After my recent swipes at case law updates and voice mail, you might think I’m just spending my time beating up on the weakest members of the lawyer communication fraternity. If so, today’s entry on news releases likely will confirm that line of thought. But what I’m really trying to do is isolate and attack a pernicious habit within law firms of all sizes: the phenomenon of rote communications, producing things simply because we’ve always produced them. Don’t get me wrong, though; I am quite interested in beating up on news releases.
My distaste for press releases stems from more than a decade of receiving them, in my former capacity as editor of three legal periodicals. I won’t get into the choice of medium — having been inundated by both repeated faxes and floods of email, it’s hard to choose between them, but I reserve a special place for the legal organization that (to this day) faxes announcements on legal-size paper. Nor will I get into press releases on topics entirely irrelevant to the recipient, press releases from people who’ve previously agreed to take you off their distribution list, or press releases with an invitation to an event taking place the next day in a different country. No, my fundamental problem with press releases is that I can’t recall ever receiving one of value to me.
A typical news release consists of a statement and three assumptions. The statement is “We are doing X.” The assumptions are, “X matters to you,” “You will rebroadcast news of X to your readers or listeners,” and “We will benefit in tangible ways from your dissemination of X.” Each of those assumptions is, in almost all cases, deeply flawed.
- 1. “X matters to you.” Why do you think that? Have you asked me? Is this a personal and direct communication tailored to my publication? No, it’s not, because if it was, it wouldn’t be a press release, it would be a conversation. Press releases are one-sided announcements that bear little resemblance to reality: sales pitches, product descriptions, puffed-up expertise, the stuff you expect to see on the back of a box on a shelf. Why would you believe that would matter to me? “Because your readers are our potential customers” isn’t a reason.
- “You will rebroadcast X.” Uh, no. Microsoft Outlook was the email system at my last job, and it came with a handy feature that briefly opened a small box on my screen when a new email arrived, telling me the sender and subject line. I got so I could glance at the screen and delete a news release before the little box even began to fade away. There are a few types of periodicals that either reprint a release in its entirety (celebrity wire services, techie blogs) or repackage it as reader fodder (community newspapers, political journalists). Most of the rest can find other sources of copy, thanks.
- “We will benefit.” This is the assumption that really galls, because it represents a failure of communications strategy. Perhaps there are exceptions, but I’ve yet to come across any law firm that can tie the production of a press release or a succession of press releases to new business or improved profile. I’m not even sure that any but the largest and most sophisticated corporate entities could do so. I laugh when firms ask me what’s the ROI of blogs or Twitter: what’s the ROI of press releases? But because the investment on press releases is so small, no one really cares.
The problem, of course, is that the investment on a news release is small only for the sender. For the recipient(s), of whom there might be several thousand, the investment ranges from one second (in my case) to the time required to open or read a release and dispose of it; the attention costs are downloaded onto the receiver. The mass dissemination of unsolicited information that the recipient has to clean up goes by another a word these days: spam. If your law firm is sending spam, even (especially) to media organizations, please stop.
So that’s the beating-up part, and it’s easy and fun. The larger point is that news releases are only a symptom of a larger problem within law firms: rote communication, the habitual continuation of archaic methods of speaking to the public or to clients.
Most firms send press releases because they’ve always done so, dating back to a media era utterly different from today’s. Most firms create law firm newsletters because they’ve always done so, despite newsletters’ tenuous (at best) modern relationship with client service. Most firms place advertisements in magazines or seek interviews for their lawyers because that’s the way the firm has always built its profile — or at least, that’s what the firm believes. Measurable, concrete evidence of how law firm communications advance the firm’s business objectives is, in most cases, vanishingly rare. The exceptions, ironically, are social media, blogs, LinkedIn accounts, SEO and other new media tools whose reach is trackable and whose returns are traceable and verifiable (using press releases to boost your SEO is highly questionable, by the way, but that’s a story for another day).
How the world communicates has changed; how most law firms communicate has not. So the first step in carving out a rational, defensible communications strategy for a firm is to look at every single method of communication and ask: why are we doing this? What ends does it serve? If we stopped doing this tomorrow, what would happen? (Negatively and positively.) I used to make my colleagues at National nervous by asking my boss, every year or so, “Does the CBA still need a magazine?” The answer was always yes, on the merits: but I felt it was critically important that the question be seriously posed and carefully answered. Your firm deserves to have the same rigour applied to its own communications.
A lot of firms are looking hard at new forms of communication these days. My advice, before you begin, is to look hard at the old ones and get rid of those you can’t justify.