How to work with the media

By Mike Stetz

As a longtime journalist, I’d like to offer some advice for younger attorneys when it comes to dealing with the media. For many attorneys, this is not a worry. You may work in an area of the law that attracts little media attention, such as presidential impeachment defense strategy. 

Ha! That’s a little bit of media humor … Helps keeps readers engaged …

Lots of lawyers are involved in cases that the Fourth Estate finds compelling, particularly sensational criminal ones. Lawyers can become household names because of the media exposure. They can get parodied on "Seinfeld" even. 

But it’s hardly limited to those kind of cases. You may be involved in a merger and acquisition of a major local company, a deal the media would find newsworthy because of its potential economic impact.

So here are five tips from a graying scribe who got his start before the advent of the word processor. We used this thing called a manual typewriter. (We were ahead of our time, given it was wireless ...)

Tip 1: Make sure the news outlet is legitimate. In this day and age, anybody can call himself a journalist. That doesn’t make them a journalist, though. If you get a call from someone who runs “Joe’s Legal Blog,” you are under no obligation to talk to him. You should check to see if “Joe’s Legal Blog” has credibility. You can do this by going to the website and seeing what kind of articles are published. Believe me, it won’t be hard to tell.

If you get a call from a traditional media outlet — such as your local newspaper — don’t buy the silly argument that it produces fake news or has some sort of a hidden agenda. Such organization will treat you fairly. They have ethical standards. Remember, you’re a lawyer and you can always sue.

Tip 2: Be polite. Lawyers — by nature and training — can be adversarial. Tread lightly when it comes to reporters, though. It does you no good to get their backs up. As the old saying goes, newspapers buy the ink by the barrel. And web sites offer unlimited space!

Many reporters are extremely smart and have advanced degrees. All they really want is information. If you think the question is out-of-line, simply tell them you think the question is out-of-line. They may have no clue that it is. They’re not lawyers.

Tip 3: Remember, they are not lawyers. Most have little idea of the nuances of law. You really need to explain things simply and thoroughly. Don’t groan if they ask a stupid question because they will.

Remember, they are reporting, in most cases, for a mass audience, so the story needs to easily understood. Walking them through helps everyone — you, the reporter and the audience.

Tip 4: You don’t have to comment immediately. Yes, reporters have deadlines, and they are actually shrinking because the internet allows news to be published in real time. But if you’re not ready to comment, don’t. If it's a TV person and the camera is rolling, just politely say: "We're not ready to comment but we'll release a statement soon."

If it's a print reporter, offer your contact information, such as your email, and ask for questions to be sent to you . This gives you time to think about your responses and craft them more carefully. You may also want to clear your responses with your corporate communications people if your firm has them.

Tip 5: Be wary of not commenting. It can look bad if you don’t comment or don’t have a compelling reason for not commenting. You don’t have to be specific when speaking of the case. You can talk about it in general terms.

I once did a story on a white-collar crime. The government attorneys were extremely chatty and boasting of how strong their case was. The defense attorneys? Not a one wanted to talk. So when the story came out — a damning one because of the government’s strong, unwavering comments — they were infuriated.

They wanted me to write another story, giving their side. Um, Bonus Tip: You don’t normally get a do-over. We go on to the next big thing.

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