Writing for the media

October 1st, 2013
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By Robert Gentle

It is many lawyers’ dream to see their names printed in the byline of an article holding forth on some relevant topic and making a name for themselves and their law firm.

But for most lawyers, the mere thought of penning such an article is a nightmare. What will I write about? Where will I find the time?

This is a pity, since the mainstream press is a great publicity vehicle for law firms. A steady stream of articles keeps firms top of mind among the chief executive officers, directors and executives who often play a bigger role than we realise in appointing and keeping law firms.Sure, it is useful – indeed, desirable – to write for the specialist legal press too, but one could be forgiven for thinking that these publications are merely exalted platforms for lawyers to write specialist pieces for other lawyers. You need a different set of skills when writing for the mainstream media.

What you need know in order to get published:

Avoid opinion pieces

A widespread assumption is that to write an article for the mainstream press means writing a 950-word think-piece for the opinion pages. The average newspaper permits maybe two opinion pieces per day from the hundreds of outside contributors. It makes far more sense to try and get a shorter piece into the rest of the paper. Opinion pieces can only be sent out on an exclusive basis, which further limits your chances of coverage; shorter news pieces, on the other hand, can be sent out to several publications at the same time.

Come up with an interesting topic

Newspapers want what is unusual, what prompts debate, what affects people, what is controversial. You might think that the law does not lend itself to this kind of ‘sensationalism’, but you would be wrong.

The trick is to look at your area of specialisation, ask yourself what is topical, and simply take a view on it. For example, if there has been an amendment to existing legislation, ask yourself: Is it a good amendment or a bad one? What are the likely effects? Are there any perverse incentives or unintended consequences? What are the regulatory implications?

Express your idea in a simple sentence, for example: ‘The amendment to legislation ABC is likely to create more problems than it will solve’. If it is not immediately understandable by a non-expert, it will not be by a newspaper editor either.

Flesh it out in three short points

Once you have an interesting subject, expressed in a simple sentence, flesh it out in three short points or paragraphs. This forces you to focus, instead of trying to say it all. If this does not seem like much, it is not supposed to be much. The average length of a newspaper article is 250-300 words. If your piece is too long, it will be cut, or not used at all.

Keep your writing short and simple

You are not arguing the finer points of law; you are just making a series of pertinent points for the lay reader, in plain English. So rather say: ‘Companies will probably take on more part-time workers to get around the increased costs imposed by the new legislation’, instead of saying: ‘Companies are likely to seek to fill their employment needs through greater utilisation of temporary workers on fixed-time contracts, in order to circumvent the more onerous cost burden of employing full-time staff imposed by the latest amendment to s 38 of the Act.’

Your work is now done. Your firm’s marketing department will polish your article and send it to the relevant newspapers. It might be used in its entirety, in part or not at all – it all depends on what is topical on a given day. You should aim to write an article at least every two months in order to maximise your chances of getting coverage and building a media profile.

Robert Gentle BSc (University of Zambia); Post-graduate Diploma Airframes and Propulsion Systems (Institut Universitaire de Technologie de Ville d’Avray) is a communication consultant and corporate trainer at Wordwright in Bedford.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2013 (Oct) DR 25.