UK: “No Comment” Is Not A Media Strategy - Why Legal And Financial Firms So Often Struggle To Get Into The National Press

Last Updated: 8 July 2008
Article by Jason Bennetto and Steve Tooze

Within the national press, legal and financial firms are notorious for failing to use their first-class expertise and involvement in newsworthy stories and controversial cases to achieve the public profile they merit.

There are a number of factors at play here, but the main root of the problem seems to lie in a basic lack of understanding of journalists and their motives.

Legal and financial firms often have little idea what journalists want, what stories and features will interest a newspaper or magazine, and few contacts within the national media to remedy this situation.

Consequently, they lack confidence in their ability to shape their media profile and often adopt a defensive strategy in which they are usually reactive, rather than pro-active, and rely on mundane press releases, that often read like internal staff notices.

Drawing on our joint experience of 40 years in national newspapers and magazines - backed up by evidence from journalist colleagues working in the city, business and legal sectors, we believe there are some mistakes that regularly crop up. These include:

  • A failure to make proper use of your in-house pool of expertise. This includes staff who can comment on topics of the day, as well as reports, cases, and on-going research that is newsworthy, or could form part of a piece of analyses or a feature.

  • Fear and unfamiliarity with the national media. Too often firms stick to trade magazines and journals, or specialist websites, rather than forming working relationships with the national press and broadcasters.

  • Badly written and poorly distributed press releases, reports and notices. Relying on your internal website and randomly emailing or posting out press releases is usually a waste of time, and a wasted opportunity.

  • Acting like a rabbit caught in the headlights and giving a "no comment" response is usually a missed opportunity. Unless you are legally bound to stay quiet, then you should be looking to take advantage of press interest. Saying nothing will not make the story go away. Although it is important to say the right things - and that means having a strategy, not just making something up on the phone.

  • Not registering with national newspaper specialists and business desks as a source of good news stories, ideas or quotes. By upping your PR game you can move from a state of near-anonymity among the national press towards a position where you would be approached for comments on stories and features.

  • Lacking a focused media strategy that would allow you to capitalise on breaking news stories.

Understandably, legal and financial firms are often so nervous of offending their clients, or of prejudicing a case, that their staff chose to say nothing at all to the press.

But there is middle way between stony silence and publicity that might upset a client's feelings and have legal implications for your firm.

You can, and should, be more pro-active, generating positive stories, identifying news trends, and making greater use of your in-house expertise.

It is entirely possible to achieve a higher media profile to help attract new clients without upsetting your existing ones.

As one national newspaper legal affairs correspondent commented: "When a law firm rings me up they usually have no idea what might interest me as a journalist. In many ways the company needs to think 'what do we do that's interesting to the general public?'.

"If they were to look through their books with someone who knows what a story is, then I'll bet you would find loads of ideas for stories."

He added: "The other issues is lack of contact - it's pretty rare for anyone to be pro-active in that areas, which seems madness to me."

So how do you pull yourselves out of this comment free, low or no profile backwater?

We would advise that part of a long term media strategy needs to include some of these elements:

  1. A well trained media department and in-house team of "expert" who understand what journalists want, what information to provide, and how to get your company's name in print.

  2. Sharper, more interesting press releases and pitches that will hook journalists, not only for stories and features, but also conferences and news events. 

  3. Learn how to establish better media contacts with the national press.

  4. Identify hidden news and feature ideas from your current and future work. Also unlock the full media potential of your experts.

  5. Know how to respond when things go wrong - and how best to prevent this happening in the first place.

So don't be a shrinking violet and sit around hoping a journalist is going to publish something positive about you and your firm. Reporters are constantly looking for new sources of expertise, stories and feature ideas - if you want to raise the profile of your organisation you need to actively engage with them.

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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