Dozens of excellent movies and TV series about the law drive law school applications, corporate law careers and public interest passions. Likewise, films and shows depicting journalism inspire budding journalists with tales of integrity, investigative reporting, the chaotic or hilarious setting of a newsroom, or even the unexpected life of an ordinary photo reporter named Peter Parker. The top TV show about marketing is undoubtedly “Mad Men,” and “The West Wing” served up government communications as entertainment.
But there are not a lot of shows about public relations, and I think it’s safe to say there are none about law firm marketing. Imagine my surprise when, after recently finishing “Breaking Bad” and getting started on “Better Call Saul,” I caught a small but really funny scene about attorney Jimmy M. McGill trying to get media coverage for his own case.
Is Jimmy’s Story Idea Newsworthy?
Season 1, Episode 4, or “Hero,” centers on solo lawyer Jimmy M. McGill going to extreme lengths to compete with Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill (HHM), the large law firm co-founded by Jimmy’s brother Chuck and George Hamlin, now run by George’s son Howard Hamlin, who is Jimmy’s nemesis.
After Jimmy loses a potential client to HHM, he seeks revenge by buying space on a single billboard to promote his law practice, placed where Howard drives by each day. The artwork on the billboard — Jimmy in a suit, with contact information — just about replicates not only the personal look and style of Howard’s attire and hair, but also HHM’s branding, colors and logo.
Howard promptly sues Jimmy for trademark infringement, and a judge decrees that Jimmy has 48 hours to take the billboard down. We next see Jimmy pacing the halls of courthouse, flipping a small notebook page and tapping numbers into his flip phone. As a viewer listening to his side of these phone calls, and watching him cross off phone numbers, I thought, ”Wait, this is PR — we’re watching media outreach in action! He wants news coverage of the trademark dispute. Is this a newsworthy topic? How will he try to earn coverage?”
Is Jimmy’s Pitch Method Effective?
With his short list of phone numbers and no reporters’ names in his notebook, Jimmy speaks to whoever answers the call. He’s convinced he has a story to tell — a human-interest one, no less. Here are his attempts at pitching his story.
“It’s investigative journalism at its best, that’s right up your alley … uh-huh … yeah, okay, well, let me give you my cell just in case … yeah ... thank you.”
“Can I get the news desk please? I got a hot tip. Don’t you wanna be the station that brought down big law? You could be like the reporters that brought down big tobacco.”
“It’s a miscarriage of justice. And I think your viewers would be very, very interested and would be grateful to you for exposing this injustice.”
“Well, at least consider the human-interest angle here…Are you kidding? A lawyer pulls himself up by his bootstraps only to be ground under the heel of the old-money mega-firm. That’s hearts and minds!”
He’s crossed off every phone number in his notebook. His media outreach has failed. But then he does what his character excels at: stages a stunt for attention, complete with an emergency rescue where he is the hero. And presto, he has a human-interest story and a ton of media coverage.
How Do Jimmy’s Pitch Techniques Compare to Best Practices?
- Do your research. Build a solid media list of journalists who are likely to be open to your story ideas based on their coverage and their beats. The list does not have to be lengthy, but it has to be precise.
- Jimmy somehow has a few phone numbers scribbled in a tiny notebook, probably the main numbers for a couple of local newsrooms but not for any specific reporters. On one call, he asks for the “news desk,” proving he has not done any research about reporters who might cover local business and local legal news.
- Appreciate the art of the follow-up by knowing when and how much is appropriate.
- Jimmy offers his cell number just as the reporter seems to hang up on him, a sure sign of zero interest in the pitch.
- Don’t inflate your facts.
- Jimmy says he’s got a “hot tip.” In the world of PR, that means a breaking news item with direct impact on the media’s audience. He compares his pitch to the news coverage about big tobacco, greatly exaggerating the news value of his own small trademark infringement case.
- Consider what human interest really means to a reporter.
- Merriam-Webster defines human interest as “a quality that attracts attention because it involves the experiences of real people.” Jimmy’s situation is not applicable to a broad readership, and certainly does not qualify as meaningful to “hearts and minds.”
- Offer a reliable, available, insightful source who can comment.
- Pitching yourself is never best practice.
Now that we’ve examined a fictional character’s scene, let’s look at how media outreach works in reality.
Know What Jimmy Doesn’t Know: What Reporters Really Want
Our prior posts have pointed out that producers, editors and reporters receive pitches all day long. Their inboxes are stuffed with source pitches, story ideas and press release announcements.
It’s good to remember that even an excellent pitch may linger in a reporter’s inbox, unread, or sometimes tagged for follow-up in a few weeks ... or months.
A couple of years ago, Jaffe’s Newsstand shared some of the “bad PR pitches” tracked by Muck Rack — “cringeworthy tweets from journalists about the PR pitches landing in their inboxes.” These pitches, wrote Muck Rack, were “both hilarious and horrifying.” Muck Rack continues to share reporters’ reaction tweets every month. It’s two years later and I wanted to see if the state of PR pitches had changed, for better or worse. , These are recent gems:
- If journalists replied to every PR pitch we got, we’d be spending all our time on emails & exactly zero time reporting. Have patience, PR folks. And if we didn’t respond to your first three attempts w/the same story ... maybe let it go?
- Just got a PR pitch because of all my experience in reporting on class-action lawsuits. (I never covered this) I asked him which stories specifically he liked the best. I am not expecting a response.
- Folks, a company making it on a news [outlet’s] list of whatever is not news you should be emailing other reporters about …
- "We would appreciate your coverage of this op-ed."
- Looking at a PR pitch for Valentine's Day. It’s Dec. 7.
- Always fun to get a PR pitch asking me if I’m covering a topic two days after my coverage of it was published.
Not Every Pitch Lands Right Away
Whether we’re talking about a fictional scene in a generally outrageous TV series like “Better Call Saul” or reading the pet peeves of reporters who receive irrelevant pitches all day long, it comes down to understanding how to work with reporters. As a lawyer who became a law firm publicist after practicing for three years, I see the pitch process from several angles: the lawyer’s interest in visibility, the marketer’s goal of earning media coverage, and the journalist’s preferences for being pitched useful topics and sources. While some legal industry coverage is truly breaking news, most legal stories will take time and effort to develop.
Educate Yourself and Your Lawyers about the Process of Media Outreach
Jimmy M. McGill obviously did not seek out any education about PR from a bona fide publicist. Had he done so, he would have viewed media outreach through a lens of respect for reporters, the work they do, and an appreciation for their schedules and deadlines.
When you are trying to earn media coverage for a law firm, a practice or an individual lawyer, you will always need to strike that balance of being responsive to a story idea while maintaining perspective about how the system of news coverage works. Before you send out a pitch, you may have to explain the process of reaching the right reporters with a genuinely helpful or newsworthy pitch. In our roles as law firm marketers, we are positioning our lawyers to share their knowledge and be timely, reliable and insightful sources who will truly help reporters analyze a subject.
Our PR team helps lawyers and marketers speak the language of public relations, and identify and unravel story ideas to arrive at a persuasive pitch. If you’re looking for support in media relations, or want to talk through a pitch you’re working on, please contact me, Liz Lindley, at email@example.com.