Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lawyers, Guns And Money: What Publicists Can Learn From The Legal Profession

I don't know where lawyers and publicists rank in the public's view of occupations -- perhaps not far from car salesmen and David Hasselhoff's hair stylist -- but the two professions have more connections than anybody would care to admit.

Of course, lawyers (or the fear of lawsuits filed by them!) are often behind some of the most overused phrases in public relations, as discussed earlier.

Prominent lawyers often act as their own publicists, as they've mastered gossip column leaks and theatrical quotes to paint their clients as innocent victims and their adversaries as greedy, unethical dirt slugs. Isn't it always "the legal department" who holds up the approval of a press release the longest?

As a publicist, you have to admire how some lawyers can run the media circus, become regulars on CNN and Fox News Channel, and sway public opinion better than global communications conglomerates.

However, unlike lawyers who borrow from the PR handbook, there's very little the public relations profession takes from lawyers. As despised as lawyers can be seen -- and boy, can they muck up simple contract negotiations -- you have to admire some of their most common practices.

One of them is their elaborate and constructive system of business referrals. In the legal world, there seems to be an understanding that if a case or client comes your way that you don't want to or can't handle, you can refer them to somebody who can, and in return, get a small piece of the action.

I know one attorney who was tired of his staff, fired them all, and now works alone, spending most of his time making money referring clients to other lawyers. This arrangement enables him to keep shorter work hours and play more tennis, and let's face it, what a sweet deal that is.

However, you couldn't do this if you were in public relations. "Referrals" is a dark, gray area where there really are no rules. Yes, I've heard of a few very large firms who toss off smaller clients to PR firms for a fee, but those are in the small minority. In public relations, referrals seems to be a "gentleman's game," where mostly nobody asks for a fee, and there's a hopeful understanding that the gesture will be reciprocated.

While that's generally a nice format, it takes the whole motivation aspect out of the equation. It's very easy for a PR firm to say "I"m sorry, we can't help you with that, our hands are tied, good luck with your endeavor" and let it slip out the back door. You don't want to help this spurned client into the hands of a competitor either. So nobody wins at all -- the client has no PR firm, and neither you nor anybody else gets any kind of benefit.

However, if there was referral money involved, the game would change dramatically for everybody. Suddenly, you'd have a good reason to refer a client to a better suited firm -- to make money for doing nothing. And the other firm benefits from getting the new business they ordinarily may not have been privy to. And the client loves it that you've spared them further searching and given them what they need. A side benefit: the other firm will be thinking of you when the same situation arises there. Everybody wins.

In the many years I've been in business, I've only been hit with the referral fee deal twice and both were the same conditions: 10% of the monthly fee for the first year, billed on a monthly basis when the client's check comes in. This seems fair to me, especially because it has the one year end time, as opposed to dragging the fee on forever.

I'd like to see the referral fee area be brought more out into the open at PRSA and IABC panels because it's a topic that truly can help the whole profession profit and succeed, while establishing new relationships between companies that may have never existed otherwise except to outduel each other on RFP's.

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