Debra Pickett is President of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com). A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
When I was a reporter at a big daily newspaper, I was often shocked by how willing people were to talk to me. I’d call, introduce myself and then, pretty much immediately, start asking questions that, under most circumstances, should have earned me a slap across the face. Instead, people were consistently forthcoming, helpful, even eager to share their stories with 2 million strangers.
There was one exception: lawyers.
Their responses to my questions seemed to fall into two categories: complete stonewalling or hyper-aggressive “spin.” In either case, the quotes I took from them did little to convey their clients’ points of view, which, naturally, did not make them more willing to take my calls in the future. Nor did the dreaded “refused to comment” or “couldn’t be reached for comment” lines my editors and I put in to stories when we didn’t get anything we could use.
By contrast, many of those same attorneys seemed to have great working relationships with more specialized media outlets, like the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Stories in those publications almost always featured great quotes from lawyers and lots of explanatory detail. So, what was the difference between my approach, writing for the general population, and that of the reporters whose audience was grounded more deeply in the legal community? And why, more importantly, did the mainstream press as a whole seem to have such a contentious and unconstructive relationship with the lawyers who were making news?
Journalism, like litigation, is an antagonistic proposition, sometimes more than it needs to be. From my vantage point as a reporter, with no background in law, the reticence of the attorneys I interviewed, especially their strict adherence to the rules of professional conduct around trial publicity, looked like just so much posturing. There’s a certain ego rush involved in being the seeker of truth, and it’s all the more intense when it seems like someone is withholding information. It’s tantalizingly easy to make a lawyer look like a bad guy.
My perspective changed when, after leaving journalism, I started working with attorneys who, along with their clients, recognized the need to include strategies for mass communication in their work, particularly when defending clients in labor and environmental cases. They were as flummoxed by the apparent hostility of the non-legal press as I once had been by some of their colleagues’ refusal to fully answer my questions.
Working within the ethical constraints of Rule 3.6, which governs trial publicity, our opportunities and limitations were clear: no public statements that could threaten the fairness of the proceedings; only statements of basic facts and claims and whatever might be necessary to protect a client from the prejudicial effects of recent adverse publicity not initiated by their side.
This left lots of room for getting the facts out to interested members of the press and public.
The big challenge was that general interest reporters and community members – those without legal backgrounds and training – often asked questions that couldn’t be answered fully without overstepping Rule 3.6. So the most important element of our communication strategy was how to handle these inquiries constructively.
We found that three phrases: (1) thanks for calling (2) when’s your deadline and (3) happy to help, go a surprisingly long way in re-setting the tone of the interactions. “Thanks for calling” immediately creates a sense of rapport and the possibility that your interests – namely, getting the facts out – might be allied. “When’s your deadline?” conveys consideration and camaraderie, and an inclination to be helpful. And, finally, “happy to help,” seals the deal: though there are some things the attorney is not able to say at this time, he is doing what he can.
In between the nine magic words, over the course of a brief interview, even if the attorney couldn’t answer every question in as much detail as the journalist wanted, she could usually offer some useful information, such as scheduling and next steps, and, most importantly, could begin to establish a positive relationship with the reporter covering the case.
Reporters for legal publications knew what they could ask to get these answers, but others did not. They needed a little help. And that help made all the difference. Nine magic words made it happen.