It doesn’t matter how many years you have been a PR superstar, how many major accounts you’ve landed, disasters you have cleaned up, or positive front-page feature stories you have secured, we all remember the first time our press release went to legal for approval. When your document returned, I am willing to bet legal shredded your well-crafted, carefully articulated words into a redlined blood-bath. The entire experience may have caused you to rethink everything you held sacred about being a writer.
Fast forward to other communication approval encounters with product launches, philanthropy outreach, speech-writing, digital media campaigns/content, or other product and service promotions. Or what about making key recommendations and having legal shoot it all down? It may feel like getting approval from legal is like heading into a battle. After all, you are simply trying to do your job (counsel, get media, develop strategy to help your organization reach influencers, write compelling content). As PR practitioners, we’re not setting out to try to rewrite the Constitution.
After working in PR across many industries, I’ve found that there are a few key things to understand when working with attorneys:
1. They write for a different audience with a totally different agenda. Don’t assume their edits to your materials are unfounded.
2. They don’t always consider the PR department ‘counsel’ in the traditional sense. That isn’t to say they do not appreciate what we do, but they look at things through a different lens. Lawyers often view situations by evaluating the risk an action or statement presents and they are considering a totally unique set of relationships (opposing counsel, co-counsel, judges, appeals courts, mediators, etc.)
3. Many of them are great partners. Set aside the attorneys who are difficult to a fault, focus on the ones you think understand your role and the benefit of strategic communications.
4. It is possible the attorney you’re working with has yet to experience a communicator who understands how to work with a legal team. Both departments carry misconceptions about the other. That attitude dampens our collective progress.
Bottom line – we need them and they need us. So, how do we get results in PR and get legal approval to say what needs to be said?
Keep these tips in perspective when you chat with legal:
1. Remember #3 from the list above? Clear out the negative perceptions and be open-minded about having a great partner. Realize that for all the stereotypes there are about attorneys, there are a fair number of negative perceptions about PR and Comms people (Just think about the grimace you made the last time an executive asked you to ‘spin’ a totally non-newsworthy story).
2. Listen more. Talk less. This works in a lot of areas of life, but when you are in front of an attorney, give them the floor first. Use your emotional intelligence and read the person and conversation. I can almost guarantee you will learn something. Some of the most powerful people say almost nothing all.
3. Use #1 & #2 to build rapport and establish mutual respect. You will not win everyone, but most attorneys are great partners and appreciate sound counsel. Generally, you are speaking to highly intellectual people. That can be refreshing.
4. Once you have consistently taken the first three tips into consideration, then you can explain what you need to achieve with your message and how you want to communicate it. If you have been consistent, the attorneys will hear you.
Working successfully with attorneys takes time. A lot of people we interact with do not understand PR or communications. When you are working with attorneys pick your battles and be prepared to let some really important things go. Some of my favorite partners have worked in the legal department because they deal with tough stuff, just like I do. Working together, we can be influential and successful partners.