Law Life: Discretion essential for PR reps as well as attorneys

By Marcia C. Brier

The Daily Record Newswire

Public relations professionals know that keeping secrets is just as important as getting stories featured in The Wall Street Journal. There is an expression: “Talking is silver, but silence is gold.” Sometimes — counter-intuitively for someone in the communications business — the best service I have performed for my clients is to put a lid on communications.

Clearly, the PR consultant’s main goal is to help attorneys get the press and attention they want. But to accomplish that task, consultants must treat lawyers’ work with the same confidentiality and respect that attorneys offer their clients.

Savvy PR consultants balance lawyers’ need for privacy with their desire to maximize professional visibility. They work most effectively by earning lawyers’ trust, demonstrating that they can safeguard sensitive information that lawyers don’t typically share with even their spouses.

When consultants receive advance notice of significant developments, they have time to devise a press strategy. They can work with lawyers to develop the message they want the public to hear. They can also draft answers to questions that reporters will likely ask and decide whether to offer a reporter at a prominent publication an exclusive story about an important case.

Can we talk?

Before lawyers ask a PR consultant for help, they must first get their clients’ consent. If the client grants permission, the lawyer and consultant can work together to figure out the best way to use the media to convey the lawyer’s expertise.

Major periodicals commonly are looking for “real life” examples to liven up stories on legal issues. Clients of my lawyer clients, however, often do not want their stories featured in the press. That is a concern that I must respect, as much as I might want to help out my contacts in the media.

But sometimes a lawyer might find a client who doesn’t mind being in the press (or might even find it personally appealing). Recently I was able to obtain comments from an estate planner who, with the permission of his recently widowed client, was able to comment on the tax aspects of the client’s wife’s death this year (in a vastly changed tax world).

Conferring with the client in advance helps the PR consultant, too. No consultant wants to be forced to back out of an interview after getting a reporter’s attention. That can alienate reporters and ultimately damage the consultant’s credibility with the press.

Timing is everything

If a law firm wants to work with a consultant about an upcoming merger, for example, the firm’s management should outline the anticipated time line for the announcement. It’s important to emphasize that nothing can be disclosed publicly before a press release is distributed. The firm’s management and marketing director should be in close contact with the consultant so that he knows the moment it becomes permissible to contact reporters.

Blunting a crisis

A firm obviously would be extremely concerned if a prominent client were to announce that the firm charged excessive fees. With advance notice, the firm’s PR consultant would be in a better position to reduce the fallout. The consultant could devise message points, draft potential statements and prepare spokespeople for comment. Without notice, the consultant is at a severe disadvantage, particularly given the speed of today’s media. 

Handling conflicts

A PR consultant may represent several law firms and should never use any of one firm’s information to benefit a competitor. Any story the consultant develops with a specific client remains that client’s story.

A PR consultant cannot control whom a reporter might seek out in order to round out an article, but if he works with a client firm to develop a story or the firm brings a story idea to him, that firm should be the only source offered for that story.

A matter of trust

No amount of reassurance will persuade some risk-averse lawyers to provide sensitive information to their PR consultant. How, they will ask, can we truly be sure that the information will remain confidential?

That’s a fair question, but it overlooks the fact that, like lawyers, PR consultants are professionals. Ultimately, both of our professions depend on the exercise of sound judgment. And in both professions, the exercise of discretion often lies at the heart of our professional conduct.  

Marcia C. Brier is principal of MCB Communications, a public relations firm concentrating in the legal services industry.                         

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