What will 2019 bring for barristers’ relationships with the legal press? A strange question to be asking in the pages of one of the Bar’s leading trade magazines, you might think. But the truth is, social media has completely changed the role of the media in how chambers and solicitors firms are seen by their outside worlds.
Solicitors have been seeking to “manage” their profiles for a long time now, in fact ever since The Law Society lifted a ban on lawyer advertising and marketing in the late ‘80s (and, incidentally, triggering the start of my own legal marketing career at the tender age of 23 – please don’t do the maths!) Barristers joined the marketing game quite some time later, around the start of the noughties, but they very quickly adapted to the various new disciplines of targeted business development, strategic communications, profile-raising etc. And indeed they embraced the media relations part of the game particularly adeptly, as barristers’ core skill-set in the language of persuasion, oral and written, makes them naturals at commentatary and thought-leaders on the business and social issues of the day, comfortable in broadcast media as well as print.
But the advent of social media as a mainstream channel for business and professional communication has changed the rules of the game again. Over the last 12 months Kysen has been conducting a joint investigation with New Law Journal, to discover precisely how the new digital and social communications environment changes how barristers and solicitors are (and should be) approaching the marketing of their chambers and firms.
We began with a series of 12-plus in-depth one-to-one interviews with lawyers and legal marketeers known for leading the profession in the marketing game, asked them how they saw social media changing their marketing planning. From these interviews we extrapolated a number of recurring themes that we then tested statistically with a quantitative survey through the readership of New Law Journal, through our own and NLJ’s extensive books of contacts – and, of course, through social media channels too! Questions included what respondents’ first port of call is for the day’s legal news, designed to flush out how the consumption of information has changed, with knock-on impacts for how lawyers need to offer information; whether the rise of digital and social marketing has changed the role of visual props in how lawyers present information; whether they have heard of, or seen themselves, new business enquiries coming in directly through social media; and otherwise how they see the value of social channels.
One of my interview subjects had particularly illuminating points to make about the impact of social on the legal marketing mix, coming as she does from the viewpoint that the golden rule for all marketing activity is being able to demonstrate its value in tangible terms and the all-important Return On Investment. Liz Whitaker is a professional services marketing supremo with many years in-house and consultancy experience under her belt including at Wragge & Co (now WLG Gowling), Harbour Litigation Funding, Boies Schiller Flexner (UK) LLP and numerous chambers. She is founder of marketing consultancy Propella Global; and author of a new book for lawyers and other professionals –The Power of Personal -How to Connect, Convince and Create Exceptional Client Relationships. This is what she had to say:
“At one time, press was the be all and end all for law firms and barristers wanting to promote their news – indeed it was the only conduit for them to push out their stories, aside from direct mail. Social media is a gift to the Bar. If they wanted to, a chambers could push out a story this afternoon, at a precise time of their choosing, and as long as its members and staff have built up their networks, the chambers could reach an audience of 1000s of people, posting it on their website and pushing it out on LinkedIn and Twitter. Moreover, their contacts, including selected lay clients, will often engage with a story or share with their own contacts and so the word spreads. Chambers can share their case news, members’ views and event information. It’s a brilliant medium for communicating the strength of a whole set, a team, rather than individuals. Using social media is a sign of a contemporary, connected set which is a no-brainer requirement for attracting pupil interest.
“That said, for certain important news I believe there is no substitute for communicating directly with the main people you want to know your news and this is covered in my book. Think about it: if you can name the handful of people you really want to know about your news, then just tell them directly. Don’t assume you need to start with sending a press release to the media. As I often say, sometimes press releases are wasted on the media!”
I was also interested in what Liz has to say about how digitisation has changed the legs profession’s attitude to visual communication: “Lawyers need to understand that audiences today have a very different expectation. Generation Y in particular has grown up with good visual communication as the norm, and now these are the people in decision-making positions in firms. Lawyers need to become experts in this new language”
At one point, visual communication tools were looked down upon, as if they were dumbing down a firm’s or set’s communication. For me the tuning point came with one six-second video posted on Twitter in 2013 at the time of the Hillsborough trial: the camera panned the evidence room, showing box after box on shelf after shelf of evidence documents, the audience aware that each piece of paper contained a human story. Chilling. Talk about a picture (or video) painting a thousand words. After that no-one could tell me that visual communication was inherently more superficial than the written word.
And in today’s scrolling-obsessed, attention-deficient world, visual information plays an additional, important role. As another of my interview subjects, Julie Gingell of SA Law, so eloquently put it, “in a world that’s overloaded with online and social legal content going drect to people’s phones, if you want audiences to focus on your lawyers’ update on a topic, rather than a competitor’s, then you need to create “thumb-stopping” moments. You’ve got to offer them something eye-catching to stop them scrolling past. Time is short for everyone, so if you can offer something on social media as a snappy 30-second guide to the new regulations on …[fill in the blank], through use of a cleverly designed infographic, you’ll have a much better chance of captivating your audience.”
Liz agrees: “Infographics, when they are done well, are another gift to the Bar. They are the ideal vehicle for communicating complex ideas, processes and arguments in a picture format. Combine the brilliance of a barrister’s brain with the talent of a gifted graphic designer and the result will be greater than the total sum of the parts.
Video, when done well, is ideal for communicating expertise and personality. Look at what the best law firms are doing. They expect the same communications standards from their suppliers and that includes the Bar.”
So with all these new shiny new marketing tools available to chambers, is the practice of good-old-fashioned media relations now a thing of the past? Are chambers’ relationships with the legal press forever changed, supplanted by these more controllable communication channels? Whilst the Bar’s relationship with the legal press is very different today, it remains one of the keys to developing and maintaining reputations – precisely because legal journalists are, as we well know, “independent”. This is why it can be hard to manage how they write up a story. But it is supposed to be difficult! Journalists are supposed to see past the official line and challenge us all! Indeed this is where the value always was, and still is: good media coverage creates a great impression about a set, showing they are respected by outsiders (the classic “third party endorsement”) and “on the map”. Much more powerful than what a set says about itself.
The legal marketing game has undoubtedly changed in the new digital and social environment, but at the same time relationships with the legal press are as important as ever. The reality is, chambers need to think about how they are communicating their news and messages across multiple channels now, all at the same time. But how great to have so many different and diverse ways to stay close to clients and contacts. That’s got to be good news for the Bar.
Clare Rodway is founder and Managing Director of specialist legal PR consultancy Kysen.