comfortable working relationship with a journalist and there’s trust between you.”

Schilder advises her clients to help journalists do their job. “Journalists are not subject-matter experts. They rely on sources like lawyers and business people to provide meaning and context for news. So if you’re serious about cultivating a relationship with media, that takes time and it takes trust.”

A big key to marketing yourself and your firm to a wide audience is to have a good media strategy in place. “Don’t underestimate the value of the media—there’s huge value there,” says Carol Endicott, director of communications for Umbrella Legal Marketing in Toronto. “Having the opportunity to get your name out there as an individual or representing a firm is a really good return on investment.”

It can’t hurt to ask for the journalist’s questions ahead of time to prepare yourself and be clear about your message. If you’re doing a phone interview, create your own bullet list to refer to so you can be aware of where the journalist is steering you and come back to what you want to say. Think about questions that could make you uncomfortable – and avoid answering questions that haven’t been asked, especially if it’s about a sensitive case. “Stay neutral and stick with the law,” says Endicott.

Learn how to dress for the camera if you’re going to be appearing on TV. Tone down the accessories. A flashy tie can be fine but avoid jewelry or scarves that are overly large and distract from what you’re saying.

Don’t expect that everything you say in an interview will be used in an article or story for broadcast. “Journalists are not court stenographers, they don’t take dictation from you,” says Schilder. “That’s not how it works. They have a number of sources and your job is to provide content that’s so compelling and so interesting that you get the lion’s share of the content.” Don’t get too excited before the story is published or is aired on radio or TV, she adds. “If it’s a good story, it’s accurate and it puts you in a good light, that’s when it’s time to do cartwheels.”

Partners usually take on the role of spokesperson at larger firms, and it’s quite often those firms that get the high-profile cases.

That doesn’t mean there’s no need for media literacy at small or mid-sized firms, where young lawyers will often have a greater opportunity to work on a wide variety of cases. At those firms, being a go-to spokesperson is a way to increase your profile.

Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, be proactive if you have story ideas, or context on a case that no one else is providing. “Don’t be afraid to reach out and make your own contacts,” says Endicott. News publications normally provide their journalists’ email contact information, so “invite them for a coffee, get to know them, what they’re writing about, let them get to know you and your area of practice.” If you’re working on something that’s similar to what they’ve been writing about, let them know, she adds, since they’re always looking for good spokespeople and a different perspective.

Keep in mind that not everyone is cut out to be the person who goes in front of the media on behalf of the firm—there may be a colleague who is more relaxed and articulate. “Don’t take it personally,” Endicott adds. The most important thing is to put the best person forward to represent your firm or your clients.

Ann Macaulay is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.