UK: Seminars And Conferences - Why Do So Many Law Firms Waste A Great Media And Public Relations Opportunity?

Last Updated: 22 July 2008
Article by Jason Bennetto and Steve Tooze

It's rare that lawyers are accused of being shy. But it often feels like the only explanation for the way in which they sabotage their chances of valuable mainstream publicity. Seminars and conferences are a perfect case in point.

Every year law firms and legal specialists invest significant amounts of time and money staging these events to showcase their expertise and attract new clients.

Days are spent arranging speakers and itineraries, booking suitably high-end venues and finalising guest lists.

And yet the possibilities for raising the firm's profile in the non-specialist media appear to be given rather less consideration than the selection of the canapés.

Is it any surprise that most seminars sink without making a ripple, let alone a splash, in a national newspaper or magazine?

Let's take the example of Firm A. Earlier this year they staged a seminar to highlight some of the problems facing the insurance industry as a result of the credit crunch.

All very promising. National journalists like us jump to attention like Pavlov's dog at every mention of the big "double C".

Firm A hired a swanky central London venue and set the caterers to work on a mouth-watering selection of cocktails and canapés.

Their PR department invited about 200 people, including some potential clients, to a provocative-sounding day of talks, discussion panels and Q&A sessions.

A week before the event, a press release detailing the running order was duly dispatched to the trade media and a notice to the same effect was posted on the firm's website.

The seminar was held on a Friday and started promptly at 9am. The morning session covered the more routine material, while the star speakers and hot topics were wheeled out after a good lunch.

The following Wednesday the firm put out a slightly longer press notice including extracts from some of the livelier speeches and a detailed account of the managing director's closing remarks.

Everyone agreed that it had been a great success.

Except that the only mainstream press coverage was a snide sentence in a national newspaper diary column about Firm A's verbose MD.

Oh, and it had failed to generate any new business.

We would humbly suggest that these last two points are not entirely unconnected.

But, we hear you ask, what could Firm A have done differently? After all, they sent out press releases and posted information on their website.

As media trainers that's a line of reasoning we often hear put forward by clients.

Unfortunately, it betrays a basic misunderstanding of how the press functions.

No news editor, legal, or business correspondent will take the slightest interest in a story that lacks some element of controversy or topicality. In other words, that isn't news.

However, this was clearly not Firm A's problem because they had the credit crunch angle on their side.

Their mistakes included bad timing, and a failure of targeting.

There are many tactics and tips that will give a seminar or conference a strong chance of making headlines - and therefore reach an audience of millions, rather than a couple of hundred.

Here are a few simple things the firm could have done to vastly increase their prospects of media success:

  • Hold the seminar earlier in the week. Friday is the busiest day of the week for national daily journalists who are slaving away on the bumper Saturday editions. It takes a bigger story than Firm A's seminar to pry them away from their desks.

  • Get your best speakers up early. Newspaper deadlines dictate that the later in the day something happens, the less chance of it getting into print.

  • Give journalists a heads-up. Your press or PR people should be targeting specific journalists at least a week before the event, ratcheting up interest. Again there are techniques to hooking a journalist - you need to know what they want, how they want it, and when's the best time to approach them.

  • Hit them with your best material. Once you've identified your target journalists tease them with selected pieces of information. This takes some nous. Give them too much and they'll run with it. Not enough and their attention will drift.

  • If you've got the right material, you can offer an exclusive. Feed a well prepared story to a couple of media outlets such as the FT or Radio 4's Today programme for use on the morning of the event. That will drum up extra interest amongst media rivals.

  • A press release sent out days after a seminar or conference is a waste of time. News desks are interested in news, not ancient history. A well written press release, put out in advance, has the opposite effect - it will create interest, rather than kill it off.

In summary, it's frustrating to spend a lot of time and money on an event and then to get precious little media bangs for your bucks.

But believe us it's also frustrating to sit on the other side of the fence, knowing that a strong story that could have filled one of your empty news pages has been wasted because of a lack of understanding about the way that journalists work.

So, the next time that you're planning a seminar or conference get some expert non-industry advice about maximizing media coverage.

If you don't, you could find all your firm's carefully marshaled expertise going straight into the press waste bin.

A bit like yesterday's left-over canapés.

Jason Bennetto and Steve Tooze are two journalists with more than 40 years experience in the national press. They run the media training and consultancy firm Dr Tabloid & Mr Broadsheet.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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