In this, the third of three posts on how to choose a legal PR agency, I'm writing about what lawyers can do to avoid conflicts of interest when instructing a PR agency. In the earlier posts in this series, I've written about ensuring your agency has the requisite expertise and also how to ensure you have the right chemistry with your PR team.
A relationship with a PR agency necessitates trust and openness. By the very nature of the work that an agency will typically do for you, they will (or should) know exactly what's happening at the highest level of the business. If you are considering merging with another firm, or even if the SRA has recently been in touch - your PR agency should know about it. If they already understand where your business is going, and why, they can be prepared if the you-know-what hits the you-know-what.
Of course, issues can arise if you use a PR agency that already works with another law firm. By the way, the logic of this post also applies to digital marketing and SEO agencies.
So, what exactly are the issues that may arise? The obvious example would be an agency doing exactly the same work for two law firms with exactly the same offering in exactly the same location. For example, a PR agency providing media relations support to two PI firms in Liverpool. Both firms have the same target audience in the same geographical location. There is clearly a conflict of interest.
An alternative, but less obvious, example of a conflict of interest would be a PR agency providing SEO copywriting services to two law firms - one in Cambridge, one in Newcastle - both of whom have decided to create a niche focusing upon a very small national audience.
In fairness, most good (and sensible) agencies have policies in place to avoid conflicts. However, I have seen cross-overs occur.
So what should law firms look out for, and what reasonable steps can they take to avoid a conflict arising.
1. Ask the question. It's not at all unreasonable to ask whether the agency you are considering appointing already works with any other law firms. If they do - find out what the nature of their brief is. Are you happy that it's dissimilar enough to the work that you want them to do?
2. Be willing to walk away. If you're not quite happy with the answer they give about controlling and avoiding client conflicts of interest, either keep asking until you get a satisfactory answer - or forget it.
3. Don't adopt a tunnel vision approach. There aren't that many specialist legal PR agencies nor are there many general PR agencies with excellent legal PR departments. If you find an agency that already works with one or more law firms (as indeed we do), then as long as you are confident there's no conflict, and they can assure you of this - you should be safe with them.
4. Think about the future. It's all very well and good doing all this research and appointing your agency, but what if they then accept another client that you believe creates a conflict with your own firm? Discuss what is/is not acceptable to you at the outset. That way there will be no nasty surprises at a later date.
By Victoria Moffatt
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