Television dramas such as “Law & Order,” “Bull” and “Suits” make it appear as though lawyers are constantly handling cases that end up on the evening news. But, in the real world, many of the cases you see in news reports got there because someone was thinking like a reporter.
I am constantly helping clients navigate the fine line between what makes a great lawsuit and what makes a great legal story based on my prior experience as a print and broadcast journalist. The key is knowing what the media wants and needs, and then using that knowledge to your advantage.
This blog post will focus on cases that you and your client want reported rather than those that should remain below the media’s radar. Promoting a case requires a different set of skills and tactics compared to defending a client in the court of public opinion.
Need help turning your legal marketing to-do list into reality? We can help with that! Muse Communications was named one of Dallas’ best legal public relations firms by the readers of Texas Lawyer (although we represent clients all over Texas). Just drop us a line.
Is My Case Media-Friendly?
The first step if you think your case could turn into a news story is to be sure that the media will find it interesting. While you may have an airtight legal argument against a recognizable defendant, the facts may not lend themselves to media coverage.
Being honest with yourself and your client on the front end is crucial. No one wants to waste time or money promoting a story that honestly has little chance of generating positive coverage.
One of the first questions I ask clients who are seeking news coverage is, “How many people have been or will be impacted by your case?” A story about how your client’s Mercedes was ruined by a botched oil change is not likely to get much attention. But if the same repair shop ruined 20 cars, then we have a story.
Beyond the number of people that may be affected, consider the facts and/or the amount of money that may hinge on the outcome. Reporters and editors love cases based on unusual circumstances (sometimes called “man bites dog” stories) and those that include high dollar figures.
A lawsuit against a surgeon for leaving a sponge in a patient’s body is probably not news. But if the sponge is suddenly a Pez dispenser, then you have a story. The same can be said for the amount you and your client may be seeking. Lawsuits over slip-and-fall accidents happen every day, but a $100 million claim based on a fall caused by a pet store’s leaky octopus tank may well rise to the level of media interest.
Thinking Like a Reporter
Today, very few reporters have the time to devote to actual reporting compared to their pre-internet predecessors. In addition to working to get stories in the paper or on TV, many reporters also are responsible for updating their social media channels several times per day; blogging about their ongoing projects; promoting stories they have already completed; and too many other tasks to list here.
Given the time crunch created by all these responsibilities, the easier you can make it for reporters and their colleagues to do their jobs, the more likely you are to get them interested in your case.
That means doing some work on the front end that will help save the reporter time and provide them with the details that make your story worthy of coverage. For example, rather than sending a reporter every document in the case file, I work with clients to put together a brief pitch that includes the important facts and notes anything on the horizon that the reporter needs to know.
These pitches are purposely brief because I know most reporters do not have the time to review two or three pages of copy, regardless of how interesting the story might be. I also make sure to point out early on whether a pitch is being sent exclusively to one reporter or if it is being “shopped” to other reporters.
You should also disclose up front whether there has been any prior reporting on your case. The last thing you want is to convince a reporter to invest their time in your story only for them to find out later that they already have been “scooped” by another media outlet.
If the reporter is interested, that’s when you should offer to provide case documents and any exhibits that help them tell your story. Reporters know what information they need, so let them guide you rather than burying them under a stack of motions that they might not even want and are unlikely to read.
Acting Like a News Producer
Once a reporter says they are interested, and you have fulfilled their initial request for information, it is time to begin acting like a news producer.
Most TV reporters and a few who work for print publications often are supported by producers who are responsible for helping gather important details and other information that is needed to complete their reporting.
You can lighten their load by taking a proactive role in the process beyond simply supplying case documents. Here are just a few examples of how I have acted like a news producer to help advance clients’ stories:
- Attending court hearings and sending reports on what happened.
- Providing video depositions in whatever format is needed for broadcast.
- Compiling and sending background information about clients and defendants that is not included in court documents.
- Providing photographs and other visual elements for use in final stories.
- Providing exhibits and hearing transcripts to help speed up the process.
These are just a few of the many tasks typically handled by news producers when helping report legal stories. Knowing what they need and being able to provide it quickly will only help your cause.
The goal should be to make the process as seamless as possible. That means listening to what the reporter wants and making sure they get it in a timely fashion. The longer you wait to respond to a request for information, the less likely your case will turn into a news story.
In the end, the reporter/assignment editor/producer should view you as someone who helped them complete their work rather than someone who “sold” them a story.
Bruce Vincent is a former television and print reporter who has helped clients promote noteworthy legal cases for more than two decades. He is regularly called upon as a trusted source by legal and business journalists throughout Texas and across the U.S. For more information on how Bruce can help when your case is ready for “prime time,” contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.