20 Questions With An Expert on Grassroots PR

Marc Hausman is the founder of Strategic Communications Group. He has become one of the most-frequently consulted authorities on communications programs that support corporate growth. Marc has been featured in a number of industry publications, including Entrepreneur, PR Week and Fortune, and he writes articles for Expert PR, INC.com, Washington Business Journal, Expert Magazine, and Potomac Tech Journal, among others. This past year PR News recognized Marc as one of the "15 to Watch" in the public relations industry.

1. What is Grassroots PR (GRPR), and how does it apply to a law firm?

Over the past few years, a significant trend in the legal community, as it relates to public relations (PR), has been a focus on branding - that is, building the overall awareness and visibility for the firm. Now, the change we're seeing in the marketplace is that rather than focusing on overall branding, a lot of law firms are looking to drill down and focus on the reputation, the market expertise, and the track record of individual practitioners within the firm, on a regional or local level.

The analogy that we make is to grassroots politics. All politics are local, and in the same way that individual politicians are responsible to their constituents, the grassroots approach to marketing holds that individual partners are responsible for driving their law firm revenue. Thus, grassroots PR focuses on assisting partners invest the time and resources, within the context of their firm's overall activities, to make sure that they're establishing their name and expertise in their local or regional market.

2. How can GRPR support a law firm's client acquisition program?

When you look at why a client makes a decision to hire a specific law firm, really what they're typically doing is hiring a lawyer or a team of lawyers within that law firm. Clients are looking at a firm's market expertise, track record of performance, level of reputation and industry relationships -- all of which can help the client be successful. Furthermore, clients identify lawyers to retain through a multitude of channels: referrals, informal business networking, and evaluation of different types of trade press, media, conferences, and presentations.

By targeting these variables that are actually used by clients when deciding on a law firm, the grassroots PR is able to effectively support a firm's client acquisition program.

3. Does the kind of GRPR activities differ on a regional basis?

The kind of activities don't differ on a regional basis, but the flavor of activities does. The differences are based on the individual attorney and the types of clients he/she has and would like to bring on.

For instance, many of the attorneys that we deal with have clients who aren't really locally or regionally focused, rather they're focused around a specific industry. One of our clients does a lot of work in the Satellite and Aerospace industry, and his clients are all over the world. For him, from a PR perspective, he needs to be visible in the Society of International Satellite Professionals, The Aerospace Times and Via Satellite Magazine. Whereas other attorneys may find that their client base is more local - that is primarily located in a particular city - and so the mix of target trade organizations, magazines and newspapers is going to be different. Again, the differences are driven by the specific attorney and which types of clients they're trying to sell into.

4. What marketing activities are included in all GRPR campaigns?

We recommend our lawyer clients to engage in the following three types of activities:

1) Networking -- something lawyers do very well. We recommend attending not just the Chamber of Commerce events, but the industry events and conferences that are focused on the area of the attorney's expertise;

2) Being visible and demonstrating market expertise through the press. We encourage attorneys to be a resource for journalists who are looking for comments, thoughts or opinions about different trends or developments in the business community. Journalists are typically working on a deadline, and once they identify a handful of resources that they know will be responsive and have valuable opinions, they will return to those resources time and time again. Reputations are built over time. There are a number of lawyers who are known as being journalist-friendly, and they're often quoted in important local business and trade publications. Prospective clients see that.

3) When you've established a reputation in the press, you have to proactively push it to your existing and prospective clients. Call it business development, call it new client acquisition -- even in a professional services environment, it's really just Sales. And the lawyers who are responsible for generating revenue have to sell. So, for instance, if an attorney participates in a story in their local business magazine, it's important that they take the article and send it out to their existing and prospective clients, because this level of public relations provides third party credibility, and validation of expertise and reputation.

5. What should lawyers be wary of when they undertake PR opportunities?

When dealing with lawyers, we always recognize the sensitivity of their relationships with their clients. Often the work that they do for clients is proprietary and/or confidential, and cannot be shared with the press and public. So, even if you're giving a speech to the local bar, or an informal "off the record" interview, never share information that you wouldn't want to see on Page One of the Wall Street Journal. When entering into any promotional or PR opportunity, be careful to only share information that you would be comfortable getting out to the public. If there's something that you're not really sure about, don't say it.

6. Does GRPR apply to Internet Activities?

Yes! Recently I read that more information has been published in the last three years on the Internet than in the 250 years prior to that. Think about the amount of information that's out there on different portals, online magazines, and corporate and university sites. There are lots of places one can go for information.

From a grassroots perspective, we're creative in targeting sources of information based on where our attorney's clients are looking. Then we assist the firm in getting involved with those sources. But again, make sure that you proactively direct the people who you want to see that information to that information.

7. Do you practice Grassroots PR at your firm?

Absolutely. I'm doing this Q&A with Modern Practice. There are a bunch of different law firms that I'm selling into right now. I'm not going to bet that they're going to see this Q&A. I'm going to send them all a note, and say "Hey, you should really check out this website because there's going to be a Q&A with me up there." Third party validation of expertise is very important.

8. Why do you feel there's been a backlash against branding?

Well, the backlash against branding isn't something we're seeing in the marketplace as it relates to the clients of law firms. It's not like clients of law firms are getting tired of firms getting out there and branding. Instead, the backlash really comes back to a return on investment question. If a firm were to spend $500K on an ad campaign to promote just the name of a firm, what's the right amount of awareness or reputation that a law firm need to have? It's a very difficult question to answer. Branding is usually a costly marketing activity, and the return is a difficult thing to measure.

The backlash against branding that we're seeing is among the law firms themselves. They're saying, instead of spending $500K on an ad campaign, how can you help me either sell additional work into my existing client set, or put in place a new client acquisition program in which there really are some measurable benchmarks. If a firm spends $50K to position itself as an expert in a particular area, it's got to generate a certain amount of revenue to make that investment worthwhile. And so, when we talk about a backlash on branding, what we're really saying is, make sure that your PR activities are measurable, and use revenue generation as the standard against which you measure them.

9. What do you think the public expects from law firms?

Our area expertise is predominantly in Corporate law, so that's where I'll focus the answer. Historically -- because of the ambulance-chasing stigma and a variety of other reasons - the public has never had the best perception of lawyers. In the corporate world, we always try to get attorneys and firms to take the high road, as opposed to the hard sell. That is, to always focus on taking an educational approach to their PR activities. We're working with attorneys to publish articles like, "Four Things to Think About as it Relates to Intellectual Property in Your Next Software Launch."

This educational approach can be used by a firm to demonstrate its market expertise and track record of its performance. We tell lawyers that successful legal marketing is all about building your reputation and building your relationship with the client over time. You have to build trust, because at the end of the day, people do business with companies and individuals that they know and trust. That is the foundation of everything.

10. Should individual attorneys take steps independent of the local firm's initiatives?

Individual attorneys always have to communicate and handle PR in the context of what their firm is doing. I'm not encouraging loose cannon attorneys, who think, "Hey my firm's not doing anything, so I gotta' step up and make it happen."

I believe that if a law firm is going to hold its partners responsible for generating a certain amount of revenue, it has to put them in a position where they can be successful doing that. Part of this comes down to how you promote the name of the firm. If you're exclusively focused on branding the firm, it's going negatively impact the partners' ability to actually measure how successful they are in terms of revenue generation.

Within a firm, we're seeing individual partners championing the grassroots PR cause. Of course, they then need to get the buy-in at the firm level.

11. Let's say a firm has an attorney with expertise in Mergers & Acquisitions with German media companies. Discuss how a firm can take steps to market its individual attorney experts.

In a couple of different ways. One, when you target the media, you have to look at both the American business press, the European business press, as well as the specific press that is read by media companies. The firm has to establish its attorney's reputation in that vertical market.

The second component would be what we like to call "Executive Visibility," or industry conference speaking. So many attorneys spend their time preaching to the choir, by speaking at the local bar. When you speak at such events, you're basically talking to your competitors or other lawyers who could potentially be part of your firm. You're not reaching potential customers. We help our attorneys identify different presentation, speaking and panel opportunities outside the legal industry. We target industry conferences that will actually have your potential customers in attendance at the CEO, CIO, CFO and General Counsel level. We don't want to talk to the mid-level manager who can't hire us. We want to talk to the person within the organization that can make the decision.

12. How has the legal marketing landscape changed over the past several years?

1998 to 2001 was the Age of Branding, and all that it entailed. I believe the next few years will be the Age of the Grass Roots Client Acquisition approach to communications.

13. In 5 years, how do you envision the legal marketing landscape?

Eventually there's going to be a balance between national branding and grassroots PR. We're in a down market right now. Everyone suffers in a down market, but we won't be in one forever. As the market starts swinging back up, there's going to be a realization that there needs to be resources that are invested at the higher branding level. And there will also be a continued need for individual partners to be armed with the resources that they need to successfully sell additional services to their existing clients new customers - the grassroots model.

14. In a tight economy, why should law firms continue to spend money on marketing?

The grassroots approach doesn't require much of a budget as a large branding initiative, and so it's a fiscally responsible thing to do in a down market. If you play the role of an ostrich, and stick your head in the sand to wait out the down market, you are going to be miss opportunities. What we're seeing right now is that firms are planning their marketing programs for Q1 and Q2 of 2003. If I wasn't out there actively promoting my firm -- if I decided to lay low and not do any PR -- my competitors would be talking to my clients about Q2 2003, and I would be missing out.

15. In your experience, what is the most effective marketing activity?

For law firms, the most effective is a presentation speaking or panel slot at an industry conference attended by potential clients. Hands down.

16. Least effective?

Going to networking session of the local business organization and milling around with 30 or 40 other attorneys in a room with 200 people. I go to events here in D.C. where there are 3 potential clients and 30 attorneys hovering around them. You don't win in these situations.

17. Marketing giveaways - effective, or a waste of money?

In a professional services arena, tchochkey is a waste of money. The reason why I say that is, are you going to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a law firm because they gave you a t-shirt? Probably not.

But if you want to do a giveaway, focus it on activities designed to build client relationships. Rather than giving a t-shirt, rent a skybox at a sporting event, where you invite clients and prospects for an exclusive networking event. That's a great giveaway because it builds relationship. But the tchokeys . . . come on. How many law firm mugs do I have? How many do you have? Are you going to look at a mug and say, "Gee I should call these guys?" It's not going to happen.

18. What are some effective ways that firms scale back their marketing budgets without completely stopping all initiatives?

A lot of firms are spending money on advertising right now. I think advertising is important, but we're recommending that firms focus on opportunistic advertising. Instead of running an advertisement twelve times in a local business magazine, pick three or four issues that are specifically targeted to and have content that would be of interest to your potential clients. Then use some of the saved resources to focus on some of the grassroots PR activities designed to put partners in a position where they're interacting with existing or potential clients.

19. Discuss accountability as it pertains to law firm marketing activities.

If your readers come away with anything, it is: Make the PR and Marketing accountable by measuring it against revenue generation. If someone walks in and proposes spending a large sum of money on a branding initiative, the firm has to ask, "How much revenue is this firm going to generate from that expenditure?" ROI can never be assessed with 100% certainty. But if there is not a clear answer on the ROI question, it's probably not a good investment in a down market.

20. What basic concept would you impart to law firms assessing their marketing campaigns?

Analyze ROI and hold partners accountable! If you're going to spend $50K on PR for a series of partners to be visible with prospective clients, what are the measurements of success? At the end of the day, firms have to track the revenue generation, because they need to make sure that the $50K investment was a good one.