Joshua Peck
Joshua Peck

I represent a branch of our industry that, I’d venture to say, most O’Dwyer’s readers have never encountered. But hundreds—maybe thousands—of PR professionals across the country work in “my” sphere—the Land of the Law. I am hitting the 30-year mark in the industry this summer, and thought non-legal (not illegal!) practitioners might appreciate a look inside the world of the corporate law courtroom/deal room/legal dispute, from the PR person’s perspective.

In July 1994, I left behind my previous careers in print journalism (Gannett Newspapers), politics, and government to take my first job in legal public relations. My Big Boss: the deservedly famous PR icon, Howard J. Rubenstein (1932-2020). He represented almost everyone, but I gravitated to lawyers, because a) they were smart; b) many of them were sarcastic, like me; and c) their firms, to my delight, seemed to make real news every single day. I never would have guessed that I would spend the rest of my professional life doing legal PR.

Here are a few lessons learned, including differences between our world and yours—if you’re working with lacrosse leagues, liquid refreshments or land development, to name just a few, as opposed to litigators.

News? What’s News?

Many of your flashier clients may be as news-savvy as their PR teams are. Usually, that’s not the case in the law. Very few lawyers would know a news story even if it sprouted hooves, sat in their laps, and sang them an aria. It’s OUR job, not theirs, to identify the news value, the likely receptive audience, and how to reach the eyeballs we desire—eyeballs that belong to potential clients at corporate clients and prospects. It’s our job to find a true news story among a lawyer’s doings, and more to the point, one that has interest and value to the right outside audience. We, the PR pros, must listen to what they think is important, yes. But you also have to remember that they think their 14th inclusion in a “Best Lawyers” list is a story, and have no idea that the complex private equity deal or trial that’s keeping them up all night will make a much better one, particularly if we spin that work to their advantage.

Crisis!

Many litigation matters are crises-in-waiting. For many PR folks (me, too), the intense execution of a communications plan when a client is under fire is both the most stress and the most fun you’ll ever experience in the job. I had no particular training, beyond my previous work as a journalist, when I was handed my first major mess, and it was Wall Street Journal-worthy. I’ve stuck my nose (when invited) into dozens of potentially explosive situations since. I preach the gospel that every legal PR person should have some basic crisis management skills, and they do not need to be learned strictly on the job.

Pick the Boss, not the Job.

The most prestigious law firm is not necessarily most conducive place for a PR expert to work. You want a culture that supports and encourages interaction with the press (many don’t); lawyers who either already understand the value of the media or can be persuaded to let you do your magic, and, most important, a CMO who respects, appreciates, and understands the ways in which legal PR is not like business development, event planning, or even advertising. The good boss can be hard to recognize in advance, but not impossible. What do their former employees say? How interested do they seem in overseeing employees’ work without breathing down their necks? The gossip network in the PR world is, to put it mildly, robust. Use it!

Doing Good

Corporate lawyers are expected to do pro bono work for groups in need; we need to do the same. There are so many achingly good causes out there that have not figured out how to be heard amidst the hubbub—all the more in the era of social media. Engage with a struggling non-profit, and you’ll be shocked by what they DON’T know about sending a message to the public, prospective donors, and people in need. We can help. Hint: Focus on the people RECEIVING the help, not the donors. The beneficiaries are always a far better story, and they help make the case for the organization.

Legal PR has afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with the ever-more-sophisticated marketing and media people at the country’s great law firms, an orchestra of talent that at its best can sound like Beethoven or Bach. There’s lots more good music to make.

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Joshua Peck, Principal of Joshua Peck Legal Communications, has done P.R. with and for more than a dozen of the AmLaw 100 law firms.