A recently published article, “When Law Firm Puffery Crosses the Line,” by Am Law Litigation Daily editor and columnist Jenna Greene, struck me on a few different levels, since it highlights the importance and value of law firms producing credible, fact-focused press releases that help the media report the news accurately.
A California state court of appeals ruled that a whistleblower boutique law firm did not overstep when it issued a press release after winning a jury verdict against a pipe manufacturer in 2013. Basically, the headline of the law firm’s press release made a false claims case sound more like a product liability case.
I won’t obscure the point here by delving into the details of the decision that Greene wrote about. Suffice to say, the majority-ruling judges in the case said that the press release “may be guilty of self-promotion and puffery,” but was fair and true enough to fall “comfortably within the permissible degree of flexibility and literary license afforded communications to the media concerning judicial proceedings.”
Okay, so this law firm’s press release passed muster in a court of law – but not so much in the eyes of a respected legal journalist. Greene writes in her article, “… it’s not okay to misrepresent what actually happened. … It’s already hard enough to get it right as a reporter without a law firm making the job harder. Even if this press release doesn’t meet the standard for libel, it definitely meets the standard for being a bad press release.”
A few thoughts and legal PR lessons learned here.
Press Releases Still Matter
First, apparently Greene and other legal reporters still read press releases. We know that’s true, but this episode is a grim reminder to some law firms that may have let this traditional PR tool slip by the wayside in favor of greater focus on social media.
Admittedly, social media has changed how businesses – including law firms – communicate with their audiences, and the benefits of using social media are well documented. However, press releases are still vital, not just as critical search engine optimization tools, but as permanent, public records of a law firm’s activities and as direct communication tools to deliver messages, unfiltered, to its key audiences.
Press Releases Should Be Informative
Second, many (probably most) legal reporters are not experts on the law. Reporters rely on law firms to help them understand the often-complicated intricacies of the law and to not muddy up the facts. If you’re writing a release about a ShamWow mop, the expectations might be a little different. I might go so far as to suggest that reporters inherently assign a little more credibility to press releases from law firms because reporters know lawyers are (presumably) vetting the messages. We, as publicists, are here to assist the media and build constructive relationships on behalf of the law firms and lawyers we represent. A bad press release will not win any favor with journalists.
Press Releases Should Be Credible
Third, your press release can and may be used against you. The case cited here certainly is not the first time a press release or other marketing material has been subject to legal challenges in court. First and foremost, of course, a law firm does not want to issue a press release that contains libelous or inaccurate information. Law firms and lawyers have a pretty good track record of making sure information passes the legal tests, but a little hyperbole can, at the very least, ding a law firm’s reputation.
Tips for Writing a Law Firm Press Release
Almost three years ago, I wrote another Jaffe blog post – worth revisiting – about key ingredients for an effective law firm press release. These include an attention-grabbing headline, good storytelling, local angles, references to trends or news stories, quotes, appropriate web links, contact information, etc. Let me now amend that article to include the following:
- Get the facts right; and
- Do not purposely or inadvertently mislead or confuse the facts with puffery.