Professional firms - lawyers, accountants etc - should not dabble
in PR. Let me qualify the statement. Professional firms need PR as
urgently as any company or brand, but they must understand they are in
it for the long haul. Reputations cannot be made overnight - but they
can be lost in a day.
Among the medium-sized law and accountancy firms in particular, there is
a curious tendency to resist committing to a professional standard of PR
and a formal strategy. Typically they approach PR as an ’add-on’ to a
marketing mix that is already confused.
This piecemeal approach to PR is commonly devised as a response to two
situations where firms see a media opportunity that is hard to
The first of these is the chance to become a ’media star’, where firms
or individual partners find themselves dragged into the limelight on the
coat tails of a high-profile client, case or deal. The second situation
is the ’big fish in small pond’ opportunity.
First let’s look at the media star phenomenon. There have been some very
public examples of the roller-coaster ride for law firms basking in the
glory of an association with a high-flying client. They may enjoy a
meteoric rise in profile on the back of public interest in their
client’s affairs, followed by a stomach-lurching plummet as headlines
scream about ’fat cat lawyers’
When the publicity machine turns against them they are often
ill-prepared to deal with it. Suddenly damage limitation tops the agenda
of the in-house PR machine. But the damage is likely to hurt more than
just the firm’s profile. Other areas of the firm’s marketing and PR may
be neglected thanks to one high-profile case and business opportunities
may be missed if senior management take their eyes off the ball.
The ’big fish in a small pond’ syndrome occurs when a firm develops a
niche practice area, often in a new or emerging market. With only a few
competitors for column inches, it is one of the easiest areas in which
to develop a ’leading profile’, although little thought is fiven to
whether it meets the long-term aims of the firm.
Or worse, the partners in the core profitable areas of the firm turn
their backs on PR as they see it pouring disproportional resources into
an area that only accounts for five per cent of the firm’s turnover.
The danger of this situation is that it has the potential to unbalance
the firm’s strategic focus. If the PR profile of the firm is wrong, it
skews not only the perceptions of the PR function, but that of the firm
In professional firms, business is brought in by the lawyers and
accountants themselves, and is won on the basis of firms or individuals
having the right expertise, demonstrable standards of service and a firm
culture or personal charisma. PR is crucial in backing up the firms’
claims to expertise and other advantages over the competition.
In a crowded, noisy marketplace these messages are hard to get across -
and that is where PR skill comes to the fore. The key is to focus on
developing the firm’s profile specifically to help attract the level,
category and quality of business required by the business plan.
Both ’media stars’ and ’big fish’ should learn this lesson: don’t let
the tail wag the dog. Don’t go for the coverage that is easiest to get -
go for what’s required for the business plan. Make your PR work for your
business plan and not the other way around.
Clare Rodway is an associate director of Sector PR, where she heads the
professional services team.