22 March 1999
So City law firms need to be more "media savvy" (David McIntosh, Square Mile, 18 March). Well, who could disagree? But how many know what media savvy really means?
All too often, media savvy is regarded as just issuing a stream of 250-word press releases and chatting to a journo when it suits the partners. All very worthy, but in the face of recent hostile media coverage, these tactics would appear to be a tad inadequate.
If City firms are really serious about the media, they have to move external communication much further up the agenda. Too often, major decisions are taken with no regard to media response until the last moment and then, when it all goes horribly wrong and the firm is attracting banner headlines, the PR department is called in to clear up the mess.
Real media savvy requires planning and preparation. Firms need to anticipate the outcomes of major announcements or crises, implement a strategy for press enquiries, agree position statements, media-train key partners, hold background briefings and arrange one-to-one interviews with key members of the press.
Crucially, such a policy needs to be rolled out regardless of whether the story has positive or negative connotations for the firm. Nothing irritates journalists more than a series of phone calls from lawyers keen to comment on Woolf's Civil Justice Reforms or some other subject, followed by a stony silence when the tables are turned and they ask for some information about a development within the firm.
Planning ahead and leading a journalist through a story can change a "job losses" headline into "restructuring to concentrate on core areas". Firms can limit the damage, but only if communications personnel are briefed fully in advance.
So what can you do to help your communications experts? Quite simply they have to be given greater access to the decision-making process, including involvement in partner meetings at the very highest level. This doesn't mean media relations should sit proudly at the top of the agenda, but they should at least be on the agenda in the first place, particularly when important decisions are being made.
There is a precedent for the communications function to be moved higher up the decision-making process. Only a few months ago, the media got itself into a frenzy about the fact that Alastair Campbell, the Government's chief press spokesman, was attending cabinet meetings. "What is he doing there?" it wanted to know. The answer is obvious. He is bringing all his expertise to bear at an early stage to ensure the Government gets the best possible media coverage.
The question firms need to ask is not: "Are we media savvy?" It is: "Does our communication function have access to information early enough to adequately promote and protect the reputation of the firm?" In too many cases, the answer is still no.
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