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LEGAL CENTS: Don’t be shy with media opportunities

By: Jane Pribek//April 28, 2011//

LEGAL CENTS: Don’t be shy with media opportunities

By: Jane Pribek//April 28, 2011//

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Madison lawyer Chris Van Wagner appears on CBS’ The Early Show in this screenshot from a television appearance. Van Wagner has offered commentary on a number of TV shows, including Court TV with anchor Nancy Grace, the Dan Abrams Report on MSNBC, The Today Show, Good Morning America, World News Tonight on ABC, and locally, on channels 3 and 27. (Photo submitted by Chris Van Wagner)

Madison lawyer Steve Eisenberg was talking recently to a store clerk, when another shopper overheard him and asked, “Are you that lawyer on the radio?”

It wasn’t the first time it’s happened.

The incident reinforced to Eisenberg that his frequent commentary on several Madison- and Milwaukee-area radio programs, discussing other attorneys’ cases or answering basic legal questions, has been an effective marketing tool.

Plenty of prospects, who later became paying clients, have told him one of the reasons they gave him a call was they’d heard him on the radio, Eisenberg said.

The radio gig is fun and it gets his brand out, but he also sees it as a public service, he said.

“So many times, the public is misinformed. A lot of that comes from the way that sound bites on TV can skew things,” he said. “For example, with charging, they just tell all the ugly stuff in the complaint. It’s designed to titillate. So I see it as my chance to educate people.”

Sure, Eisenberg could advertise. But the legal commentator role costs him nothing except his time, and is arguably more effective in generating business.

Bottom line? Get to know me and others in the media — because when your expertise helps us report our stories, you get your name in the public forum. For free. It’s a win-win.

Eisenberg’s frequent radio work stems from meeting talk radio personality John “Sly” Sylvester more than a dozen years ago.

The two hit it off and it wasn’t long before Eisenberg started serving as a legal analyst on Sly’s show. Eisenberg has now been spotlighted on WIBA AM and FM, as well as WTDY, since 1994 – among numerous other radio interviews in Madison and Milwaukee.

And he’s not the only lawyer who’s successfully finessed a media relationship.

Bob Dreps of Godfrey & Kahn SC’s Madison office said he befriended countless journalists early in his career.

He was primarily looking for clients – he’s a member of the firm’s Litigation and Media Practice Groups, and his firm represents the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. But a secondary benefit has been landing countless opportunities to be a quoted resource to reporters, mostly in print, he said.

In fact, Dreps said he is sometimes shocked when he Googles his own name to see how many times, and for how many different media outlets, he’s been interviewed for commentary on open records and open meetings issues. (With that latter concentration, I think we’ll be hearing a lot from Dreps in the coming months.)

And, in the TV realm, chances are you’ve seen Madison lawyer Chris Van Wagner on your small screen. Van Wagner has offered commentary on Court TV with anchor Nancy Grace, the Dan Abrams Report on MSNBC, The Today Show, Good Morning America, World News Tonight on ABC, and locally on channels 3 and 27.

Van Wagner got his start as a legal commentator, he said, by befriending Jennifer Miller, then a reporter with WTSO-Z104 Radio, in the mid-‘90s.

When Miller moved to WIBA Radio, she started using him as an on-air resource, and through her connections, he eventually was asked to appear regularly on WISC’s live “In Focus” segments to discuss criminal law issues.

But for lawyers without such connections already established, how does one go about landing media opportunities? Read on.

Media do’s and don’ts

DO your homework. Emily Friedrich, a public relations specialist with Godfrey & Kahn in Milwaukee, said to spend some time researching the critical media outlets and journalists you’d like to work with.

“I look for trustworthy, credible reporters that I have confidence putting our people in front of, and know that it will result in an accurate, well-written story,” Friedrich said.

DO know your limits. Van Wagner said he’s comfortable in front of a camera because he has practiced. Practicing feels a little silly at first, he said, but it works. And if you can’t stand to be in your own family’s home videos, don’t pursue TV journalists — stick with print.

DON’T be afraid to contact a journalist “cold.” At worst, if you reach out to a journalist, Friedrich said, you might not hear back. But if your story idea has merit, smart journalists will recognize that – and they’re always open to a good story, even if they don’t know you.

Van Wagner said he cold-called producers of Nancy Grace’s show in advance of a trip to New York to see if they’d be interested in interviewing a “Midwestern talking head/former prosecutor-turned-criminal-defense lawyer to be the target of her vitriol.” Sure enough, they were.

DO read the ethics rule regarding statements to the media. Van Wagner doesn’t cold-call journalists with comments on his own cases, he said. Supreme Court Rule 20:3.6, Trial Publicity, outlines what attorneys can and cannot say about their own cases – notably, the rule allows “responsive statements” from defense counsel like himself. Re-read the rule, for your clients’ and your own protection.

DO keep your comments simple – especially when speaking to the general public. “I try to give as quick an answer as I can, in laymen’s terms,” Eisenberg said. “I don’t read jury instructions.”

Avoid complex sentence structures and legalese, Van Wagner added. And as basic as it sounds, finish a thought.

DO post links on your website to your media appearances. You researched, spent the time and got some media coverage – now make sure people see it. Van Wagner said he believes the video links on his page have helped land it on the first page of results when Googling “criminal defense attorney Wisconsin.” And producers from The Today Show identified him as a resource after seeing references to other commentator appearances on his website, he said.

DO send your article ideas to me. It’s part of my tagline, and I mean it sincerely. I love to hear from readers.

Jane Pribek can be reached at [email protected].


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