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The vital importance of PR during a downturn

It requires no soothsayer, no reading of celestial portents, nor any casting of the runes to know that we are heading into economically straitened times. In fact, we’re already ankle-deep in recession: last month, we heard the dreaded R word ring out through the land when the Office for National Statistics announced that the UK’s snail’s-pace growth had, in fact, completely stalled during the last two quarters of the year, making 2023 the worst year in terms of economic performance since 2009.

During any downturn, many law firms feel tempted to slash their PR budget – after all, when times are lean, it makes sense to trim any excess fat, right? But this, in our humble opinion, is a colossal mistake. Why? Because good use of PR is a great way to stay front of mind and keep business coming in when there is less work in the market. Which means that cutting back on PR is, in fact, a false economy, because you will inevitably end up with a smaller slice of a shrinking pie.

As so clearly demonstrated in the Byfield Positive Law Firm Reputation Index, which we wrote about here in Si’s Matters recently, positive press coverage buys your firm the golden seal of authenticity in a way that no amount of self-promotion on social media can achieve. External, third-party validation by, and endorsement from, reputable media outlets has an impact on your target audience that is worth its weight in PR spend.

And, crucially, it helps to grow your audience by increasing your reach. A positive write-up in the trade press, local press or even – the holy grail – the national press trumps a dozen or more self-penned posts. But the messaging has to be consistent and limited to a handful of key points, all aligned with your firm’s business strategy: if you want to grab a piece of the growing litigation market, for example, then message accordingly. Ditto, if you want a bigger share of the insolvency and restructuring work that inevitably follows in a downturn. This requires a joined-up approach, as your strategy, BD and marcomms need to stack up in order to land a solid punch in terms of your PR work. PR brings the audience. BD converts it.

Ultimately, what it all comes down to is awareness. If you stop appearing in the press, while a rival firm continues to receive coverage – possibly even more coverage than before, now that you’ve ceded the field to them – guess which firm people will think of first when they need to make a referral? It’s very hard for someone to refer a client your way if you aren’t at the front of their mind when an opportunity arises.

And here’s the thing: you will never know about the opportunities you missed out on by reducing your PR endeavours – because, by disengaging from your target audience, you failed to create those opportunities in the first place. Only your shrinking bottom line will tell the tale, and even then only as a sort of negative space that highlights the absence of new business.

The other point we need to make is that continuing to invest in PR during economically challenging times also means that you come out of the gate quicker when the economy picks up again, because you aren’t having to get motoring from a standing start – when it comes to being front of mind, it is much easier to remain committed to your PR work during the downturn and continue cruising along when things pick up than it is to overcome inertia, gain traction and reclaim headspace in the mind of your target audience.

So, while remaining cognisant of all of the above points, let us now turn our attention to two extremely important events coming up in the annual cycle of the legal sector, where some sure-footed PR work can earn you dividends, or at least help you to avert a PR disaster: financial results season and partnership announcements. This year, both will require more considered messaging than in quite a few years.

Financial results

Now that the era of quantitative easing, low interest rates and zero inflation has ended in a discordant crescendo, the 2024 financial results season is likely to be one of the most “interesting” in well over a decade. So, regardless of whether this year’s balance sheet represents a good-news or bad-news story for your firm, it will be more important than ever to invest in your PR and get on the front foot when it comes to delivering the messaging behind your financial results.

If your firm has successfully weathered the turbulence and come out in the black, more power to you: now you should make hay in that glorious sunshine. How? By being out front and disseminating your good news as early and widely as possible, because you will then get carried in every media story about law firms’ financial results, which in turn reinforces the positive impact on the audience and keeps you front of mind in the ways described above.

However, amidst the celebrating, it is also important to bear in mind that you will have clients that aren’t as fortunate, and who are feeling the economic pain right now – so you have to take account of this too when crafting your messaging, as you don’t want to rub their nose in it or, worse yet, make them feel that their loss is literally your gain.

Instead, make your success all about your clients, but in a wholly positive way: that your success is based on helping your clients be successful; that you couldn’t be where you are today without them; and that you hope they continue to place their trust in you in future. Then the story becomes one of working in partnership with your clients.

Incidentally, this is how Sir Nigel Knowles played it in his acceptance speech for his Legal Business “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2015: he began and finished by thanking all of DLA Piper’s clients, saying that he wouldn’t be up on that stage without them. A real class act.

And if your financial results are less than stellar this year? You still have to have your positive key messages ready, otherwise you will become the poster child for the ‘bad results’ story, and your name will be repeated in every single results story. Don’t be that firm.

Because even when your results are perhaps not what you would have hoped, their publication is still a golden opportunity to tell good stories about your firm and its performance: that’s because results season is one of only two times when people will sit up and listen to your version of events – the other time being when you find yourself in a crisis. So use this fact to your advantage by talking about your investments, your strategy going forward, and your optimism for the immediate and medium-term future.

What never works is trying to obfuscate or to bury the news, which is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘I can’t hear you!’ when the legal press inevitably comes knocking at your door. In recent years, we have seen firms such as Freshfields and Mischon de Reya announce that they will stop publishing either all or part of their financial results (PEP, in Mishcon’s case). They have chosen to do so for various operational reasons, the examination of which falls outside the scope of our current thought-train, but suffice to say that, whatever internal problems these firms are trying to solve with this approach, they are creating two major PR problems for themselves.

Firstly, at a time when all the industry stakeholders have been cued up to hear a good news story from these firms, the firms themselves are responding only with silence and thereby missing out on a chance to gain positive press coverage. The old adage of “no news is good news” definitely doesn’t apply in this context, and the silence created is loud to the point of deafening.

Secondly, the “keep schtum” strategy is like waving a red rag at a bull: nothing piques a journalist’s interest quite like being told that you are actively withholding information from them. And any investigative journalist worth their salt will find ways of accessing that information (e.g. from Freshfields’ more gossipy partners), and the respective firm thereby cedes any opportunity to control the narrative.

We repeat: don’t be that firm – own the messaging by keeping the pedal to the metal when it comes to your PR.

Announcing new partnerships

In this arena, too, we are likely to see some pretty noteworthy changes in 2024. The Lawyer pointed out in its Horizon briefing on Tuesday that litigators usually have to wait longer to be made partner; however, our feeling is that, this year, they have the whip hand, and we are likely to see more of them, and fewer corporate lawyers, get their button this spring, due to the uptick in litigation, restructuring and insolvency work and the downshift in M&A work. So here too, it is important to think ahead and get the key messaging prepared in advance so you can steer the narrative behind these appointments.

Another important aspect to consider for the upcoming new partnership announcements is whether your firm has good-news stories to tell, or bad-news stories to manage, on the DEI front. Now more than ever, DEI statistics at partner level are being scrutinised not just within the legal sector, but by society at large.

This means that a lack of diversity among your latest partner promotions will need to be explained in some way: you will need to be prepared for probing questions or pushback, from the legal press and elsewhere. At the very least, it’s going to be very hard this year to sell a picture of five newly promoted white men high-fiving each other without looking male, pale and stale.

Conversely, if your firm has taken great strides on its journey towards a more diverse and representative partnership and is on course to hitting its stated DEI targets, this is something to be celebrated and adroitly promoted through some nimble PR work.

Because this stuff really matters: making the equity and salaried partnerships of our nation’s law firms more representative of wider society is an urgent and critical mission for this industry, not least because it is essential to firms’ long-term commercial viability. And it’s the right thing to do. But the comms around this highly sensitive and politically charged issue needs to be carefully considered and on point, something you can only achieve with good PR.

Final thoughts

We hope we have made a convincing argument for continuing to invest in PR during these challenging times, especially with two key events on the horizon in the form of financial results season and new partnership announcements. If you want to have any chance of winning positive press coverage, you have to be in the game.

Crafting the right messages, and delivering them to the right audience, is crucial. If you need help with this, the TBD team is always on hand.

In other news

No more lockstep for Linklaters?

As the race heats up among City firms to crack the US market, Linklaters – which has come in for a bit of a kicking in the legal press recently over its perceived lack of a solid strategy on the US front – has announced that it is pretty much willing to spend whatever it takes on lateral hires, as reported in The Lawyer this week.

Down on Dechert

I wouldn’t normally expect to source legal-sector stories from Private Eye (not least because we can’t link to them), but I was struck by a story in the most recent edition about American multinational law firm Dechert settling with airline tycoon Farhad Azima over his claims regarding the firm’s alleged involvement in hacking his emails – which is a pretty big deal. I read up on this elsewhere in the legal press, so I can link you to this story in the Law Society Gazette.

Well done, Watermans

This is not so much a news story as it is a bestowal of kudos onto the Scottish firm Watermans, which is smashing it out of the park with its LinkedIn posts – I particularly like the most recent post at the time of writing, “Solicitors, we’re not all Wonkas”

A bizarre case of insider trading

Last week, the Guardian ran a fascinating financial-crime story from the US involving a man named Tyler Loudon (why am I picturing Brad Pitt in my head?) who used information he gleaned from overhearing his wife’s work conversations while they were both working from home to play the stock market, which netted him $1.8 m – swiftly followed by criminal charges for insider trading and a divorce petition from his wife.

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