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Unilever vs Tesco - who was covered in brown goo?

25/10/16 |

What do we think about The Great Marmite Crisis of 2016? It ran from the morning of Wednesday 12 October to the afternoon of Thursday 13 October.

To recap, in case you were having a try-out at a non-communicative religious order that week, Marmite was among the Unilever products that disappeared from Tesco's online shopping products, and also from some stores.

The apparent cause was Brexit. Or more specifically, the way the pound has tanked since the UK voted to leave the EU. It made imports more expensive, a cost hit that Tesco would like suppliers like Unilever to take, and which suppliers would like Tesco to absorb.

This was a massive story - as it seems Tesco intended it to be. But it became massive because the little brown jar, it turns out, is at the centre of sticky and complex web whose strands touch on close to all the main stories of 2016.

Tesco used publicity as a negotiating tool with Unilever - pitching itself as a consumer champion, fighting to keep prices down.

And that was part of the story. Oh, but it was so much more than that.

If the public didn't quite get their collective heads round the pre-referendum IPPR, Bank of England, Treasury and CityUK reports on the likely impact of a 'leave' vote, then here, suddenly, was a very tangible example of the result.

Voted out? Sorry, no more Marmite. Leaving the EU vanished from the shelves the most visible of British products. 'Brexit stole breakfast,' as Bloomberg's headline put it.

Plenty of the traditional media picked up on this line, but it was also the one that dominated social media - my Facebook newsfeed that day was a sea of little brown jars, full or empty. 'The horror!' was one typical comment accompanying an example of the latter.

There was much else going on too. The dispute had a personal back-story that looked personal - Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis arrived after a long career at Unilever. Was this him proving he now had 'Tesco' written through him like a stick of rock?

The way supermarkets treat suppliers has also been an issue down the years - using their might to squeeze deals that are ever rawer for the supplier.

It's been the subject of competition authority investigations, and feelings run high on this. Ask a dairy farmer what they think of the supermarkets' negotiating style, and you'll get a pretty blunt response.

For normal citizens and editors alike, this story had everything - pictures, personalities, Britishness, a product that is famously love/hate, and the most emotive political issue the country has faced in generations.

The terms on which the row was resolved between Tesco and Unilever aren't public.

But I can't be alone in thinking, given how very brightly this story burned, that those in charge of the 'Remain' campaign could have done with fewer authoritative reports, and more spreadable brown goo. 

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also co-chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee. MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms 


Legal directories: just a vanity exercise?

24/10/16 |

Picture the scene. One of the leading directories - The Legal 500 or Chambers & Partners - is published. Next morning the phone rings, and it's one of your lead clients. "I see you dropped a tier this year - so on reflection, we're thinking finish off your current matters for us, and then we'll instruct someone else."

This would, of course, be an unlikely call to get - something that lawyers who say the directories "don't matter" have noticed. A more probable - but still extremely rare - scenario is that one of the world's largest companies likes the sound of your write-up, and instructs you out of the blue. This was the experience of one Bristol firm, but isn't to be relied upon. And how can a researcher in their 20s judge your practice?

And yet, I think the directories - and good write-ups and rankings - do matter. Let's consider why.


Attempts by law firms and barristers chambers to differentiate themselves in marketing materials have a very - how to put this nicely? - similar feel. Right the way down to shared phrases.

Look at a few websites. A huge number of firms say , with small variations, "we're a different sort of law firm… commercial first, lawyers second", and so on. And no, putting your "clients first" is not a value-add.

A good ranking and write-up gets you away from that sameiness. Someone has looked at your practice, spoken to your clients, and considered what makes you different. If words don't matter, why have you spent time and money on your website?


Both main directories make a big thing of their methodology these days. They aren't objective - being subjective is part of their value - but they are independent, and they have looked at your best case beside that of rivals. Any firm should be interested in the directories' assessment of their place in the market.

That independence is also why firms and chambers of all sizes like to quote the directories' assessments.

Clients do notice

Clients notice. Or rather, potential clients notice. With a heavy stress on client interviews, many take an interest in the write-up that falls out the other side. And whereas you'll probably not get the push for a low ranking, the directories are a starting point in many pitches - you probably won't get an instruction straight off, but many clients draw up a short list for tender and pitch invites. This is especially true for clients from other jurisdictions.

Equally, a general counsel may find a good write-up useful in defending their choice of counsel when the finance director queries it.

To pay or not pay?

The time spent on preparing submissions and doing interviews, and getting clients to agree to be referees, is a considerable outlay for any firm. If the directories are independent write-ups, why add to the expense by booking profiles?

Well, if you agree with me and see a value in the above, I would say yes. Ideally interaction with the directories is part of an ongoing relationship. The main directories are so much better than the vanity-publishing alternatives, and no other professional sector has a resource quite like them.

Put it this way - if you went to one of the trendy "pay what you want" restaurants, would you leave some money for a good meal? I bet you would. 

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also co-chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee. MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms 


Swearing in a personal capacity - what's the 'Tweetiquette'?

21/10/16 |

Most law firms are not very sweary places - a lawyer using language that's standard for a newsroom's mildest mannered occupant would stand out as a 'character' in the average firm.

Even these characters of the legal profession mostly don't take their habits onto social media.

But lawyers are people too, and clearly capable of arresting moments of social media madness - although the fact that this can have professional ramifications in a way that it wouldn't for, say, Charlotte Church, normally acts as a deterrent (even after a couple of Chenin Blancs).

Most would at least avoid the C-word…

But not Nick Pester, a Senior Associate at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, who embraced the C-word with abandon back in September of last year.

Nick seems to be something of a fan of this most controversial of swear words as he used it repeatedly - alongside a pretty juicy selection of other fruity language.

The tweet for which he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight was in response to UKIP candidate Peter Bucklitsch who tweeted to the effect that the little Syrian boy - Alan Kurdi - whose drowned body was discovered on a beach in Turkey died because of his parents' greed.

Yes, this is certainly the kind of nasty sentiment that deserves a digital slap in the face. And I too share his anger. But the language went way beyond what most people would consider acceptable.

Roll On Friday ran a piece on the episode last week and now (perhaps predictably) Nick's Twitter account has been deleted so we don't know exactly what information he shared about himself - and whether he said 'views all my own, not my employers'.

The person or troll who made the link between Nick Pester and his @NickoAIM Twitter account (someone who arguably has too much time on their hands) is described as an 'outraged tweeter' by RoF. That person took it upon themselves to report the offensive incident to Reynolds Porter Chamberlain - via their Twitter account of course - including a link to Nick Pester's bio and saying he was bringing the company into disrepute.

It's worth noting that those comments date back to a year ago so arguably Roll On Friday is really just publishing the controversy for the sake of it. A slow 'news' day, perhaps.

But it's still difficult to ignore the publicity it has received. And the comments have certainly got Nick Pester into trouble as Reynolds Porter Chamberlain released this statement: 

'We have been conducting an internal investigation since these tweets were brought to our attention - as a result, the employee in question has been suspended on full pay pending an expedited disciplinary hearing. Although these comments were made in a personal capacity, the tone, content and language used run completely counter to the culture and values that we espouse here at RPC - there is no excuse for them and we distance ourselves from them unreservedly.' 

Although no one likes to encourage telling tales or trolls for that matter, and lawyers are not infallible, this is a good illustration of the fact that if you work in this industry there's a very fine line between your personal views and your professional profile.

Language - the very tool that led Nick Pester over that line - is also what could have saved him this bother.

Perhaps the question he should have asked isn't 'is this word - and the sentiment of my tweet - okay?', but 'can I take either being linked to my professional life?'.

The sentiment behind his tweets - well, given the provoking circumstances, I'd be surprised if any firm took issue with those.

But as sound travels far online - that's its power, no? - professionals do need to mind their language. In the law, it still pays to be prim. 

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also co-chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee. MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms 


Can networks compete with mega-brand marketing budgets?

19/10/16 |

As the Alliot Group global conference kicks off in London this week, with members of its alliance from over 36 different jurisdictions attending across the legal and accountancy sectors, it seems a good time to write a blog focused on brand and comms for networks and alliances. 

A common misconception across all sectors is that communications and PR consultants provide a service you can simply clip on to what you do. It would take quite a coincidence for the way a business is run and organised to perfectly match the ideal comms plan.

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing to appear on a panel discussion at the AILFN summit in London. The discussion focused on brand and communications for networks - professional services firms who have linked up by association.

Networks are a particular challenge, because each network member retains their own name, branding and culture. It is a challenge to get recognised when the big boys they compete with can push a single, unified brand and message.

PwC and Clifford Chance don't have this problem.

Consider this also. For the firm leaders within the network, alliance or association, much of their available time is spent on the mechanics of keeping a firm and the group functioning. Unsurprisingly, an important area gets forgotten: the group's 'brand', ie how others, especially clients, target clients and other law firms, see it.

Let's break down the main challenges that networks and alliances face:

  • competition from the large unitary brands already mentioned
  • networks and alliances include multiple brands, each with a distinct and divergent profile in its chosen market
  • communication within the network or alliance can be poor
  • establishing areas of shared culture/ values across different firms in different jurisdictions
  • divergent rewards
  • different service standards and norms

What is needed is a decent language and 'narrative' for the group and its members. Getting this right from a comms perspective isn't spin - it actually involves some changes in the way things are done at the firms.

A strategy for building a network/alliance 'brand' would therefore include the following.


  • A clear picture of the way clients see the network and the firm is through their primary contact within the network – so ensure you have chosen the right person within your firm. Client feedback post-matter should be as consistent as possible, and be fully available to the leaders who superintend the network.
  • Mapping client legal needs to show key jurisdictions and key gaps. Legal advice coverage will be a key concern for clients – addressing this side of the brand is therefore a useful tool for assessing the strength of the network.
  • By their own account, what do the network members share? Why have they come together?
  • Appropriate management and partner time needs to be ring-fenced for activities linked to the network.
  • Are contributions, rewards and shared rewards clear and accepted among the network's members?

Building the brand

  • The map: advice coverage is key – clients will want to know that the network can handle the instructions they are given, by jurisdiction and practice area. At its most basic, they should be able to look at a map of areas the network covers and be reassured. 
  • Track record: have network members shown they can work together? This should be as specific as possible.
  • Service levels: the 'mega-brands' with which networks compete will be aiming for as uniform a client-experience of service levels as possible. Can a network talk with confidence about service levels?
  • A shared language: basic shared materials that stress 'the map', the 'track record', and 'service levels' are important. Producing these is as much about educating the network's members and partners as it is about having glossy materials to show clients at a pitch for work.
  • Horizon scanning: predicting future issues for clients is a classic way to add value for clients. Network members should co-operate on this to stress the value of the network.
  • The competition: what does the network have that other networks or firms do not? This needs to be spelt out.

A network whose members have gone through this process will have a good and authentic story to tell. For any marketing, business development or PR professional they will be a dream client, because they have understood from the outset what people want and need to hear.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also co-chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee. MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms 


Making your marketing budget go further

05/10/16 |

I recently attended the annual International Bar Association conference in Washington DC. Among the working sessions and great networking opportunities there were some fascinating insights on offer into the global legal market – and how to make it work for your business. I was lucky enough as co-chair of the business development working group to chair two panel discussions and I thought you might be interested to read the follow up from ‘Standing Out – Making the Most of A Marketing Budget.’

As we all know, one of the major factors in successfully generating ROI from marketing is the budget. It can be both a restriction on - and a launch pad for - your marketing strategy. Use your resources in the right way and you can boost profile, lead generation and online engagement. Make a few poor budgeting decisions and you can be left with a lot of bills and very little to show for them. This is why this particular panel was especially interesting, as it brought together some expert brains to offer unique insight into how to really make a marketing budget work. So, what did we learn?

Social media is a key tool

Across the board, opinion seemed to be that social media is incredibly important as part of marketing strategy for the legal sector. This is something I’ve written both blogs and whitepapers on, as platforms such as Twitter and Facebook cost nothing to use (only advertising is paid for) and yet give you access to an audience of billions. According to Alison Swenton Arjoon, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Covington & Burling "social media is one of the most cost-effective methods of marketing. It captures insights into what your clients are saying about you and helps you stay engaged with your clients relatively easily and at a low cost."

Holly Gavaghan from Keating Chambers reinforced the key nature of social media to the modern legal business. Keating Chambers has its own Twitter account, which the chambers uses to share and re-use content they have generated to ensure that they get full value and circulation from it. With respect to professionals using social media on a personal basis, Holly made the point that "individuals can use Twitter accounts to create authenticity but need to be aware that whatever they tweet will be in the public domain. It is a fine line between showing personality and oversharing. Done well though it can help create the right kind of profile for an individual."

Ben Rigby, editor of CDR magazine, stressed the importance of considered engagement with social media, linked to the firm's other media outputs, and the importance of close liaison with media and marketing professionals to ensure that consistent links were built up with social, national, legal and sectoral media. Building good media relations was important, provided the ground rules were clear - social media being a part of that process rather than an optional adjunct.

John Ffooks, Head of Francophone Africa at pan-African firm Bowmans, added "don’t forget graduate recruitment – the millennials won’t give you a second look if you haven’t got a decent online presence focused at their recruitment level."

Using tools to gain efficiencies

It was a theme of the panel that making use of tools and technologies to gain a competitive advantage has become important. The group defined the fundamentals as an effective customer relationship management (CRM) system and a comprehensive experience database and Michael Mellor, Head of Marketing at Pryor Cashman LLP also highlighted additional tools, such as "those that help manage contacts, help in marketing automation and content funnels and those that can help you schedule social media posts and identify trends with your audiences."

Given all the apps, software and solutions that are being introduced to make work processes more effective and efficient, if you haven’t yet looked into these performance-enhancing tools, now is the time.

Marketing is an investment, not an expense

While, in many ways, the panel was preaching to the converted with this one, it was important to hear those in the industry agree that marketing has become an essential budget component. Alison Swenton Arjoon said, "marketing is not an expense; it’s an investment. Your marketing budget is an essential investment in growing your business," a sentiment that we share wholeheartedly here at MD Communications. However, there is no sense in simply throwing money at the problem without spending some time working on strategy, either internally or with the professionals. Michael Mellor had some advice here, "undertake planning early on to identify the top three things each practice or person wants to be known for, and drive that through everything you do."

One issue for marketers is often where to direct the resources that you do have to make the most of them. Social media is an obvious option but there are so many others to choose from, whether it’s sponsorship of an event or spending put on directories consultants to improve chances of being ranked in the big books. All these must be considered in the light of a marketing strategy and those central three things that Michael Mellor suggested firms identify that they want to be known for. Alison Swenton Arjoon also added here that "it’s about being smarter about what work we take in and prioritising initiatives. Even when a client asks us to sponsor an ad or pitch on work, it’s important to think critically around whether these opportunities make sense."

Awards and rankings

Here at MD Communications we have a lot of experience helping firms (successfully) through the awards and rankings processes and procedures. Of course these may not be a valuable investment for every firm but they do have tremendous value in establishing credibility, niche expertise and acting as a sort of reference for interested clients. As Holly Gavaghan highlighted, they are also "useful in motivating a team and individuals, particularly more junior lawyers who feel they're achieving recognition in an industry that is not always the best at acknowledging and rewarding success."

So, how do you best approach these industry accolades and recognition? Alison Swenton Arjoon’s advice is, "figure out which ones make sense and devote an appropriate amount of time to putting them together. Understand what matters in terms of getting ranked as a firm and for individuals. Ask your clients how directories factor into their hiring decisions."

John Ffooks added "I would just stress the value of rankings and awards for those of us in faraway locations which people easily forget. It is another non-partisan tool to get yourself remembered on a regular basis."

The market is changing

All the panel members were very much aware of how much the legal sector is experiencing significant change and how marketing specialists need to be responsive to this. Michael Mellor highlighted how "the sales cycle is changing, with buyers having access to information and doing loads more research to find attorneys before talking to you. Nearly 70% of corporate counsel use LinkedIn before making a purchase decision, so make sure your social footprint is up to date." He also made the point that potential clients will check lawyer bios (80% of lawyer website traffic is to bios) and stressed how important it was for individual lawyers to have a strong, detailed and convincing bio.

However, Holly Gavaghan also made the point that this investment in digital and content, such as brochures, has to be balanced with some face-to-face time, "get out and meet people. People buy people so don't hide behind marketing brochures." After all, while we all know brochures are a valuable marketing tool, the chances of them being read and acted on are vastly increased when backed up with a personal interaction.

My time at the IBA was incredibly useful this year – it was a real forum for forward-thinking ideas and I heard some fantastic insights into how the legal profession can evolve and grow. If you’re looking for help with marketing strategyreputation managementdirectories and awards or social media, we’re a highly experienced team with a true legal sector focus and the benefit of fantastic international connections and experiences, such as the IBA. Get in touch if you’d like to know more about how we might be able to help you.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also co-chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee. MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms 


Two tragic events. Two different reputation outcomes.

05/10/16 |

The crash on the Smiler ride at Alton Towers last year was not the finest hour for Merlin Entertainments. When 16 people were injured last June as a moving car crashed into a stationary car it could very easily have been curtains for the theme park – after all, isn’t the thrill of going on such adrenaline-spiking rides partly the fact that you know you can be scared stupid but safe at the end of it? On 27 September this year a fine of £5 million was handed down to the company for the incident, which resulted in a number of amputations and some very traumatised customers. And yet, despite all that, Alton Towers’ reputation has remained relatively unscathed.

Compare this to Thomas Cook, another very high profile business, which made a very poor PR move when it claimed a pay out from a hotel in Corfu where two children tragically died as a result of fumes from a leaky boiler in 2006. Thomas Cook was cleared of all responsibility for the tragedy and – unlike Alton Towers – was not financially penalised. In fact, Thomas Cook was awarded £3.5 million in damages. However, Thomas Cook’s reputation really suffered in the wake of this reputational crisis – it was made quite public that the grieving family’s attempts to make contact had been almost completely ignored and no apology was ever issued. Public opinion of the firm was very negative, particularly when companies such as Mumsnet brought lucrative advertising deals to an end as a result of uncomfortable details that emerged, such as the way the company had consistently prioritised financial considerations over everything else.

Last year I blogged about how, side by side these two cases present a good illustration of how the handling of a reputational crisis is so important in determining the eventual impact on reputation in the long term. The crucial difference as far as I can see is that Merlin Entertainments apologised – profusely and repeatedly. Even when it wasn’t clear what the problem was that had caused the crash they didn’t waste any time in being sorry. In liability terms this might have caused their lawyers a sharp intake of breath but with respect to retaining public trust it was a crucial move. Thomas Cook didn’t do this – it took nine years for the family to get an apology and for the company to admit any wrongdoing. In fact, only last year when an inquest found the tour operator had "breached its duty of care" and the children had been unlawfully killed did they start to take responsibility.

One of the key PR lessons to learn for any business is that it will never benefit your reputation to be unresponsive, aloof or to avoid responsibility. There are ways of expressing apology and regret for a situation without making a business vulnerable but by not doing this when something as tragic as a loss of life has occurred you create a situation in which your business appears remote and uncaring. In the world we live in – where brands must have personality and customer service is fast moving and engaging – this can undo years of good work and high PR spend. It’s often worth remembering that, no matter how corporate your business, sometimes, the most effective PR techniques involve the simplest human gestures.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also co-chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee. MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms