Category Archives: legal public relations

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What Can Attorneys Learn from “Ground Up Cow on a Bun?”

Recently, prominent Pittsburgh defense lawyer James Ecker passed away. Usually attorneys don’t get so much media coverage, especially if they’re just known locally. However, Ecker had a long relationship with the media because of the way he communicated with reporters and how he described his high-profile clients who were accused of horrible crimes.
He was effective in presenting interesting visuals for television, such as walking with his clients into police stations and out of courtrooms, and he chose his words carefully. To defend such clients, he had to be a good storyteller, to paint a picture that helped reduce their sentences, which made him even more notorious. His law partner said he “‘was the ringmaster’ in many high-profile cases.” 
Ecker was effective inside and outside the courtroom, but many attorneys are not effective in both areas. However, when communicating with the non-legal media, attorneys should be good storytellers and be able to use effective metaphors. Even scientists have discovered that using metaphors causes the brain to work differently. Salon features an article by Tori Rodriguez from Scientific American about a study that described crime in two different ways. People’s decisions on how to fight crime were influenced by the metaphors used.
One metaphor I’ll never forget is from my fourth grade language arts class. The teacher told us there are different ways we can talk about something. For instance, you can call a sandwich you eat a hamburger, which for beef eaters is a pleasant experience. You could also say it’s ground-up cow on a bun, which groups such as PETA could use to criticize people who eat meat.

Therefore, if you’re talking to a reporter, think about if you’re telling a story or “painting a picture” that will influence those receiving your message as you intended. 

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Attorneys Make Terrible Horror Movie Directors

Attorneys know that they have to be careful about what they put online, and they usually use social media sparingly, if at all. I’ve noticed that attorneys limit their social media activity to LinkedIn because they think it’s the safest. However, everyone has to be careful, no matter how professional a website might seem.

One attorney paid a heavy price for his online activity, which was deserved, but it also affected a couple of women’s reputation. According to Martha Neil’s article,“Sending female intern’s horror-film clip to local law firms get sex-partner suspended for 3 years” in the ABA Journal, a partner of a law firm wanted to punish an intern that didn’t respond to his advances, so he had a paralegal send out a clip from a horror film that showed the intern nude. Actually, it wasn’t really her, but he said it was. 

Even though her name isn’t in the article, it was a total embarrassment for her because many attorneys saw the clip. Plus, the paralegal looked bad because she was the one who sent out the email to other law firms. Luckily, the partner ended up getting suspended, but he created a mess that will probably take a while to clean up. 

It’s a great lesson for attorneys to be careful about what they post or send out online, even if they think it’s a practical joke. It’s safe to say that if you have any doubts about posting a photo, quote, or link, don’t post it at all. Like our mothers often told us, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Attorneys have to be careful in court, but in the court of public opinion, they have to be especially careful, because they are held to high standards in communications. 

Posting online is like speaking: people are usually advised to think before they speak in case they say something they regret. When you’re online, it’s even more important to think before you post because whatever you put out there will last a very long time.
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Running for Mayor? Or Mayor is Running?

When I saw this news piece on Fox Chicago about a strip club opening next to a convent and school, I was surprised that the Mayor of Stone Park ran away from Dane Placko and shut the door on him, right on camera for all of Chicago (and the world online) to see. After all, nowadays people know (or should know) that their behavior on camera, in print, online–wherever the media is–will be captured and will definitely affect their reputation. The Mayor not only looks like a coward, but his response seems like he’s got something to hide. Does he? I don’t know, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. It could help the public form a “guilty” verdict down the road.

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Can a Dog Be Trained to Sniff Out Public Relations Opportunities?

I came upon an interesting article in Businessweek about“Argentina’s Dollar-Sniffing Wonder Dogs” and how they’re sniffing for US currency to prevent “capital flight” from that country. That’s the first time that I’ve seen something about dogs sniffing for money, not drugs, but I guess countries have to get creative to prevent disasters.

It’s too bad that the online article doesn’t show the picture of a cute sniffing golden retriever in the ferry terminal, so if you get a chance, try to take a look at the magazine picture. Actually, I can walk down any street in Chicago and smell different kinds of pizza. So if the city ever has a pizza problem, I could be the guy for them (even though I’m not as cute as those dogs).

That sniffing-dog article reminds us that we should be sniffing out media opportunities. While media websites have reporters’ or producers’ bios, you shouldn’t stop there. Search on Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn to “sniff out” a better personal connection between you and that journalist so that you can pitch them better. At the very least, it will allow you to include something that is more personal and customized. And they’ll appreciate it, though you have to remember to be sincere because the media don’t like phonies.
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Lawyers Lie and Other Truths About Attorneys

Inside Counsel has an article called “37% of people say lawyers have ‘very low’ ethical standards” and the title really says it all: too many attorneys do not have a good reputation.

 The article gets that statistic from a Gallup poll that was conducted earlier this month, and even though we’re almost at a new year, I don’t think these statistics will improve much, unless some lawyers work on developing a better reputation.

When an attorney really is dishonest, he or she doesn’t deserve to have a good reputation, so I’m not talking about that type of lawyer. Even though there are unethical people in every profession, I doubt that the number of unethical lawyers adds up to 37 percent.  

Which means that attorneys have a lot to fix if they want the public to trust them. Think of all the education they’ve gotten and all the hard work they’ve done, to only be greeted with disdain from the public. That’s not good. 

What you should think about doing in the new year is planning to work against the negativity by offering good advice and help in the public square. There are many ways to improve your reputation and not get lumped in with the rotten attorneys. You can post helpful information on your own website, write an article, do an interview, be an expert in the media, make a speech at an organization, volunteer at your children’s school, participate in community projects, and more. 

Maybe Gallup will do another poll, and by the end of 2012, attorneys’ reputation stats will be better. Let’s hope so. 
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Don’t Slip into the “Spin Zone “

There has been a lot of media coverage about what’s going on at Penn State, which has resulted in thefiring of head coach Joe Paterno. Actually, Penn State didn’t use the word “fire”, but I am, because that’s what happened. He was planning on retiring from that position, but they showed him the door. I’d say that’s a firing, wouldn’t you? 
A Wall Street Journal column I read called “A Four-Letter Word Schools Won’t Use” says that Penn State isn’t the only school that avoids that word; NCAA programs don’t use it either when they get rid of a coach. Maybe they want to avoid lawsuits or don’t want to sound harsh, but I think they should get out of the spin zone and be real about what’s going on. If they choose to not really talk about what has happened, then the media and public will take over the message and create what they want out of it.

If the concern is a lawsuit, then a company or organization should focus on what’s good and say as much as they can to control their image. It’s a lot better than having the media, bloggers, and all sorts of people online and elsewhere fill in the blanks with their own theories and opinions. When that happens, even a simple Google search can make all kinds of negativity come up instead of what the organization wants people to see.

Even though I think that being open and honest is the best way to go, I doubt the schools will go that route because they seem to think that playing it safe is better than communicating honestly with the public. However, if they continue to do that, someone is going to take the image ball and run with it, and it might end up not being the best policy after all.

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Immature or Savvy Legal Marketing?

A lot of men have bald or thinning hair, some have a potbelly, and others aren’t thrilled about getting older. You can make money from that! Or at least from being bald. No, this isn’t a sales pitch to grow your hair, but a way a lawyer is pitching himself to get new clients in his ads for Mybaldlawyer.com.
I read about it at the Legal Watch blog where they pointed out other examples of ways that lawyers stand out from the competition with garish or racy images. It’s a great way to create buzz because it’s controversial, but is it really appropriate for a professional? When promoting your firm, you should consider what kind of image you want people to walk away with. If you want to be smart, it’s best to avoid such tactics.  

In some ways, doing whatever it takes to get more clients than other lawyers seems sophomoric and immature. I’m sure those attorneys who have billboards with half-dressed women to promote the benefits of divorce aren’t lacking in clients and have made decent money from selling their merchandise, but what about their reputation? You don’t have to cheapen yourself to make a good living. In the long run, behaving like a professional is better than making a flashy splash and being remembered for being silly.  

So it’s something to think about: do you want to make lots of money at any cost, or do you want people to respect you by promoting your firm in a professional way? I’d take the latter.
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Behave Lawyers, Or Else!

I read an interesting post at Above the Law about judges who have “punished” misbehaving attorneys by inviting them to a “kindergarten party” and “a ‘special’ emergency refresher course in first year ethics and civility.”

It’s an obvious case of a “shame-on-you” discipline program, and both of those special “invites” sound like harsh reactions to immature attorneys, but it makes us all think that it’s important to watch our behavior, no matter where we are.

Not all behavior is as extreme as in this video of a Cleveland courtroom, where a defendant throws a backpack at the judge’s bench and beats up the public defender. However, not presenting truthful information or whining is not acceptable, not just in a courtroom, but anywhere.

Even though most of us aren’t videotaped, we still have to be careful about how we act. One judge cancelled his kindergarten party, and the other judge was replaced by someone who canceled the refresher course, so the attorneys didn’t have to “waste” their free time. But their behavior was publicly exposed, and they probably felt humiliated. Hopefully attorneys can avoid public embarrassment by acting like grownups.

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Are Your Friends Worth $45 Billion?

Recently, USA Today had an article with the headline,”Google+ adds $45 billion to Net giant’s market value.” It made me think, why? Yes, Google is trying to take over all things online. And while $45 billion is still real money, even for the US government, it’s still about half of Facebook’s valuation. So what does all this mean to a non-business major who focuses on public relations?

Over the years, the value of my services has been tied to my personal database of media contacts. Clients and prospects have felt that because I have contacts at the New York Times or USA Today or “The Today Show,” they would get great publicity. Sometimes, not always, that is true. However, the real value of having contacts at media outlets has been about my connecting to their colleagues. And that’s where I believe Google and Facebook get their multi-billion dollar valuations: knowing you, means getting to know your contacts. Here’s how it plays out in public relations:
  • The Transfer of Trust Factor: Maybe you’ve heard public relations professionals referred to as “flacks” or “spin masters,” two very negative terms that make me ill when people describe my work that way. I knew that when I had a great working relationship with one reporter, who was my doorway into every other contact at that media outlet. Google + is all about access to whom we know who trusts us.
  • Faster Connections: I’m not talking Internet speed; I’m talking about the speed at which you can build a relationship with someone new. If it took me three months, three phone calls or three emails to build a relationship with the first contact at that outlet, it took about a third of the time to get up to speed with the reporters they introduced me to. With Google +, the trust factor that marketers and advertisers are buying into is that if you’re a fan, you can help them get more fans faster.
  • Blog “Circles”: When blog authors list other blogs they like, it tells you in short order who are the other key influencers. A client today asked me about research they needed done quickly. I did not have time to search Google or Yahoo! or to set up alerts. However, I did look at a key influencer and through their connections, I was able to give the client good advice in short order. Google + will also allow them to see how you “endorse’ friends or business contacts and makes it even easier for them to make target pitches, not just through you, but to all your connections.

The value of a blog, Facebook page, or Google + is nothing without personal connections that help marketers sell through you. When I was growing up, network marketing was big with Avon, Tupperware, and Shaklee vitamins. These companies worked hard to get their sales agents to get friends to buy their stuff and then get those friends to sell this stuff. Except then, it took months to build a network, not moments.

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Do You Really Need a Public Relations Degree to Be a Lawyer?

When I was in college, there really were no formal degrees in public relations. Most professionals had degrees in English, Journalism or Communications, like I did when I graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Yet, a “fake” lawyer managed to practice law after posing as an attorney and handled more than 60 cases without a law degree. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that he was sentenced to two years in prison for such a crime. Ironically, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, “No one suspected anything for years because he did everything right — except obtain a law degree.”

I won’t agree that when I work with an attorney I expect that person to be legitimate. It is the type of professional service, like doctors and CPAs, where credentials, licensing, and certification are important. You can ruin peoples’ lives if you don’t know what you’re doing. (Think about all the people locked up in prison for decades and then released because they were innocent.)

While I enjoy working with lawyers and don’t expect them to get a public relations degree, in order to work with me, there are some courses I wish were part of a law degree:

  • Filing a Response to the Reporter on Time: Attorneys know all about statutes of limitations, court filing deadlines, and being at court on-time. Miss one of those, and it can lead to disciplinary actions against the lawyer. The same is required when attorneys are needed for a comment with reporters. The writers are on deadline, and with real-time news media, not responding in a timely manner can lead to being excluded from the story or even giving the impression you have something to hide.
  • The Facts Will Come Out Somewhere, Sometime: Attorney/client privilege is critical to protecting a client’s interest in a legal matter. However, it’s better for the attorney to hear the bad and the ugly before someone else leaks the information. When lawyers work with the media, while they may not be able to disclose confidential client information, they can still respond in a responsible way that helps to maintain their credibility with the media.
  • Associates Don’t Become Senior Partners Overnight: I’ve had attorneys with no media experience, expect to become an instant source for The Wall Street Journal. Unless the attorney threatens the lives of the Supreme Court justices, it’s not likely to happen. Attorneys know that most law firms have a path to go from first year associate to partner and beyond. It can often take years. While media relations may not move that slowly, building relationships and credibility with major news outlets requires paying your dues.

Perhaps Prison Legal News can develop a new section of their publication for when lawyers break the “public relations laws.”