The Firm: 10 ways to guarantee your press release is toast

 Paul Fletcher, The Daily Record Newswire

Knowing how to work with the media is essential for lawyers and law firms.

You may have news that you want to share — you want coverage for some reason, whether it is a good result for a client, a merger with another firm, or some other accomplishment.

The press release, providing the basic news nut for which you seek publicity, is a time-honored form of communication. It provides the news outlet with a quick and direct communication that allows an editor or news director to make a judgment about whether the information is worth writing about or putting on the air.

Here are four quick pointers:

1. Make sure the press release actually provides news.

2. Use the who, what, where, when approach to get the message across.

3. Provide some context so it’s clear why this is important (first, new, largest, etc.).

4. Avoid gratuitous adjectives and blather quotations.

Unfortunately, those pointers all too often get ignored and there are a host of mistakes that lawyers, law firms and public relations people can make.

During the past year, we have compiled examples of errors that prevent your information from seeing the light of day. For source material, we need only look to our own in-boxes. The examples cited below are real; the names and in a few instances, identifying facts, have been changed to protect the guilty.

Here are 10 new ways to guarantee your press release is toast:

1. Try to spin a defeat as a big victory

The caption of the press release is designed to grab the attention of the editor or reporter and to quickly identify what happened and why he should continue reading.

Here’s the caption:

Bentley Dangerfield turns potential loss of millions into substantial gain for client in heated breach of contract arbitration

Remember Mighty Mouse? He was a super-hero rodent who would sing, “Here I come to save the day!” as he arrived to bash bad guys and restore order.

This breathless caption indicates that all would have been lost except for the exploits of the law firm Bentley Dangerfield (Tip: Don’t make the release all about you).

But if you read the item, you learn that Bentley’s client, Big Fund, went into an arbitration with a former employee who accused it of cheating her out of money (that apparently is the “heated” part). She wanted $11 million and was awarded $1.4 million plus interest.

Query: How is this a “substantial gain” for Big Fund? They are still stroking a million-dollar check.

Oh, and the release notes that “Big Fund subsequently requested that the arbitration award be deemed confidential, but that request was denied late last week.”

And why share this additional defeat? In other words, the firm is saying, we really didn’t want this public, but since it is, we’ll send this confusing release to explain it all.

2. Try to become the story

The cardinal rule of press releases is that they contain news. In this next example, the nut is “lawyer in Toronto wanted to say something about a case.” The caption:

Carmichael Law Firm, a Leading Toronto Personal Injury Law Firm, Weighs in on Ruling that Reaffirms Holding a Wireless Device While Driving is Illegal

The gist of this one: Lawyer says the Ontario appeals court was really smart to reaffirm two prior holdings.

Why would a PR agency send this out? Beats me. Remember that editors and news directors get paid in part to assess the credibility of stories and sources. Releases such as this one damage their view of you and your firm.

And why would a Canadian PR agency send this to an American legal newspaper? Beats me as well.

3. Party like it’s 1999

I have to admit that some of my favorite releases breathlessly reveal that “law firm has started a blog.”

It’s 2013. Blogs have been around since the late 1990s. A release from this past July notes, “The Jackson Law Group is making in-roads to social media with all new blog and video content.”

Here’s the release:

“Personal injury law is now a huge industry, and lawyers and claimants both began to realize that there were strong cases for negligence negatively impacting the lives of ordinary citizens in everyday life. Fighting these cases in Wisconsin is a group composed of many a Milwaukee a personal injury  attorney, now named The Jackson Law Group, which guarantees that if they don’t win, they don’t get paid. The group have recently launched a social media facet to their work aimed at educating more individuals on the process and precedent of injury law.”

By the way, this may be the first example we have seen of outsourced PR work — the firm that sent this release is in Malaysia.

4. Tell me you’re Bo Derek

Lawyer rating services have proliferated on the Internet. Where once there was Martindale-Hubbell, now there are many. Making the grade with any of them still isn’t really news.

The release we received touted AVVO, an Internet lawyer rating service:

The caption:

Attorney Bob Stevens Receives a Perfect 10 Out Of 10 Rating From AVVO

And the release itself:

Reynolds Cox is pleased to announce that criminal defense attorney Bob Stevens has been rated as a Superb 10 out of 10 on AVVO. The rating is calculated using a mathematical model that considers the information shown in a lawyer’s profile, including a lawyer’s years in practice, disciplinary history, professional achievements, and industry recognition….

 “I am humbled to receive the perfect 10 out of 10 rating on AVVO. It is an honor to be in the company of so many great North Carolina criminal defense attorneys,” says Stevens.

Way to go, Bob. Perfect and superb are pretty good things to be.

5. Swear at me

Earlier this year, a PR guy started an email release with the salutation:

Hell Paul,

I wondered if this was the start of a complaint. But he sent a follow-up, adding the “o.”

He lost points for condescension, though. His message read,

FYI, in case you hadn’t seen this yet, yesterday, the Virginia State Supreme Court revived a lawsuit Large Law Firm has been litigating against Big Energy Company for well over a decade. The unanimous decision reverses the trial court’s decision and revives Large Law Firm’s tort and fraud claims against Big Energy.

Two points: They aren’t your firm’s tort and fraud claims. It’s not about you. And of course we had seen the case yesterday. It was already on our website. PR Guy left us wondering if he ever had read our paper or visited our site. Not a place you want to be.

6. Be lazy

A lawyer at a big firm became a member of the board at a non-profit. The cover note was brief:

Request dissemination of the attached release regarding a board member addition to our Board of Directors. Thank you for your assistance!

Really? If you don’t make the effort, you won’t get any coverage. Further, the PR person used a carpet bomb. The release was sent to media contacts in the metro Richmond area; the addresses for every single one was in the “To” box.

7. Hit send, then celebrate with a cigarette

PR people can be clever. Sometimes too clever. Back in the spring, the erotic mommy-porn book, “50 Shades of Grey,” published in 2011, was still making the rounds.

So we get a release from a book publicist, with the caption:

50 Shades of Litigation: Forbidden affair challenges courtroom ethics

The lead paragraph of the release matched the heaving tone of the headline:

In his provocative new thriller Motion Granted, award-winning author Alfred E. Neuman tells the dramatic tale of a successful female lawyer who falls in love with a TV evangelist accused of sexually molesting a child. As she struggles to uncover the truth and deal with the cruel effects of unrequited love, the troubled protagonist discovers a dangerous world of dark secrets that will change her life forever.

May I send you a complimentary review copy or set up an interview with Neuman?

Quite an offer. On which I took a pass.

8. Request a read receipt

VIRGINIA DENTAL CONSULTANTS TO PROVIDE 50 FREE PROCEDURES

News Release is attached.…

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact Muffy Brockenbrough at Virginia Dental.

When I hit the delete key, Outlook popped up a little window that told me that Muffy Brockenbrough had requested a read receipt. In other words, her message sought to police whether I had read her message. I can understand why she might want to know, but it’s kind of creepy-stalkerish, not to mention a bit annoying. Outlook conveniently allowed me to decline to send the receipt, and then let me tell it not to ask about read receipts again.

9. Know my paper’s name

This is just sloppy and made it clear that the sender was using a template. That’s not a problem — at least the sender was trying to personalize the email message. Points for that. Then points lost for failing to use the template properly:

Mr. Fletcher,

Shanahan & Shanahan is pleased to welcome our newest partner, Robert Griffin. Attached below please find our announcement available for release in your publication [PUBLICATION]. Please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional information.

Thank you for your time.

10. Bite the hand that feeds

Finally, of the many, many releases I have received over the years, this one stands out as perhaps the most breath-taking example of how not to do it.

PR woman sent a lengthy release about a lawyer who won a significant award. The release was way too long with too much biography. That’s not uncommon, and not really a problem — those actually can be useful if we need the data.

But a few hours later, the same PR woman sent a follow-up with this note:

Lawyers being lawyers, Steve made some changes AFTER he knew I’d be sending this out. Please use this version if you plan to use more than a headshot and title. Thanks.

Wow. First of all, to diss the client and the legal profession publicly is just poor form.

Second, she seems to acknowledge her first version was junk.

Finally, does she know who Steve’s friends are? Can she be sure that Steve or his firm didn’t get a copy of this message?

For the record, I am friends with Steve, but I didn’t share this with him. I figured PR woman will make her way to an alternative career soon enough on her own.

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