Seven tips for building a better legal public relations budget

Developing a comprehensive budget for a public relations program can be a daunting proposition for any business. While law firm marketers may have a firm grasp on budgeting for goods and services related to their core area of business, they may be uncertain of where to start when putting an exact dollar amount on their PR needs. We offer a few helpful tips for law firms to consider in their year-end budget meetings.

#1 Start with your legal PR goals in mind

Your media relations goals should be developed based upon your firm’s 2019 marketing and overall strategy. Do you expect to merge? Will you bring on new laterals, launch a new practice area or open a new office? Each news trigger will require its own budget for press release distribution, pitching, reporter meetings and so on. Don’t forget to factor in ongoing support, especially for practice areas that are particularly hot/growing. Be sure to also look back at previous years’ goals, and determine what worked, what didn’t, what needs to be cut and what needs to be added. Once those goals are solidified, you can prioritize and approach your budget with a clear understanding of what you need and why.

#2 Prioritize your PR budget

For large firms, prioritization is especially important, as it is usually not possible, given budget constraints, to conduct thoughtful and effective media outreach by giving equal attention to 500 attorneys at once. Start by understanding your firm’s priorities and build a plan that reinforces them. The decision might be to focus on a practice group or groups (intellectual property, bankruptcy, etc.) or on a particular region. Resolve to make bold choices in your decisions regarding resource allocation. Don’t just fall back onto what you have done in the past, but match your outreach to what your vision is for the firm.

#3 Plan for a deep dive and stay the course

Whenever you or your PR firm work with a new attorney, practice or region, a certain amount of onboarding is necessary. Understanding the subject matter is critical in order to effectively communicate with journalists and influencers — and the only way to do this is through research, which takes time and budget. For this reason, it is not advisable to change strategies frequently throughout the year; the time you have invested ramping up for a group or practice will be lost if you switch away too quickly. We recommend giving a particular practice program at least six months to run its course prior to switching to other priority practices.

#4 Don’t silo the budget

Legal PR can be a fantastic adjunct to any marketing, magnifying the success of everything from events to thought leadership. (PR is 90% more effective than advertising, was the finding in one study.) As the reward for good PR will benefit marketing as a whole, it makes sense for you to think about how to share the financial investment with other departments. For example, certain large consulting firms have been known to add an automatic 5-10% line item for PR to every thought leadership or marketing project, because they understand that shrewd PR can dramatically increase the effectiveness of their work.

#5 Practice guerilla PR

To draw from Michael Levine’s best-selling book on the subject, the most effective PR doesn’t have to be the most expensive, and the best stories told are often uncovered unexpectedly. In line with #2 above, communicate with other marketing teams, and, especially, with colleagues who are producing thought leadership (both your attorneys and your ghostwriters). Regularly mine this work to uncover elements that would make a good news story (what is new, unexpected, etc.); any legwork you can do in this area will enrich your PR program with a pipeline of stories, make your PR firm more effective and help keep your costs down.

#6 Be aware of — and plan for — project creep

When professionals, practices or groups see others garnering media attention, their demand for PR often rises. Not understanding this from the outset, or not managing this appropriately when it happens, can be one of the biggest mistakes an in-house PR team can make. Overpromising to an ever-increasing number of groups can dilute the program or cut strategies short before they come to fruition. However, saying no can be difficult, especially in a professional services firm where you might have hundreds of “bosses.” One strategy: channel the interest by encouraging lawyers to write PR into their own marketing plans (preferably also allocating budget to this work). This will give them ownership and an understanding that PR, like any marketing function, requires time and money to do effectively.

#7 Maintain adaptability

The above being said, PR, more than any other marketing discipline, is subject to change according to emerging trends and hot topics in the news. It may be necessary to adjust strategy and reallocate budget to capitalize on these developments. Building adequate reserves into your budget (recommended: 8-10%), will help you adapt and maintain the ability to funnel resources toward an emerging area if need be.

Brian Van Note is a Client Supervisor in the San Francisco office of Infinite Global.

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