Lawyers, journalists and trust

As polling samples go, 43 respondents to a survey is not exactly what you’d call statistically significant. So the fact that 43 journalists who cover legal issues gave lawyers poor marks when it comes to explaining the litigation process doesn’t prove a great deal. But as Bob Ambrogi at Legal Blog Watch accurately notes, the thrust of the report “rings true” to anyone who has stepped gingerly into the minefield that lies between reporters and lawyers. What’s more, not only do journalists apparently take a dim view of litigators, the reverse also holds true, judging from the comments to Bob’s post from lawyers engaging in a little media-bashing of their own.

At the heart of difficulties between lawyers and reporters is an absence of trust. I still recall the first time I ever covered an event as a staff writer for The Lawyers Weekly, many years ago. It was an environmental law CLE on a fairly innocuous topic, and I had worked with the presenter at a law firm the previous year. But when he realized I was attending in my new capacity as a journalist, he looked me square in the eye and said: “Don’t make me look bad.” And keep in mind, I was working for a respected legal trade publication, not the local paper or radio station.

This absence of trust reflects several aspects unique to lawyer-reporter interactions. One is simply ignorance about exactly what the other person does and the mistrust that accompanies it. Another is journalists’ inherent dislike of people in positions of influence, the tendency to want to topple pedestals and the elites who stand on them. A third is the lawyer’s primary duty to her client’s interests rather than to full disclosure of everything she might know or believe, which reporters often take as a sign of insincerity, evasiveness or flat-out lying. And a fourth might be that whenever reporters encounter a publication ban, a libel suit, or the removal of a “potentially litigious” line in a story, there’s usually a lawyer at the other end of the process.

But I think the single biggest problem between lawyers and the media is the lack of control that lawyers have over the reporting and publishing process. Lawyers, as you might have noticed, greatly dislike the absence of control. We don’t delegate well, we don’t like implicit arrangements, and we really don’t like it when someone else has final say over our words. The fear of being misquoted drives a lot of the reluctance that lawyers display when a reporter asks them for information or for a quote. I can’t tell you how many times over the past dozen years that a lawyer we interviewed asked to see a copy of the article before it was published. But I can tell you how many times we said yes: zero. Our policy was that a lawyer could see his or her quotes to check them for accuracy, but that the article itself was off-limits. Lawyers who prize own their professional independence should appreciate that journalistic independence hinges on the ability to write the article you want to write without interference.

Can the gap between these two professions be bridged? Of course — there are countless examples of successful lawyer-journalist collaboration that deliver value to all sides while respecting professional norms. The Legal Blog Watch piece and its comments include some useful tips on handling the press. Media organizations could use a list of do’s and don’ts as well, but for now, here are a few more ideas that should help lawyers overcome their concerns about dealing with the media.

1. Accept the loss of control. If you simply can’t deal with the fact that you won’t get final sign-off rights on the article, then you might as well step out of the process now. You might or might not even get to see your quotes before they’re published, depending on the periodical in question, though you can certainly ask. There’s risk involved in speaking with the media, and while you can minimize it, you can’t eliminate it.

2. Enact a media policy. If your organization doesn’t have a policy on who speaks to the press, when, on what subjects, and to what extent, then you need to get one in place. This is especially important for lawyers in public-sector and corporate-law departments, who in my experience are extremely reluctant to even return phone calls, let alone speak on the record. Create a policy and cite it when a journalist calls, if only as a simple matter of professional courtesy.

3. Consider recording the conversation. I actually find this approach a tad distasteful, but it’s standard procedure for many high-level political and corporate figures, and law firms should consider it. Tell the reporter you want to record the call (never, ever do it secretly) purely for the purposes of checking the accuracy of your published statements. This is neither necessary nor appropriate with a reporter with whom there’s a degree of familiarity, and it could go some way to easing lawyers’ fears and establishing trust. But make it the exception, not the rule.

4. Compile a media database. If your firm is large enough to have a marketing and communications department, these professionals should be informed of all interactions with reporters and should track their published outcomes. In smaller firms, a lawyer or staff person should be delegated to this task. The idea is to establish a list of media encounters, positive results, reliable reporters, and best practices for successful interviews. Think of it as Media Knowledge Management.

5. Start tracking ROI. Law firms do very few things that lend themselves to sensible return-on-investment analysis, so ROI results from media interactions can be a powerful tool for overcoming internal reluctance or opposition to deal with the media. Include “In the media” on the “How did you hear about us?” portion of your client-intake process. Ask selected current clients whether they saw the firm in the media and what they thought (providing them a PDF or a video clip can help). Bring your rainmakers into the media loop. Do all you can to portray your firm’s media relations not just as a positive thing, but also as a competitive advantage.

There’s a lot more to a successful media strategy than this, of course, but it’s hard to overestimate the importance of trust in your relations with the press. If you can earn it, internally and externally, you’re already way ahead of most lawyers who still prefer to view reporters as the unknown or as the the enemy.

Comments

  1. Tim Wilbur said:

    Why should you have to tell someone you are recording a conversation? If you are using it for broadcasting purposes, you should, and must, tell them, of course. And if you they ask, then yes, do tell. But if you are doing it only for the purpose of accuracy, why do you have to volunteer the information? Reporters record conversations without volunteering that information all the time – lawyers should be able to as well.

    @ 2:40 pm
  2. […] Lawyers, journalists and trust. 5 tips for working with the media for law firms. (@jordan_law21) http://bit.ly/4nm8RV Powered by Fresh From This was written by Phil. Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2009, at 2:45 […]

    @ 7:51 pm
  3. Tim, my reasoning for disclosing is tied to the overall theme: trust. If I’m building a relationship with a reporter but I feel compelled to cover my bases by recording the conversation, then I want to be open with that. If my remarks as reported aren’t as they were recorded, springing the recording on the reporter (and her editor) to prove my point has a “gotcha” feel to it and ensures, to my mind anyway, that that relationship is toast: the journalist will never feel entirely secure with me again.

    Possibly the reporter will feel insulted if I tell her I’m recording our talk for accuracy; if so, I’d try to explain that my firm has instituted this policy for all media interviews, and that it’s meant neither as a slight nor as an aspersion cast on her integrity. But if the reporter is miffed, she’s miffed; better that, to my mind, then starting off what I hope will be a mutually beneficial relationship by taking a serious measure like recording a phone conversation without being upfront about it.

    @ 8:59 pm
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