Bell Yard Director Louise Beeson reviews the past year in the world of legal PR and looks ahead to 2024 in the below article for Law360.
As we approach the year end, many law firms and public relations teams will be reviewing their external communications output for 2023: Which campaigns broke through, which legal experts did well in the media and why, opportunities missed perhaps, and which issues were defining for a firm’s reputation in the last 12 months.
An analysis of this nature is wise housekeeping — it is useful to take stock and learn lessons to plan for the year ahead. It is also important to ensure that an eye is kept on whether a firm’s external profile activities are properly aligned with strategic communications aims and business plans.
In addition, it is prudent to be aware of the big topics that are driving narratives in the legal sector right now and to consider a firm’s positioning on these so as to be best prepared for 2024.
Such a review exercise, involving a look at channels too, is critical to disciplined reputation management and, in turn, how a firm is perceived by its stakeholders — clients, referrers, recruits and staff.
What Does a Firm Want to Be Known For?
While it is rarely possible to translate legal marketing slogans into sycophantic coverage in mainstream media — law firm brand straplines such as “A point of view like no other” and “Driving progress through partnership,” for example, are not phrases that reporters will likely ever reproduce except in brand-related articles — press effort and coverage should nonetheless ideally reflect a firm’s practice and management priorities.
One partner dominating the airwaves all year round can create a skewed impression of what a firm is about. Equally, an analysis of social media output should show a range of experts contributing to the reputation of the firm.
Topics should also be on-grid. Opportunistic comments on heart-on-sleeve subjects or areas the firm does not usually advise on may be quick wins or keep a journalist happy, but if they are off-piste in terms of what the firm wants to talk about, this will create the wrong impression of expertise and client focus in that unforgiving Google or LinkedIn archive.
Another question is whether external media coverage for 2023 has achieved the right balance of client expert versus employer brand content. Is it enough to showcase the firm’s ecological, pro bono, equality and diversity initiatives on a firm’s website and in socials, or do they deserve greater attention if a crucial part of the story?
If the latter, do efforts really stand out versus peers and is the right target U.K. Tech News, TikTok or the Financial Times?
Lastly, did an event or incident come along that sullied a law firm’s brand and reputation in the eyes of beholders? While it may pay to keep a low profile after a media storm in the short term, it is usually essential to fight back with commentary that promotes a healthier mix of topics and initiatives in the medium term.
Of course, social media tools and website analytics make it easy to measure readership or listenership of posts, blogs and podcasts and that is a start. Engagement is harder to measure.
Also less easy to measure data-wise is whether style, tone and format of these efforts have been optimal and whether people feel they have the right skills to populate priority channels.
An accurate and rigorous measurement of press coverage output is also difficult to achieve. Media evaluation is expensive and time-consuming. External evaluation agencies can pore over press coverage and create charts and graphs showing positive messages conveyed, favorability of coverage ratings, share of voice in an article, audience reach, and the volume of hits compared to competitors.
Alternatively, a basic counting exercise can be carried out to measure coverage achieved by topic, practice area and publication, spinning this data into charts. For some, the regularity of firm name checks in the Financial Times will be important; for others, the measure of success might be the breadth of spokespeople quoted in an agreed list of priority media.
Regardless of firm and evaluation budget available, the point is to have a defined set of objectives at the start of the year and assess how far external output supported those at year end. Only then can one consider whether the balance of activity — i.e., proactive versus reactive; mainstream media versus social media; data-led or news-surfing-led; expert lawyer versus managing partner firm spokesperson — should be adjusted in the year ahead.
The Big Beast Topics of 2024
The final prong of any law firm’s annual review and year-ahead planning exercise should be to compile a list of hot topics for the legal sector — whether or not the firm has been quizzed on them yet — and develop an agreed position on them.
This can help to inform on which topics a firm wants to be proactive or reactive going forward; what the managing partner says at a lunch with the new Financial Times legal correspondent; or, indeed, what a trainee recruitment manager puts in the crib-sheet for lawyers manning a stand at the university careers fair.
The list should, of course, be comprehensive and iterative, but below are examples of the questions it should include, and that law firms’ communications teams should have answers for right now in their so-called hot topic bible.
- Will there still be a firmwide Christmas party?
- Are there any #MeToo incidents under investigation internally or escalated to the Solicitors Regulation Authority?
- Are there any disputes with any clients over unpaid fees or negligent advice?
- What is the current working from home policy?
- Has the firm paid bonuses this year? Has the firm recently made job cuts or does the firm plan any such cuts in the next six months?
- What is the policy on publishing profits per equity partner?
- What percentage of lawyers in the firm went to Oxbridge and private schools?
- How many black, female and LGBTQ partners respectively are there in the firm?
- How much per square foot do you pay for space? How much space is being utilized?
- Has the firm investigated its slave trade links, and will it be making reparations?
- Have any Labour politicians been invited to meet clients? Does the firm fund the Labour Party, or is the firm preparing clients for a Labour election win? Are there any talks in progress to offer a job to any outgoing Tory politicians?
There is no textbook manual as to how law firms can get external communications right: how to turn lawyers into amazing communicators; how to interest journalists in the right stories; how many LinkedIn posts are optimal to keep front of mind with contacts and how to maintain the perfect firm profile.
Reputation is a complex construct and reputation management is an art rather than a science. But the year-end point is always a good moment in the calendar to consider how best to enhance, protect and advance reputation, ensuring it is as controlled and planned as possible, and not left to the wrong people or, worse, chance.
By Louise Beeson, Director at Bell Yard Communications
This article previously appeared here in Law360