It’s Okay To Talk To The Media

In today’s media saturated environment, where we can share pictures or Tweets from our phone instantaneously with the world, that may even end up on CNN or FOX News, many clients will turn to their lawyer for advice, counsel and a response. So lawyers should have a basic understanding of interacting with the media, on line and off. In fact, in today’s litigious environment, legal issues permeate the headlines, placing brands and reputations at risk. Today, clients are demanding their lawyers not only defend them in a court of law, but also in the court of public opinion.

I am speaking before the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association as a featured speaker during their monthly Drink n’ Learn Happy Hours on the subject of media relations and the law. Here is a brief summary of my remarks:

It’s okay to talk to the media
If the media is interested in your client’s story and you or your client avoid talking to them, then someone else will, and chances are you will not like what they have to say. As attorney’s it is okay to talk to the media. Just watch what you or what your client have to say and know why you are saying it.

Stick to the facts
Try to stay above the rhetoric and stick to the facts of the case without revealing your legal strategy. Use the media as an opportunity to gauge the public’s interest in this case and perhaps test certain messages.

Our Top Tips For Working With The Media

• Know why you want to talk to the media & who to talk to – It should not matter whether a reporter calls you or you call the reporter. In representing clients, attorneys should look at thee big picture and see how a legal problem could quickly become a PR problem for their client. Therefor, in engaging with the media figure out first, what you hope to achieve in talking to them. Then understand who their audience is. Be familiar with their latest story and angle. Go on their website, perhaps they have a blog or check them out on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter. This will help you craft the appropriate messages that resonate with the right audience.

• Know what you want to say – Once you know why you want to approach the media, and who the audience is, know what you want to say. Have a few key messages written out that you want to convey to the reporter and think of a few questions they may ask — and be ready to respond. It is important to have three or four key messages that you want to make sure you get across to the reporter. These are the messages you should stick to throughout the interview.

• What not to do with the Media — Never say “No Comment” or “Because a lawsuit was filed we cannot comment on active litigation.” Instead say something more general and stick to your messages, or “I can’t tell you that now, but what I can tell you is…” Don’t repeat a negative question or phrase. If you do, it may be attributed to you. And whatever, you do, stop using legal jargon or technical lingo – we don’t want to hear it.

• During the interview – Think of it as a debate not a conversation, unless you are on Oprah

As much as we want to be everyone’s friend, remember, a reporter has a job to do and so do you. In fact, the reporter may be using the interview to gather information or to find a story. Therefore, stay on message, don’t get diverted from the topic at hand, correct any misinformation, only answer the questions asked and remember who you are talking to and who they work for.

• Don’t hide anything you don’t want them to find later. When speaking to the media be concise and thorough and tell them everything that you can with in reason. You do not want them finding out information on their own and then confronting you when you are not prepared to answer their questions. In addition, don’t panic if you are asked a question during an interview that you do not know the answer to. Be honest and tell them that you do not know the answer but that you would be happy to look into it and get back to them. Never attempt to make something up and never lie.

• “Off the record” or “For background only” – As a general rule, if you don’t want it in print then don’t say it. However, an ethical reporter will respect what you are trying to say and will work with you to make sure what your saying is accurate. It helps to know the reporters covering the issues you are working on and have a good working relationship with them. It also helps to not be confrontational and to respect them for having a job to do and that you want to work with them in preparing their story.

• Timing – Just as a lawyer sticks to deadlines prescribed by the court, reporters have deadlines to keep and times they need to either file stories or air them. You will develop better relationships with a reporter if you are sensitive to their deadlines.

• Preparing for an ambush – If a reporter catches you by surprise, stop in your tracks, address the reporters questions (you can be vague if you want), then let them know that you have another commitment and that you will get back to them by their deadline. If a reporter calls by phone take their message, find out what they want and when their deadline is, and get back to them in a timely manner.

• Anything else? – This is always the last question in any interview, so be prepared to summarize your key messages; say anything that you forgot to say before; or clarify any statement that needs further explanation.

• Monitor the media – Know what is being said about you, your clients, your firm and your industry.

Social Media Tips
Social media is becoming more than a tool for us to stay in touch with our friends or family, it is becoming a new area to look out for our client’s interests and/or a new medium to promote our practice. It also is our opportunity to control the message and to clarify misinformation. However, interacting with those using social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN or YouTube, is a little different than working with the traditional media. Therefore,

• Know the influentials – There are millions of people using a variety of social media sites everyday. Know who the ones that are followed the most and what to see who is following them.

• Monitor the chatter – Once you know who to follow you should monitor the chatter. Listen to the tone of the comments and questions and participate where appropriate. A good way to monitor the media is to create Google Alerts, Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. Even if you don’t join the conversation, be aware of what people are saying about your company on different social media platforms.

• Engage the community – Once you are able to gain an understanding of social media and how it works, go ahead and begin to engage the community. However, in using social media one’s credibility is gained through transparency, honesty, relevance and value.

Daniel Cherrin is the former Communications Director/Press Secretary for the City of Detroit and to Detroit Mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr. He is now the Managing Director of Fraser Consulting – a Lansing based Public Affairs and Government Relations firm, and an attorney and Director of Marketing for Fraser Trebilcock.