This was a busy week. I was fortunate, because when there is media interest in your situation, it can often be a surprise. It made me realize how, over the past year and a half, I’ve learned a thing or two about dealing with media. As a law library director, this may not be a skill set you’ve developed. It wasn’t one I had. So I thought I’d share some ideas.
Law libraries talk a lot about marketing and I’ve got mixed feelings about that. We obviously have stories to tell. We frequently highlight the wrong thing, focusing on our resources more than our people. But it’s all about communication.
Make It a Habit
Whatever you decide to do, it needs to be something you can repeat. When I was working at a law firm and we were talking about advertising, that was crystal clear. A one-time ad placement will be missed. You need a regular appearance to start gaining attention.
For a year or so, our organization did something similar to highlight library services across our region. It was a house ad, so there was no cost to us. We used a trackable link (Bit.ly) in order to see if there was any pickup. The link allowed a simpler URL to type and it forwarded to a URL on our web site. It was tricky, because it was a print periodical that had shifted to digital. A link would have to be unique to the format to know which format it came from.
Repetition and regularity is important. As I advocate for my brother’s legal case, I’ve built up a database of journalists from around the world. I send them regular, unsolicited updates after they request to join the list. Or after I pitch the idea that they join the list. Either way, it’s opt-in and they can opt out later.
The content matters. I don’t send them news when there’s nothing to talk about. I don’t nag them. I use a repeated tag in the subject line, so my messages can be filtered into folders on their end.
It is useful to keep your story in perspective. What I’ve found is that media want to tell stories. Lawyers want to learn new things. You may not always find them at the right time but if you’re persistent and useful, they’ll remember. It’s important to play a long game.
When you get some interest, focus on it. Ask them if they have a deadline so you can help them meet it. Be clear and answer their questions. If you need a moment to gather your thoughts, take it. You don’t have to take a phone call if you don’t feel prepared.
The corollary to that is: don’t give up if, after a couple of months, you’re not making headway. Do analyze what you’re doing. I changed my style of writing, made sure everything was sourced but that the sources were endnotes, so as not to disturb the reading. The text was written so it could be cut and pasted easily, without links and formatting.
Email is a key tool. But this is different from an email marketing list. While you might hype or dress up a marketing piece, communicating to media should just provide them what they need to know.
There’s no perfect method. But I think that repetition and constant adaptation are important.
Practice Your Message
If you went through law school, you may have done moot court or trial advocacy. Or you may have done a presentation. When I first started doing media interviews, I thought I wouldn’t know what to say. That the questions were not knowable and so how to prepare the answers. But it is a lot more like trial ad or a presentation than I expected.
There is a school of thought that I don’t care for that simply ignores the questions. They deflect and then say what they want to say. I don’t think that’s very helpful for the journalist and I try only to do that when the journalist clearly hasn’t prepared and so is asking uninformed questions.
This will sound like an elevator pitch. But it’s not the same. Think if you broke your pitch into a few 10 second bites. Then polished them until they shone. Then rolled them out as part of an answer that is tailored to your questioner.
I always prepare answers in advance though. Not as in a frequently asked questions format. But I attempt to anticipate what they may ask, and I put together discrete sentences that I can incorporate into answers.
I focus on keeping things as simple and short as possible. I prefer active voice and I dislike gerunds. I don’t use words or phrases that don’t sound like me, and I don’t use words for which I don’t know the meaning. If I’m unsure, I do a web search to make sure turns of phrase don’t have unfortunate casual meanings.
Then I repeat them out loud, fine tuning them until I think it sounds right. Sometimes I use an audience. Then I write them down.
In an audio interview, you can have notes in front of you. In a video interview, it is harder because you need to look at the camera. I have found that few interviews go on long enough to use notes, and it’s far better for me to have my highlights ready and fluid.
I do this even when I don’t have an interview scheduled. I try to have regular bits stored away because things change. Your law library is doing something new? Or your services have changed, getting broader or narrower? Your message should adapt and you should practice it.
A good, simple way to do this is to leverage the press release. You probably know this, but a lot of news is sparked by press releases. You can write your own for your law library and submit them. There are large aggregators – like Cision PR Newswire – that media rely on.
I did this regularly at a law library in Ohio, with varying degreess of success. In some cases, local media will simply reprint press releases with minor edits. This is something you can do in addition to contacting journalists directly. You can practice writing – there are lots of sample press release templates – to help you get better at it.
If you are as lucky as the Clermont County (OH) law library folks, you may have access to local expertise. Take advantage of it. Not only do those people know the way to promote and amplify a message, they may get paid to do just that. You’re helping them be productive.
Live Media is Hard
Both the most effective and the hardest media interviews I’ve done have been live. You would be surprised how often interviews are taped, though. The most important advice I’d offer is that it’s something that you get better at through experience.
But you can prepare. When you are watching someone speak on TV, it may seem like a long time. It isn’t really. It’s a matter of minutes, often 3 to 4 and that’s without the questions. There’s an intro and an outro and so there’s not a lot of time.
An Arizona litigator once told me I spoke too quickly. His suggestion, which I follow religiously when I remember: speak slowly. Listen to NPR and try to speak along, repeating their words. They speak a lot more slowly and clearly than I realized. I still forget. Sometimes I speak quickly when I’m unprepared or feel unconfident.
Speaking slowly does a couple of things. It helps you to eliminate ums and uhs by allowing your mind to stay ahead of your mouth. It gives you time to formulate your answer while you start talking. Especially if you already have snippets memorized in your head, you can build these blocks together as you go. It will make you easier to understand and less likely to trip over words or misspeak.
I posted recently about how you hold yourself to a harsher standard than is realistic. Keep that in mind if you do interviews and aren’t happy with how you sounded. I did not know that, for a many live TV interviews, you’re in a room by yourself with a camera. You do not see the interviewer, even though you are on a split screen with them to the audience. This means speaking more slowly can help you hear them, and give them an opportunity to cut in so that it looks conversational.
Breathe. I know that I’m struggling when I’m in an interview and I’m talking over the last of my breath. It warns me that I’m not thinking clearly about my words and I may be speeding up. As you practice and experience speaking – at a firm event, at a practice group meeting, at a conference, with faculty, or to media and public groups – look for things that are red flags. Those flags can help you navigate your own interactions better if you know what they are.
Like any skill set, cultivating media so that they talk about your law library takes time. It takes time and repetition to create the skills so that you speak slowly and clearly and confidently. We are already a fact-oriented profession so that parts easy. But you also need to be hyperaware about your message: sometimes what you want to say isn’t what needs to be said. Think about what the audience needs to hear so that, as you prepare your snippets in advance, you are prepared to tell them.