It is clear that a main theme of the Legal Marketing Association’s 2014 Annual Conference was change—how to anticipate it and how to deal with it when it catches you off-guard. In the last few years, there has been a dramatic change in the legal marketing industry, particularly as it relates to how PR professionals interact with the news media to promote or protect a law firm’s brand and reputation.

With an ever-shrinking editorial staff forced to feed content to a voracious 24/7 news cycle, media must do more with less and in a compressed timeframe. While broadcast and print coverage are still marketing gold, placement immediately online is also coveted – and a necessity. A media outlet’s digital version, and of those online-only publications, can be retweeted, linked to, liked and shared immediately across multiple channels, reaching an ever-expanding ocean of contacts instantly.

The one and only PR track during the main portion of the LMA conference, Trends in Media/PR for Law Firms in Terms of What’s Valuable and Effective Today, addressed this new environment and how to strategically manage media relations programs. A dynamic panel of PR professionals from across the country, including Elli Kerlow, senior public relations manager, Hunton & Williams LLP; Susan L. Peters, senior public relations manager, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP; Paul Webb, director of marketing, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP; Lisa Sachdev, senior public relations manager, Dentons US LLP; and me, identified some best practices for legal marketers to consider on the good, the bad, the ugly and the future of PR for law firms. (For additional coverage of the panel discussion, check out the write-up on The Legal Watercooler by Heather Morse.)

The Good

All law firms have positive news to share – lateral hires, big wins, office moves, etc. – but making that news resonate with the press can be a challenge. Paul Webb tells us the key is to cut through the clutter with a good story that captures the firm’s messages.  That’s what Young Conaway did when they touted their move from a traditional office space to a newly renovated courthouse in Wilmington, Del. In fact, they won an LMA Your Honor Award in 2013 for the strategic planning and execution efforts associated with that move. Their story is available here.

The Bad

An entire practice group is leaving to set up a boutique shop, an AmLaw 100 firm is hit with a multi-million dollar malpractice suit, a white-shoe firm is forced to downsize and lay off staff and attorneys. These can be the jaw-dropping headlines on any given day, affecting any given law firm of any size in America. But there is a strategy to handling a crisis, and it begins with establishing a crisis communications policy. When a law firm’s reputation – and its business – is at stake, it’s important to have a plan in place to know what to do and whom to call when bad news strikes. As panelists pointed out during the discussion, sometimes, in the right circumstances, you can kill a story by leveraging your relationship with a reporter and explaining the facts. If that doesn’t completely squash the story, it will certainly diminish the firm’s exposure in it.

The Ugly

The proliferation of rankings, surveys and lists has stretched marketing departments to the breaking point. The best course of action is to develop a clear and strategic plan that is in line with the firm’s overall marketing goals. Rankings management should not operate in a bubble – it is part of the entire law firm marketing ecosystem, and it should support and promote that effort. The strategy should identify specific practice areas and attorneys that are a focus of branding and promotional efforts. A second consideration should be granted to areas that need extra support and attention. Clearly define your goals—is it to move up the levels in Chambers, make the National Law Journal’s Midsize Hot list, Law360’s Practice Group of the Year etc.? Write it down and get management to sign off on the plan and the goals. With this laser-like focus, all other ranking opportunities can be ignored. Finally, be sure to set calendar invites so you don’t miss important deadlines, and evaluate strategy by tracking wins and losses so you can retool for next year.

The Future

Panelists rightfully proclaimed that content is queen and has a strong and bright future in law firm marketing. It all begins with a plan that should include goals, performance indicators and a system of assessment. Law firms are already doing a great job of creating content and posting it to the firm’s website – client alerts, advisories, articles and blog posts are all great content. Law firm marketers need to take it to the next level, where they see the law firm website as an independent source of news that enables visitors and firm personnel to share content via social media. Whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, social media is a quick and cost-effective megaphone to distribute content to a larger audience.

How will continued changes in the news media reshape law firm PR and marketing? To name a few additional trends: News cycles are shrinking as Twitter has become the standard for breaking news, the media’s demand for and ability to publish third-party content is on the rise, and more publications will continue to prioritize their digital assets over their printed ones. All these changes have shades of good, bad and ugly, and it is the law firms that learn to adapt to this changing model that will have the brightest futures.

Want to learn more about how the future of law firm PR will affect your firm? Contact Vivian Hood at vhood@jaffepr.com.