Law Firm Public Relations: The PR Zombie
I’m a big fan of the future. When I read in the press of the demise of Jessops and HMV, I saw economic progression (apart from the visual drawbacks of ’empty shop’ syndrome which is beginning to plague the high street). Death and rebirth are natural phenomena of the universe. That’s life. Zombie companies, operating as a consequence of low interest rates, make only enough money to service their debts. The banks keep these no-hope companies alive in order to avoid further losses, in turn holding them back from new lending. Bad businesses need to fail. They soak up market share, in Jessops’ case 30% of the camera market, preventing good businesses from prospering. I don’t like seeing people lose their jobs. But such is life. Redundancy is inevitable for us all. But to be honest, as a digital camera enthusiast myself, no amount of good service will make me pay 40 quid for a 8GB SD card that I can get online for less than a tenner. HMV, well I haven’t been in there for years.
It pains me when I read link-baiting articles ‘predicting’ certain ‘future’ trends. Trends that have already happened and are quite clearly in the past. Like the rise of social media. Social media has been ‘here’ for a while (see my blog post Social media for professional services: A weapon of mass disruption). The ‘death’ of public relations is another I read about quite often. Public relations died some time ago, and like the economically failing retail outfits, it’s been ‘walking dead’ for some time.
Public relations in law firms never truly got off the ground. Public relations was born a zombie, bereft of consciousness. In fact, PR in law firms was ‘deader’ than a zombie. Zombies being ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli. PR and law firms have always had a turbulent relationship. Put simply, PR was misunderstood by lawyers. Lawyers who couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t distinguish between a publicist, a public relations professional and a comms exec. But everyone went and got one.
PR became purely media relations, sidelining its other core dimensions. It then sat in the gutter, along with ambitions of improving law firm branding, audience perceptions and attempts at differentiation. Trying to stage manage, direct and present a perception of greatness in a world that didn’t give a s**t about legal services. Working with difficult partners who didn’t like to share information, and who thought of PR as impact-incalculable and PR ‘hacks’ as people who spin and manipulate, kept out of the circle of trust. But they were ok if they got one’s mug in the paper.
I’ve hired and worked with a number of PR firms over the years for both law firms and accountants. Their value in my experience was the relationships they held with the relevant journalists at the relevant publications. We wanted to be the first firm the journos came to for comment, and for them to run our own news pieces and feature items.
The model worked well for all parties for a good while. But then it became flawed. Traditional print media suffered a crisis. And a hefty proportion of journalists were cut loose. The crisis came not through a lack of audience. No. Put simply, audiences moved online. And advertising revenues – the economic foundation of journalism, editorial integrity aside – plummeted. Revenues fell in print. They also fell online too. Leaving a critical issue for the modern day press: how the hell do they monetise?
For those journalists still in the business, the landscape had changed. First, they had access to the most sophisticated tools to find the information they needed for their stories; Google, Google alerts, RSS feeds et al. They weren’t so heavily dependant on PR agencies anymore. In fact, they were keeping PR agencies out of the loop altogether, intentionally or not. Enjoying the autonomy of sourcing, researching and publishing their output. Old school journalism, some might say.
Second, industry publications were no longer limited to a handful of printed press. Web 2.0 and the prevalence of user generated content meant quite literally anyone with internet access could create and publish content. From bloggers and tweeters to forum contributors, this form of content publishing emerged as being just as important and credible as the printed word. People stopped looking in the same old places. When I spent some time in online retail (a world darkly driven by discounting), I learned first-hand how people enjoy the thrill of the chase. Retailers would place discounts and promotional codes in multiple locations across the web. It seemed for customers, hunting made the discount taste sweeter. This behaviour is transferring to the business realm. People enjoy searching for content.
So while all this was happening in the publishing world, law firms’ budgets were being squeezed. Measuring the effect of PR was difficult and complicated. The metrics often tenuous (AVE, seriously?!). I mean, which lawyer was ever going to own up to receiving work on the back of some press coverage generated by a profit-taking zombie hack? Lawyers like to be seen to be leading their own charge when business developing.
So firms concluded that PR was becoming expensive and had limited reach. On the balance sheet, the monthly retainer for the PR agency was starting to look hefty. Was their little black book of media contacts really worth that much? And then firms had to start to pay twice for PR. The press release had to be re-written for online and then be ‘SEO’d’ by the digital guys. It all added up.
What does this mean for the traditional PR agency or internal PR team in a law firm? For those that have survived it means they are still walking around looking for a victim to bite. Wandering around exchanging advertising budgets for promises of coverage. Traditional PR is old and most of the principles, methodologies, practices, and tactics have gone unchanged for decades. Personally, what I have seen so far is that even today traditional PRs either refuse to change or don’t know how they need to change. There seems to be a struggle to define themselves in a world made transparent by self-publication and self-distribution technologies. An amorphous identity.
PR needed to reinvent itself. But it didn’t. They could have offered culture assessment services. Gearing law firms for the web 2.0 world and implementing the processes required to take advantage. They could have helped firms create lots of content about their service offerings. Blog articles, videos, podcasts and webinars. They could have helped with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. They could have set-up the listening tools to track what is being said about the firm’s industry and client sectors online. But they didn’t.
So the digital marketing agencies moved in instead.
These are the digital peeps who started saying an online press release should feature targeted keywords and link back to the firm’s site. They showed firms how to measure exactly how many readers visit your site and sign up to further offerings. They said that firms can tap into wider markets by promoting material online. They said they have the skill and knowledge needed to carve out an influential twitter account, get decent search engine listings, write effective online adverts, optimise web copy, create viral videos and much more. And for most firms, they’re now nibbling into the PR budget. And I’m pretty sure over time this’ll turn into a feast. In every food chain there is a successor. Zombies are a foodstuff too.
Similarly to zombie retailers being fed their life-sustaining flesh from low interest rates, PR in law firms is being fed its scraps from lawyers wanting their pictures in the traditional press. The legal profession dithered somewhat on the concept of blogging, self-publication and self-distribution. It naturally felt inhibited by professional ethics. Hamstrung by thoughts of its right to comment publicly on the law. But that changed.
As a marketer I accept that there’s more that goes on behind the scenes in PR. Positioning, messaging, crisis communications, relationship building and training – but as much as these activities still offer tangential and indirect impacts on lead development, they have never truly made the difference in the legal sector.
If a law firm is looking to expand its market awareness, brand recognition, thought leadership or service line placement – at one time I would have invited the PR peeps around the table. Instead I now recommend the digital guys of which I am proud to be grouped amongst.
There maybe a future for PR in law firms. It involves handling incoming communication requests. Managing upwards information feeds. Creating a culture of 24/7 content creation.
But quite whether the human element inside the zombies can be brought back to life is maybe something purely for science fiction.