My lunch date with a journalist and a cockroach

24/02/17 |

Throughout my career I have frequently had breakfast, lunch and dinner with journalists to build relationships. On one occasion my journo lunch date became an actual date and there was a short romance for a couple of months. Not that I'm saying that's a bad idea - it's perhaps cheaper than a subscription to an online dating site - but what if you're wondering if building a platonic relationship with a handful of journalists is a good idea?

The first question you're probably asking yourself is to drink or not to drink. Well on the lunch I went to a few years back with a legal correspondent on a national paper where a cockroach dropped on my head, I wish perhaps I had been. The words "don't move there is something in your hair" and the subsequent stamping crunch was enough to cement a solid relationship that worked for both of us and still does as that journalist is now several years later covering the beat in the Middle East where we have a growing client base. 

In the digital-information age the job of the journalist has become vastly more pressured. Things can happen on their patch at any time, and the pressure to be on top of stuff is pretty relentless. They are likely as time pressed as you. Not least because the media faces vast financial challenges, so fewer people are now covering more. Much more. 

Sure, long boozy lunches still exist. But they tend to be a ‘thank you’ after a mutually helpful bit of coverage, or a general catchup when things are quiet after you’ve built trust and a bit of friendship over time and a few news stories or features but they're not as frequent as they used to be. 

So with or without booze, is lunch with a journalist a good idea?

There are many good reasons to meet up with a journalist. Contact’s easier when you’ve met face to face. You and they get to talk more generally with the distraction of food and the social setting. The journalist is away from colleagues, so you have their attention. 

It’s a chance to discreetly show off in ways that underline your authority (anecdotes and the odd name-drop). And the journalist is more likely to talk about things they are working on. Sometimes you and they will go away having given each other some useful contacts, and of course journalists are useful sources of reliable(ish) gossip. 

The aim is for them to feel you’re a ‘go-to’ person in your area who is also press friendly and ’human’.

 Here’s a few tips that will increase the chances of a good result:

Who's paying?

You may feel like you’ve given them some great stuff, and you know how much you could have earned sitting at your desk. But in these straightened times for the media, some journalists only expect to pay when securing a scoop, possibly where the source is putting themselves at some kind of risk. They won’t routinely drop £100 on lunch with one of the country’s 120,000 lawyers. Don't forget – following recent legislation – some newspapers will insist that their journalists pay or go halves to avoid any risk of bribery accusations.

Reserve a table

There may be a trend for ‘no reservations’ policies, but for this one, neither of you want to spend your time in a queue. 

Hear yourself think

A bit of buzz helps lunch, but go somewhere you can hear each other.  

Read their stuff

Glance at a few things the journalist has written, look online for any info about them (where were they before?), and if you don’t already, follow them on Twitter. Avoid trying to pitch them a story they've already written about, today. 

Have a brief spiel

They may be less assiduous about looking you up – know a few points that summarise what you’re all about. Find out what your PR told the journalist to get them there! 

Show your sector knowledge

Much more important bit. It’s a chance to mention things you know are coming down the line in your area – genuinely useful for them to know or, if they already know, that these are things you’re on top of and have an opinion on. 

Bring a friend

Not completely necessary, but a colleague (possibly junior) and/or your PR adviser can talk a bit while you eat, fix a problem like the table having run out of water, and help out with what is probably a 90-120-minute conversation. They can also big you up a bit and remind you of promised follow-ups to the meeting. 

How informal is this?

Don’t make this one long relentless pitch for yourself. This is more casual, and you will bore your guest senseless. Lunch chat can often go a bit wider than usual and even include a bit of gossip. Do, though, be clear about the things you really shouldn’t mention! Don't forget this is ON THE RECORD - don't be surprised if you mention that you're stepping down next week and it appears as the lead story in the daily news bulletin. 

Take their calls

Lunch may have been very nice, but if you prove an unresponsive source, you’ll quickly fall off the radar. 

Bon appetit and watch out for the cockroaches.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's raising your profile in the mediaenhancing your legal directory submissions or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also 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

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Feedback - sometimes it hurts but it's essential

21/02/17 |

How do you feel about feedback? Honestly now. Does it fill you with horror? Do you instantly reject anything that seems remotely like a criticism?

Don't worry, if you do then you're not alone. Of course, the thing about feedback is that it's not just good for the person who is giving it but the person (or organisation) that it's about too. You might find it painful to hear negatives but they are the starting point for changes that could lead to better things.

In this digital age, feedback doesn't have to be just something that we ask for from clients once a year. Instead, it can be a constant stream of comment via digital sources, such as social media. Of course, for many it remains something that we do internally with a slightly heavy heart or a simple tick-box exercise that no one really pays much attention to.

But I've come to the conclusion that feedback is actually one of the most important factors in organisational growth and a key process for securing high performance across the board. Here's why:

Feedback creates awareness

For ambitious people there's often nothing more motivating than being told you're lagging a bit behind. Even if you're not one of those "well, I'll show you then" types, feedback ensures 360-degree awareness and that's motivating.

If you're talking about feedback from senior employee to junior (or vice versa) then the awareness is of the way that you interact with someone at a different level to you. If the feedback is client to firm then this provides an awareness of whether you are hitting the service targets you have promised.

Feedback accelerates higher levels of performance

Delivered and received in the right way, feedback is a huge opportunity to grow and evolve. If you take the hurt feelings or grumpiness out of it (come on I know we all feel a bit like that if it's not a 100% glowing report), what you're listening to is simply a list of ways to improve what you do - that's useful and crucial to success.

Feedback-orientated firm culture tends to create a strong structure

If people aren't encouraged to give feedback no one really knows how anyone else feels about a situation. That could be service delivery or it could be team interaction. Without that kind of honest openness mass departures, client attrition and personality clashes tend to come as a complete surprise and can't be avoided.

I thought I would finish this feedback blog by quoting a Roll on Friday piece in which trainees - probably the least listened to group in law - talked about what they liked about their firms (I know, shocking). Some are rather amusing.

Of Freshfields, "very minimal backstabbing."

Of Macfarlanes, "hungry and driven partners willing to roll up their sleeves instead of resting on their laurels."

Of Herbert Smith Freehills, "[the partners] are really well-known and respected in the industry, and don't treat you like a turd".

Of Baker & McKenzie, partners are "(mostly) very human."

How do you think your juniors would describe you?

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms - whether that's raising your profile in the media, enhancing your legal directory submissions or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also 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

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Last-minute tips for your legal directory submissions

21/02/17 |

'I'm in directory submissions hell,' has become part of the exchange of pleasantries between PR and marketing people at this time of year. They're racing for deadlines, begging for extensions, dealing with partner egos, chasing departments for information and client details, and fitting what has been sent into the strict formats demanded by Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners.

In half-term recently, the directories were overshadowing a fair few museum trips and skiing holidays.

It's worth remembering that a lot of the effort and stress can be wasted if certain basics aren't right. So here's a few last-minute tips to make it all worthwhile.

Deadlines matter

We've all had to ask for an extension – and of course the process depends on the enormous efforts and the directory bookings that firms and chambers make. But Chambers and the Legal 500 run pretty lean research teams and there's a limit to the attention they can pay each person – do you really want to use up their attention span negotiating an extension instead of telling them how great your lawyers are?

Some wait until all their submissions are ready and do the lot at once – but you're better off meeting deadlines for the ones you can get in on time and sending the late ones later. When it comes to referees, getting your list in on time really isn't negotiable.  The directories take a much stricter line on contacting referees sent in late – you may risk your hard-earned referees not being contacted at all.

Name names

Be clear about who was the star of each matter you're putting forward. And be clear about who in marketing or PR 'owns' each area. Researchers may try to contact any name they see – lawyers should be told this, and not act surprised or irritated if contacted. There's always a question in the researcher's head – if they're rude to me, are they going to be great with clients and colleagues?

Use the best examples

This sounds obvious – of course your best work will be in there. But will it be hidden because everything bar the kitchen sink's been added? Only do specific details for the cases and deals you'd be happy to see in the final write-up. Researchers and editors think anything you mention is 'representative'. There are ways to note just how much you do – find a way to summarise, quantify and compare with rival practices.

Client references

Make sure the clients you list will speak for the people you're most keen to see praised in the final chapter. Researchers stop when they've followed up enough of these, so really stress the most important ones.

Spend time on feedback

Feedback on last year's write-up matters – most researchers turn to it first. Are they dealing with happy or cross lawyers? Feedback is possibly the most important section – not least, being brief, it's in a position of cutting through masses of detail to make a case. Be specific, and find ways to quantify and express frustrations – 'We act for half the FTSE 100, but were ranked below X firm,' say, or, 'We had five of the leading cases in this field  - X firm had just two'.

Respect the researchers

There's a mismatch between a partner at the pinnacle of their career and an underpaid 24-year-old researcher. Of course there is. They might be covering five areas, and are rarely an expert in the area of law.

But this is different to law – and they have access to things you don't: your competitors, their submissions; your clients; competitors' clients; opponents. When it all starts, a researcher can seem to know nothing – they'll know a lot more by the time they draft a version. It's worth reminding the lawyers of that – the directories aren't insulting them by throwing junior people at the task. It's a different task.

And if the lawyers are wise, they'll realise that these people are at the start of their careers. Five years' time, they might be that reporter at the FT or Bloomberg that you're desperate to get quoted by.

If MD Communications can help you finesse your efforts at this point, I hope you'll get in touch.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also 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

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Phil Shiner's fall from grace

09/02/17 |

Few lawyers would want to be in lawyer Phil Shiner's shoes right now. This paragraph from the Daily Telegraph is one of the more measured written about him since the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal struck him off the roll last week.

'Far from advancing his own ends, he implied, he was serving the greater good, by bringing legal claims that British Armed Forces personnel had abused and mistreated military prisoners and civilians in Iraq,' the officers' favourite newspaper noted. 'In fact, he was enriching himself by smearing men and women who risked their lives for their country.'

He accepted some allegations but may appeal others, and the legal side of things is far from over in all regards.

But there are some side issues, related to the media, that I'd like to look at - and none of this is a judgement on the rights and wrongs of Shiner's deeds or legal processes past or to come.

There is a line doing the rounds that he was lauded by the media, courted them, and is now being somehow punished for putting himself out there. Hoisted by his own PR petard.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Certainly Shiner's been active in an area that the media has close interest in - war, torture, terrorism, patriotism and betrayal. Anyone trying to get a paragraph of coverage for a medium-sized M&A deal their firm advised on will feel like Shiner's had an unfair advantage in the competition for column space.

A degree of notoriety arguably helped him to pursue cases. And just look at those brightly coloured, oddly shaped glasses he wore - mostly not seen on anyone other than a modern architect on the up. The man was hardly hiding in plain sight.

But this really isn't a tale of someone brought low by their connection to the dark art of his own PR.

Look, for example, at this account from legal sector journalist Catherine Baksi for Legal Action Magazine. 'I had turned up expecting to conduct a routine interview - in which I, as a journalist, would ask questions and he, as the interviewee, would answer them. Instead, Shiner informed me that he had prepared a list of questions for me to ask him, and to which he responded by reading from a prepared note. When I sought to ask him supplementary questions, he told me that the interview was over.'

The Al-Sweady report had not gone his way, but this was not just the stressed conduct of a person on the way down. Among my journalist contacts, there are examples of such prickly behaviour around the press even when things were going Shiner's way. Pedantry, even, about the precise way his firm was described, is a common theme.

Two thoughts here.

First, the sort of conduct Catherine Baksi relates doesn't just get journalists' backs up and put the bank account of goodwill into overdraft (though it does both) - it rings alarm bells. A good journalist will look more closely at someone who behaves oddly, even if they don't get anywhere with inquiries at that point.

Second, for all the column inches written on Shiner, this is not a story of someone experiencing problems because they sought media attention. The findings of the SDT relate to dishonesty, and if confirmed by other courts, this is the source of his problems.

Could dealing more adroitly with the media in the past have helped Shiner? Mostly not - this case relates to dishonesty in highly charged areas.

But the media do simplify and exaggerate, within their own ethical bounds. If he has mitigating points he wants to get across, and errors in reporting he would like corrected, being a bit politer in the past would have helped his case with journalists.

The problems Shiner has caused, lawyers tell me, go much wider than the impact on his reputation and treatment in the press. The nature of his fall has created an image problem for all lawyers.

If you'd like advice on how to handle the media, get in touch.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also 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

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